Nikolay Karamzin - Biography

The Russian journalist, historian and author Nikolay Mikhailovich Karamzin was a founder of 19th-century Russian imperial conservatism and a pioneering national historian.

Nikolay Karamzin was born on the provincial estate of his father in the village of Mikhailovka, in the Orenburg Region. He was educated at home and at fourteen he was ready for advanced study in Moscow, where he entered the University of Moscow.

After a brief period of service in the army, Karamzin settled in Moscow in 1784 and found his way into the intellectual life of the city. Karamzin established himself as the first major short-story writer in Russia with more than a dozen stories. All were in the Sentimentalist style and most were extremely popular.

The best remembered are “Poor Liza” (1792) and “The Island of Bornholm” (1793). These stories inspired a large number of imitations and provided the basis for literary Sentimentalism in Russia. Karamzin played an important role in the development of Russian standard language and the establishment of new trends in Russian literature. He had a great influence on Zhukovsky, Batyushkov and Pushkin. Karamzin's followers and associates formed the literary society

“Arzamas,” while their adversaries, archaists headed by Shishkov, founded the “Conversations for Lovers of the Russian Word” literary circle.

Arzamas was founded by Zhukovsky (who became the secretary and invented witty “minutes” of the meetings). Karamzin was among the honorary members. Meetings were held periodically, often on Thursdays, and were usually hosted by Uvarov (21 Malaya Morskaya Street) and Bludov (80 Nevsky Prospect). The aspiration to protect Karamzin's trend in literature was realized in Arzamas by the creation of a humorous universe with comic rituals and travesty-mock literary productions. An attempt to change the character of the activity of Arzamas through the publication of its own journal was made in 1817, but was unsuccessful. By the end of 1817, many members of Arzamas left St. Petersburg for personal and official reasons. In 1818 Arzamas slowly broke up.

In 1798 Karamzin compiled “The Pantheon,” a collection of pieces from the works of the most celebrated authors of ancient and modern times, translated into Russian. He subsequently printed many of his lighter productions in a volume entitled “My Trifles.” Admired by Pushkin and Nabokov, the style of his writing is elegant and flowing, modeled on the easy sentences of the French prose writers, rather than the long periodical paragraphs of the old Slavonic school.

Soon Karamzin joined the leading literary and intellectual circle of the time, which was led by the publisher and journalist, Nikolay Novikov. Here, two main influences were exerted upon Karamzin. First, he was impressed with a favorable attitude toward the goals of the Enlightenment, a movement, experienced throughout Europe, in favor of the spread of education and the advancement of material progress. Novikov was the acknowledged leader of this movement in Russia. The second major influence on the young Karamzin was that of Freemasonry, which at the time was of great intellectual and cultural importance in Russia - nearly all of the well-known figures of that period were Masons.

Especially important to Karamzin was the work and friendship of Kheraskov, a Mason who had been one of Karamzin's teachers at the University of Moscow. Early Masonry (1740-1780) had provided enthusiastic support for the goals of the Enlightenment, but in the 1780s the emphasis began to shift from social to personal concerns, and a cult of emotional friendship became very popular.

Karamzin began his literary career in the mid-1780s. His first efforts were as a journalist and a translator. He read widely, especially contemporary European authors such as Rousseau, Richardson, Sterne, Thomson and Young. He derived the basic elements of the Sentimentalist style from these writers. Karamzin's first original work was published in the late 1780s. His first celebrated success was his “Letters of a Russian Traveler,” which he published serially during and after a lengthy tour of Europe. In 1789-1790 Karamzin traveled to Berlin, Leipzig, Geneva, Paris and London. Like most of his literary efforts, the “Letters” were sentimental and romantic in the style of Laurence Sterne. But they revealed more than the popular literary mode of the day. Karamzin was moving away from his liberal, Masonic past toward the conservative attitude of his later work. ...


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