Karamzin's Turn to History

In the superb prefatory essay to his 1959 edition of Karamzin’s Memoir on Ancient and Modern Russia, ‘The Background and Growth of Karamzin’s Political Ideas Down to 1810’, Richard Pipes defines Russian conservatism at the start of the nineteenth-century as being ‘as yet more a defence of interest than an expression of a philosophy, more a social than an intellectual movement’. As principally a defence of the gentry’s vested interests, Russian social conservatism was the result of what Pipes describes as ‘an exceptionally close interdependence between the monarchy and the gentry’. This relationship, ‘brought into being in the eighteenth century’ – as the product of state service – had become ‘firmly cemented by the challenge flung to the monarchy and nobility alike by the French Revolution’.[i] Before 1789 the Russian monarchy had endorsed Enlightenment ideology: during the eighteenth-century it had ‘continued nominally to act in a critical spirit’ and ‘the court paid lip service to the ideas of social equality, political liberalism, religious scepticism’. The French Revolution and its after-effects, however, undermined modernizing idealism in Russia. As Pipes wrote, ‘the breakdown of that European society which the Russian monarchy had adopted as a model for itself, and the seeming dissolution of the stabilizing forces of traditional civilization, emphasized the dangers which faced any country treading the path of Western Enlightenment’. It was during the Napoleonic period (1792-1815) of uncertainty and vacillation that the nobility ‘stepped into the breach, and supplied the monarchy with its own national ideology in place of the discredited Enlightenment and Francophilia’. This entailed the replacement of the liberal Westernizing programme with the defence of gentry rights; as an ideologist of gentry conservatism, the writer Nikolai Karamzin (1766-1826) was ‘undoubtedly the outstanding figure’.[ii]

Karamzin’s conservative history-writing was central to his propounding of Russian national ideology. But it is his conservative political views which themselves help explain his shift from working as a literary writer – over the period (as demarcated by A. G. Cross) between 1783 and 1803 – to working as a historical writer.[iii] Pipes hints at intimations of Karamzin’s turn to history in 1802 in his Historical Eulogy of Catherine II : his reading in Montesquieu’s political thought as preparation for the Eulogy meant that Karamzin ‘subsequently adopted the historical approach to politics’ of Montesquieu; and the Eulogy pre-echoed an important political concern of Karamzin’s historical writing with its attention to the ‘civil rights’ granted the gentry by Catherine.[iv] Pipes argued that ‘by 1803 Karamzin seems to have arrived at a fairly consistent political outlook’; Pipes’s later remark that ‘by 1803, when Karamzin turned to the study of history, his political ideas had been fairly clearly formulated’, hints that a strengthening political stance motivated or underwrote his history-writing. ‘From 1803 to his death in 1826 Karamzin devoted all his time and energy to the history of Russia, and nearly all his writings of this, the second half of his life, are on this subject.’[v]

With its ‘use of the past to justify autocracy as a political system in the present’ (J. L. Black), the Historical Eulogy of Catherine II already illustrated how Karamzin’s conservative outlook motivated his work as a historical writer. Karamzin’s political viewpoint by 1803, Pipes maintains, was centred on a model of human progress as being dependent on cultural progress, and insofar as for Karamzin culture – understood to include morals as well as learning and so forth – ‘could flourish only where people were assured of security and civil freedoms’, in his opinion ‘the test of a good government was the degree to which it succeeded in assuring its citizens the maximum of legality and civic liberty consistent with its own security’. As Pipes continued to summarize, Karamzin believed that the French Revolution and its after-effects had shown that ‘the main threat to legality and liberty came not from too much government, but from too little government, and above all from anarchy caused by human striving for perfection and equality’. Back in the ode ‘To Mercy’ of 1792, Karamzin had written that ‘slavery exists where laws are absent, where the righteous and the wicked perish alike’.[vi]  

