Karamzin and Russia’s Entry into History

Katya Hokanson, University of Oregon

Karamzin’s work as an historian and canonizer of Russia’s world-historical status served to create a geographical-historical timeline in which Russian literature could be recognized as part of the national narrative. In the early nineteenth century, it was very typical to see Russia as part of “barbarian Asia,” Russians as utterly imitative of European culture, and having no history of their own, being mere nomads or descendants of Mongols. Adam Mickiewicz vented his fury over Russia’s domination of Poland in his famous “Digression” in 1832:

No cities and no mountains meet the eye;
No works of man or nature tower on high:
The plain lies bleak and barren to the sight
As if it had been fashioned yesternight …

This level plain lies open, waste, and white
A widespread page prepared for God to write—

The landscape lies open and empty, awaiting, perhaps, the lines of an historian, the stamp of history. In accordance with contemporary thinking about nationality and geography, landscape was destiny—the flatness of the plains indicated a lack of cultural and historical highs and lows, names and places which should have become distinguished by historical marks but had remained empty of meaning.

What was to be the answer to the characterization of Russia as a land with no history, barbarians living on a European stage set? Karamzin’s History of the Russian State brought to Russians a sense of themselves as a people with a history and therefore a rooted identity. Karamzin gave Russians not only a history, but a particular perception of Russia’s historicity: he made it possible for Russia’s history to be interpreted as comparable to Europe’s and therefore “legitimate.” In his foreword to History of the Russian State, Karamzin wrote:

“Russian history adds beauty to the native land where we live and feel. How attractive are the banks of the Volxov, the Dnepr, and the Don when we know what happened on them in times long past! Not only Novgorod, Kiev, and Vladimir but also the huts of Elec, Kozel′sk, and Galič become interesting monuments, and mute objects become eloquent.”

While geography served as a useful trope for critiquing Russia’s cultural status, one might also say that it was geography which helped to solve the problem of Russia’s literary entrance into history. When Puškin’s narrative poem of 1821, The Captive of the Caucasus, appeared, it captivated its readers and was declared original and “national.” Undoubtedly, the appeal of fashionable Orientalism, along with Puškin’s use of a confident, self-assured Russian poetic style tells half the story of the success of The Captive of the Caucasus. But the way in which Puškin appropriates the Caucasus as a location for national Russian literature plays just as large a role. Here was a place which had a solid foundation in History with a capital “H”: a place associated with Ovid, described in Roman history, perceived as Biblical.

Nor is it an accident that Puškin’s poem appeared just three years after the publication of the first eight volumes of Karamzin’s History. Russian readers were primed for texts that would appeal to their newly-awakened sense of Russia’s legitimate place in history. The epilogue to the poem shocked some of Puškin’s contemporaries, because it proclaimed, in ringing odic style, Russia’s certainty of conquering the Caucasus at the cost of much bloodshed. The epilogue refers to Mstislav, a Russian leader who once fought with the Kosogs, “in all probability, the present-day Circassians,” Puškin adds in a footnote.

Here, at this crucial textual moment establishing the Russians’ past and future control of the Caucasus and Circassians, as well as Russian literature’s claim to world status, Puškin tellingly places a footnote directing the reader to Karamzin’s History of the Russian State, volume 2, which narrates the story of Mstislav and his conquering of Rededja in 1022. With the validating stamp of Karamzin, Puškin assures his readers that they are perusing a text which fully participates in Russian and world history. Russia, and Russian literature, have entered into history.