Dichtung und Wahrheit in Karamzin’s Prose

Michael Wachtel, Princeton University

For decades (if not centuries) it has been an open question to what extent Karamzin’s Letters of a Russian Traveler reflect the author’s actual experiences in Western Europe. Gerda Panofsky’s recently published commentary to Karamzin’s travelogue (Welt der Slaven L, 2005, 119-156) far outdoes previous efforts (including the famous Lotman/Uspensky edition) in giving a wealth of factual information that generally supports the view that Karamzin really did visit the places he said he did, and that he conscientiously reported what he saw and heard. However, one of the episodes that she investigates seems to me to offer evidence to the contrary.

My focus will be on Karamzin’s visit to Potsdam and, in particular, his supposed meeting at the Russian Orthodox church with the last remaining member of that community, who had purportedly been living in Potsdam since the reign of Anna. Panofsky shows that it is incorrect that there was only one surviving Russian at this time; there were about twenty. But more to the point: according to the guidebook that Karamzin would have known, there were no survivors at all. Curiously, Karamzin neglects to mention the odd fact (which would surely have struck an eyewitness as significant) that the Russian “church” at this point was nothing more than a room in the town hall. (The original church had been a freestanding building that held 200 people, but when the number of worshipers decreased significantly, that building was turned into a theater.)

All of these details suggest that the scene described probably did not take place as narrated. If not, what function does it serve? In my view, the scene is essential in that it underlines one of Karamzin’s main claims — namely, that Russia of late eighteenth century has almost nothing to do with Russia of the early eighteenth century. Rather than emphasizing the architectural details of the church, Karamzin gives a detailed account of his discussion with the old Russian soldier. Among the points emphatically made is that the two Russians can barely communicate in their native language. This theme of the “new” Russian language, now a truly European tongue (cf. Karamzin’s recitation of passages from Klopstock’s “Messiah” in Russian translation to an amazed German audience) is surely connected thematically to the Potsdam excerpt.

I close the paper with a comparison of this scene to a parallel passage in the story “Ostrov Borngol’m,” where the narrator encounters another old man who is set off from the world around him. By comparing the same topos in two different genres, we can see Karamzin’s literary sensibility at work. In both episodes, the narrator mediates between the old (soon to be dead) and the new. This position presumably fit precisely with Karamzin’s self-image and perhaps explains his willingness to diverge in the Potsdam section from the factual observation otherwise so typical of the Letters.