I’ve finished Karamzin‘s 1792 «Наталья, боярская дочь» [Natalya, the boyar’s daughter] and am about to plunge into his «Марфа-посадница, или Покорение Новагорода» [Marfa the mayor’s wife, or the subjugation of Novgorod] (1802); the former is pretty standard-issue in content (beautiful, innocent daughter of rich, widowed boyar falls for handsome, mysterious stranger who doesn’t want her to tell her father of their love) but has a couple of nice nods to the fashionable foreign literature of the day (сей таинственный молодой человек или, говоря языком оссианским, сын опасности и мрака [this mysterious young man, or, to use the language of Ossian, son of danger and darkness]; прости мне сие отступление! Не один Стерн был рабом пера своего [forgive me this digression! Sterne wasn’t the only one who was the slave of his pen]) and a footnote that gave me considerable pleasure (the action is set in the period before the fall of Kazan to the Russians, which is to say before the mid-sixteenth century): “Читатель догадается, что старинные любовники говорили не совсем так, как здесь говорят они; но тогдашнего языка мы не могли бы теперь и понимать. Надлежало только некоторым образом подделаться под древний колорит.” [The reader will guess that lovers of olden days did not talk quite as they talk here; but we today would not be able to understand the language of that time. It was necessary simply to imitate in a certain manner the antique style.]
At any rate, I thought I’d quote a paragraph of D.S. Mirsky‘s A History of Russian Literature: From Its Beginnings to 1900 (still the first book I would recommend to anyone interested in pre-twentieth-century Russian literature) that gave me a greater appreciation of Karamzin’s style:
The main question at issue, however, was that of language. Karamzín’s object was to make literary Russian less like the old ecclesiastical languages, Slavonic and Latin, and more like French, the new language of polite society and secular knowledge. He exchanged Lomonósov’s heavy German-Latin syntax for a more elegant French style. While ejecting hundreds of Slavonic words, Karamzín introduced numerous Gallicisms — exact translations from the French of words and expressions denoting ideas connected with the new sensibility or the advance of knowledge. His reform was successful and immediately accepted by the majority of writers, but it was by no means an unmixed blessing to the language. It only substituted one foreign model for another. It even increased the distance between the written and the spoken language, for it did away (virtually) with Lomonósov’s distinction of three styles by merging them all in the “middle” style and practically abandoning the “low.” It is doubtful whether the language has profited as much as has been supposed by the exclusion of so many Slavonic synonyms of Russian words: they added color and variety. By reforming the language as he did, Karamzín contributed to widen the gap between the educated classes and the people, and between new and old Russia. The reform was anti-democratic (in this a true child of the eighteenth century) and anti-national (in this still more so). But whatever we may say against it, it was victorious and facilitated the coming of an age of classical poetry: the ultimate justification of Karamzín’s language is that it became the language of Púshkin.