Karamzin’s turn to history was thus bound up with his conservative’s concern with the security of national life, as Black notes – ‘the political stimuli behind Karamzin’s move into historical writing were the military and intellectual uncertainties of the French revolutionary era which, he said, posed a serious threat to the security and welfare of all Russians’. Witnessing the trauma of ‘the great French nation fallen to a level of barbarism’ made Karamzin wish ‘to make an effort to forestall similar developments in Russia’. Hence in his magnum opus, the History of the Russian State (1818-29), he aimed to show that ‘for the time being at least, stability and order were essential for the well-being of all Russians’. As Black stresses, Karamzin’s conviction that ‘a national history was essential’ in order ‘to convince Russians that they must accept the existing autocratic system’, is traceable to the ‘Foreword’ (1815) to the History, which Karamzin began writing as early as 1804.[vii] Black’s presentation confirms how for Karamzin autocracy held a quasi-talismanic significance, attaining a sacralized status in keeping with his more metaphysical ‘general philosophy of history’ which, Black writes, had been ‘shaped by the events of the French revolutionary era’. For viewing autocracy as – in Black’s words – ‘the means for Russian survival in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds’, Karamzin came to label autocracy ‘one of the greatest political creations’. In the same sort of hyperbolic way he would write that ‘ancient institutions have magical strength’, once more in line with a psychological need, as Black presents it, to turn ‘to historical studies to seek out some immutable truths that could serve as the basis for order and stability in his homeland’.[viii] 

The History of the Russian State holds up Ivan III as the ‘first true Autocrat of Russia’, with Karamzin identifying developments from 1462 to 1533 – the period of the reigns of Ivan III and Vasilii III – with the consolidation of autocracy as achieved through the subjection of Novgorod to Moscow. As Black writes, ‘Karamzin justified the final abolition of Novgorodian freedoms by a brief account of the threat they posed to the general security of the rest of Russia.’ Muscovite autocracy was shown to offer ‘peace during troubled times and by maintaining unity and strength saved Russia from further foreign invasions’.[ix] Karamzin wrote:

‘For several days the people [of Novgorod] listened to arguments between friends of liberty and friends of peaceful citizenship: the first could promise them only a glorious death among the horrors of starvation and vain bloodletting; the other, life, security, calmness, and intact estates: and these finally won […]’

In the Memoir on Ancient and Modern Russia (written 1810-11), Karamzin similarly praises Russian autocrats for being ‘always ready for peace’ and displaying ‘no yearnings for false or perilous conquests, preferring to preserve rather than to acquire’. Here Catherine II is admired for supplying military triumphs that ‘assured the external security of the realm’, as well as for ‘non-interference in wars which were of no concern to Russia’.[x]    

At the opening of the ‘Foreword’ to the History of the Russian State, Karamzin famously maintained that ‘in a certain sense history is the sacred book of a nation’. This idea that written history somehow lends a supernatural (metaphysical?) quality to national existence prepares us for the important passage in the ‘Foreword’ where Karamzin aligns historicization, or the bringing-into-(‘universal’) history of previously-unhistoried countries, with the Russian imperial process of Christianization:

‘One need not be a Russian, one need only be a thinking individual in order to read with interest tales from the history of a nation which by dint of its courage and fortitude won domination over one-ninth of the world, opened up countries till then unknown to anyone, brought them into the universal system of geography and history, and enlightened them in the Divine Faith, merely by setting them a better example, without recourse to the violence and villainy to which other devotees of Christianity resorted in Europe and in America.’[xi]   

In a similar way to how here historicization – the writing of history – is allied by Karamzin with peaceful Christianization, in the Memoir on Ancient and Modern Russia he had placed peace-making at the origin of (monarchical) Russian history itself. As Black comments, in the Memoir Karamzin ‘began his outline of Russian history with the hypothesis that his country’s monarchical tradition originated with a Slavic desire to live in peace’. This desire was shown by how ‘Scandinavians were quite cordially invited to act as sovereigns in the ninth century on the condition that they put a stop to constant internecine wars among the Slavic tribes’. In the History of the Russian State, Karamzin describes as ‘an astonishing and unparalleled circumstance’ the way in which, at the ‘beginning of Russian history’, the Slavs ‘voluntarily destroy their ancient popular government and request sovereigns from the Varangians’. In Karamzin, Russian history originates in the consent to autocracy: ‘everywhere else the sword of strong men, or the cunning of ambitious men brought in absolute power. […] in Russia it was sanctioned by the general consent of the citizens’.[xii]  

