Nikolai Mikhailovich Karamzin

The Russian journalist, historian, and author Nikolai Mikhailovich Karamzin (1766-1826) was a founder of 19th-century Russian imperial conservatism and a pioneer national historian.

Nikolai Karamzin was born on Dec. 1 (Old Style), 1766, on the provincial estate of his father at the village of Mikhailovka, Orenburg district. He was educated at home and was ready by his fourteenth year for advanced study in Moscow. After a period of drifting, he settled into the intellectual life of the city. He wrote poetry and several novels, including Poor Liza. He joined the active Masonic movement and was close to the liberal circle of the famous writer and publisher Nikolai Novikov.

In 1789-1790 Karamzin traveled to Berlin, Leipzig, Geneva, Paris, and London. On his return to Russia he launched his journalistic career by publishing in the Moscow Journal, which he also edited, his "Letters of a Russian Traveler," a landmark in his intellectual development. 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.

In 1802 Karamzin founded the monthly European Messenger, one of the most important "thick journals" of the 19th century. He abandoned this in 1804 to devote himself to researching the history of the Russian state, an interest he pursued until his death. In 1811 he submitted to Alexander I his "Memoir on Ancient and Modern Russia," a firm historical defense of the time-honored virtues of the Russian autocracy. Meanwhile, Karamzin was working on his magnum opus, Istoriya Gosudarstva Rossiiskago (1819-1826; History of the Russian Imperial State), of which 11 of the 12 volumes were published before his death. His patriotic and conservative analysis corresponded to the chauvinism of Russian educated opinion in the traumatic aftermath of the French Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars.

Karamzin moved to St. Petersburg in 1816, where he established a close but guarded relationship with the Emperor. He gave the Emperor parts of his Historyto read, and he engaged the Emperor in many discussions on historical and political issues as a consequence of these readings. Karamzin always urged that the uniquely Russian state virtues not be abandoned in the artificial quest for European progress, although he did not wholly reject Western civilization. His own intellectual development had been under Western influence, so he found himself in the ambiguous position of seeking to discover and preserve the best of his own nation's historical character without fully denying the value of certain features of the Western tradition. He maintained a conservative, humane, and intelligent balance between Russia and the West.

In 1825 the unexpected death of Alexander and the Decembrist Revolt, carried out by radical, Western-oriented officers of the imperial army, undermined Karamzin's health. He died on May 22 (Old Style), 1826.

Further Reading on Nikolai Mikhailovich Karamzin

There is considerable information on Karamzin in his own Memoir on Ancient and Modern Russia, translated and with a long analysis by Richard Pipes (1959), and in his Letters of a Russian Traveler, 1789-1790 (trans. 1957). Henry Nebel, Jr., translated and edited Selected Prose of N.M. Karamzin (1969) and wrote a study of his early literary efforts, N.M. Karamzin: A Russian Sentimentalist (1967).