The Literary Aftermath of Terror: The Effect of the French Revolution on Karamzin's Pis’ma russkogo puteshestvennika

John F. Isham, Drew University

In what ways did the French Revolution influence, or even determine, the second half of Nikolaj Karamzin’s Pis’ma russkogo puteshestvennika—namely, those portions which pertain to Paris and England? Did Karamzin’s revulsion at the events of 1793-94 in France (i.e., the Reign of Terror and its aftermath) alter his original intentions and consequently force him to complete a different work from the one he had originally planned, or can the Pis’ma be viewed as one consistent, coherent whole?

My approach analyzes and distinguishes between 1) the development of a semi-fictional, semi-autobiographical traveler-narrator through the course of a work which purports to begin during May 1789 and end in September 1790, and 2) the evolution of the “actual Karamzin’s” political outlook which took place during the very gradual publication and re-editing of the Pis’ma. I argue that Karamzin’s attempt to resolve these “dueling self-developments” caused him to discard France as Russia’s role model and exchange it instead for England. From this shift in turn arose his deepened understanding of Russian national identity and Russia’s significance for him as a fatherland (otechestvo). Among other things, I will consider how two fragments of the Pis’ma —one chronicling “A Journey to London” and the other describing cultural life in Paris—read quite differently when they are taken individually (which is precisely how they were first presented in the literary miscellany Aglaja in 1794-95) from how they appear in the context of the entire surrounding Pis’ma.

My work is based on a close reading of the Pis’ma russkogo puteshestvennika and Karamzin’s other writings from the 1790s (including his correspondence with Ivan Dmitriev). It also takes into account the research of such critics, such as, Vasilij Sipovskij, Jurij Lotman and Anthony Cross.