Black traced the shaping influence of Karamzin’s stress on a founding invitation of, or consent to autocracy as it echoes down through nineteenth-century Russian historiography. Moscow University history professor Mikhail Pogodin reportedly based all his lectures on Karamzin’s work, and in his article ‘A Parallel of Russian History with the History of Western European States: Their Origins’ (1845), Pogodin followed Karamzin when positing that whilst ‘Western European states owe their origin to conquest ’, the Russian state ‘did not begin as the result of conquest, but as the result of an invitation. Here is the source of our difference.’ Slavophile historian Konstantin Aksakov likewise ‘insisted that the Russian community had been founded and had evolved by peaceful means as opposed to the acts of violence which gave birth to states in western Europe’, Black observes. Pogodin’s student Sergei Solov’ëv ‘claimed that the Russians requested monarchical rule from the Varangians in the ninth century and autocratic rule from the Romanovs in 1613’; again like Karamzin, Solov’ëv thought that the invitation to the Varangian princes began Russian history. (Black himself argues that both Karamzin and Aksakov ‘overplayed the “unanimous” request for autocracy by Russians in 1613’).[xiii]

But for all his close attention to patterns of historical argumentation, Black concludes his book on Karamzin’s influence in the nineteenth-century with an emphasis on the moral influence of his writing. Black suggests that in fact ‘it was not Karamzin’s historical method that had the greatest long-term import for his society’, but instead ‘the Russianism of the History, its emphasis on duty, and its inexplicable sense of destiny that made a lasting impression on Russian minds’. As we saw, Karamzin associated the consolidation of autocracy as achieved through the subjection of Novgorod to Ivan III of Moscow with the triumph of the principle of ‘peaceful citizenship’: it is by opting for this principle, rather than the idea of ‘liberty’, that the Novgorodian community can experience ‘life, security, calmness’ and not traumatic violence. This passage in the History of the Russian State thus offers a clear example of Karamzin’s preoccupation with Enlightenment, in the sense when – in Black’s words – ‘by enlightenment Karamzin meant education in citizenship; the subject must learn how and why to obey, the monarch must learn to rule firmly and wisely’. For Black interestingly relates Karamzin’s emphasis on duty and service not just to Russian tradition (service ‘had long been part’ of the ‘cultural and social heritage’ of Russia’s nobility, Black notes), but also back to his education at the Moscow private school run by a German professor at Moscow University, J. M. Schaden, where Karamzin ‘gained some immunity to the temptations of French-style enlightenment’. The idea that rights, for example, are ‘privileges to be earned by the fulfilment of responsibilities towards one’s fellow man’ was one German Enlightenment proviso that Karamzin could well have imbibed in Schaden’s school. ‘The doctrine of natural law as it was interpreted by the philosophers of German Aufklärung stressed the duties and obligations which individuals had in their societies.’ Black underlines how Peter the Great’s interest in the work of Samuel Pufendorf, Christian Wolff and Gottfried Leibniz had provoked the teaching of German philosophy in Russian schools; Peter had ordered the translation of Pufendorf’s De Officiis hominis, which appeared in Russian as O dolzhnostiakh cheloveka i grazhdanina [On the Duties of Man and Citizen] in 1726.[xiv]        

Karamzin’s promulgation of an ethical sensibility of duty and service – notions of which, Black hints, were in fact a part of his thinking long before his turn to historical writing – seems to me to be pushing in two contrary directions. On the one hand, Karamzin’s presentation of consent to, or invitation of autocracy as characterizing Russian communal and civic life can be seen to express a political attitude that is generally supportive of autocracy. Likewise, it is not difficult to contest his account – in the ‘Foreword’ to the History of the Russian State – of Russian imperialism as peaceful, or to critique that account as bolstering Russian imperial ideology through a denial of that imperialism’s violence.[xv] It is thus not hard either to recall James H. Billington’s comment, when quoting the words (from Karamzin’s story ‘Martha the City-leader or the Subjugation of Novgorod’), ‘not freedom, which is often destructive, but public welfare, justice, and security are the three pillars of civil happiness’, that these are ‘lines that could have been taken from any dictator of modern times’.[xvi]

