1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Karamzin, Nikolai Mikhailovich

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KARAMZIN, NIKOLAI MIKHAILOVICH (1765–1826), Russian historian, critic, novelist and poet, was born at the village of Mikhailovka, in the government of Orenburg, and not at Simbirsk as many of his English and German biographers incorrectly state, on the 1st of December (old style) 1765. His father was an officer in the Russian army, of Tatar extraction. He was sent to Moscow to study under Professor Schaden, whence he afterwards removed to St Petersburg, where he made the acquaintance of Dmitriev, a Russian poet of some merit, and occupied himself with translating essays by foreign writers into his native language. After residing some time at St Petersburg, he went to Simbirsk, where he lived in retirement till induced to revisit Moscow. There, finding himself in the midst of the society of learned men, he again betook himself to literary work. In 1789 he resolved to travel, and visited Germany, France, Switzerland and England. On his return he published his Letters of a Russian Traveller, which met with great success. These letters were first printed in the Moscow Journal, which he edited, but were afterwards collected and issued in six volumes (1797–1801). In the same periodical Karamzin also published translations of some of the tales of Marmontel, and some original stories, among which may be mentioned Poor Liza and Natalia the Boyar’s Daughter. In 1794 and 1795 Karamzin abandoned his literary journal, and published a miscellany in two volumes, entitled Aglaia, in which appeared, among other things, “The Island of Bornholm” and “Ilia Mourometz,” a story based upon the adventures of the well-known hero of many a Russian legend. In 1797–1799 he issued another miscellany or poetical almanac, The Aonides, in conjunction with Derzhávin and Dmitriev. In 1798 he compiled The Pantheon, a collection of pieces from the works of the most celebrated authors ancient and modern, translated into Russian. Many of his lighter productions were subsequently printed by him in a volume entitled My Trifles. In 1802 and 1803 Karamzin edited the journal the European Messenger. It was not until after the publication of this work that he realized where his strength lay, and commenced his History of the Russian Empire. In order to accomplish the task, he secluded himself for two years; and, on the cause of his retirement becoming known to the emperor Alexander, Karamzin was invited to Tver, where he read to the emperor the first eight volumes of his history. In 1816 he removed to St Petersburg, where he spent the happiest days of his life, enjoying the favour of Alexander, and submitting to him the sheets of his great work, which the emperor read over with him in the gardens of the palace of Tzarskoë Selo. He did not, however, live to carry his work further than the eleventh volume, terminating it at the accession of Michael Romanov in 1613. He died on the 22nd of May (old style) 1826, in the Taurida palace. A monument was erected to his memory at Simbirsk in 1845.

As an historian Karamzin has deservedly a very high reputation. Till the appearance of his work little had been done in this direction in Russia. The preceding attempt of Tatistchev was merely a rough sketch, inelegant in style, and without the true spirit of criticism. Karamzin was most industrious in accumulating materials, and the notes to his volumes are mines of curious information. The style of his history is elegant and flowing, modelled rather upon the easy sentences of the French prose writers than the long periodical paragraphs of the old Slavonic school. Perhaps Karamzin may justly be censured for the false gloss and romantic air thrown over the early Russian annals, concealing the coarseness and cruelty of the native manners; in this respect he reminds us of Sir Walter Scott, whose writings were at this time creating a great sensation throughout Europe, and probably had their influence upon him. Karamzin appears openly as the panegyrist of the autocracy; indeed, his work has been styled the “Epic of Despotism.” He does not hesitate to avow his admiration of Ivan the Terrible, and considers him and his grandfather Ivan III. as the builders up of Russian greatness, a glory which in his earlier writings, perhaps at that time more under the influence of Western ideas, he had assigned to Peter the Great. In the battle-pieces (e.g. the description of the field of Koulikovo, the taking of Kazan, &c.) we find considerable powers of description; and the characters of many of the chief personages in the Russian annals are drawn in firm and bold lines. As a critic Karamzin was of great service to his country; in fact he may be regarded as the founder of the review and essay (in the Western style) among the Russians.