But it would be worth thinking more about the relation of Karamzin’s ethical sensibility to German Enlightenment concepts of natural law. As I have noted elsewhere, Billington finds an important origin of the characteristic alienation of the Russian intelligentsia in writer and theatre director Aleksandr Sumarokov’s propounding of ‘true wisdom’ (premudrost’), such as Stoic philosophy, in the face of the ‘hedonistic Voltairianism’ of court life in late Catherinian Russia. Sumarokov, like Karamzin, was an intellectual dissatisfied with what Pipes would call the ‘discredited Enlightenment’. Moreover, as Billington sees, the German Enlightenment ideas of natural law in which Karamzin’s ethical sensibility was grounded were in fact opposed to Russian autocracy in much the same sort of normative or metapolitical way as was Sumarokov’s premudrost’. ‘Like the concept of natural law that was simultaneously being introduced into the philosophy curriculum of Moscow University, “true wisdom” seemed to propose a standard of truth above that of the monarch’s will.’[xvii] It is this opposition of notions of natural law and autocracy which could perhaps enable a rethinking of Karamzin’s ethical sensibility of duty and service, insofar as it is shaped by Aufklärung concepts of natural law. For insight into the formation of Karamzin’s views of duty or service by German Enlightenment ideas of natural law, would then perhaps show his ethical sensibility of duty to be both determined by the metapolitical and inflected by anti-autocratic impulses.




[i] Richard Pipes, Karamzin’s Memoir on Ancient and Modern Russia: A Translation and Analysis, new edn (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2005), pp. 87, 89.

[ii] Pipes, pp. 20, 88, 20, 89, 21.    

[iii] J. L. Black, Nicholas Karamzin and Russian Society in the Nineteenth Century: A Study in Russian Political and Historical Thought (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2014; first publ. 1975), p. xv. 

[iv] Pipes, p. 47 (which states that the Eulogy was written in 1802 and published in 1803, whilst Black, p. 40, has the work published in 1802 already).

[v] Pipes, pp. 48, 55.

[vi] Black, p. 40; Pipes, pp. 48-4; Karamzin quoted from p. 44.

[vii] Black, pp. 100, 128, 100.

[viii] Black, pp. 188, 105 (quoting Karamzin), 188 (quoting Karamzin).

[ix] Black, pp. 103-04 (quoting Karamzin), 112.

[x] Karamzin quoted from Black, pp. 106, 74 (using Pipes’s edition of the Memoir).

[xi] Nikolai Karamzin, ‘Foreword to History of the Russian State’, in Russian Intellectual History: An Anthology, ed. by Marc Raeff (New Jersey: Humanities Press, 1978; first publ. New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1966), pp. 117-24 (pp. 117, 118); in p. 118 n. 1 Raeff notes that on his personal copy of the Istoriia gosudarstva rossiiskogo Karamzin corrected ‘one-ninth’ to ‘one-seventh’.

[xii] Black, pp. 74, 105 (quoting Karamzin).

[xiii] Black, pp. 158 (quoting Pogodin), 153, 158, 174, 153.

[xiv] Black, pp. 187, 15, 17, 16, 17.

[xv] Compare the useful summary of ‘the aggressive Russian “bear”’ and its geopolitics in Lindsey Hughes, Peter the Great: A Biography (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2004; first publ. 2002), p. 215.

[xvi] James H. Billington, The Icon and the Axe: An Interpretive History of Russian Culture (New York: Vintage Books, 1970; first publ. [New York(?)]: Knopf, 1966), p. 264.

[xvii] Billington, pp. 234-36. 


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