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.


  1. And even if Mirsky had no other virtues, he gives you the accent every time, and gets it right. Perhaps that will shorten Peter the Great’s time in Purgatory.

  2. That word ‘syntax’ again. What exactly is this ‘heavy German-Latin syntax’ and how is it different from the ‘elegant French style’. I am talking of specifics. How much and in what ways can an author change the ‘syntax’ of a language? (I know it’s possible, but I’m curious what exactly is involved here).

  3. i think in german the word order is different than that in english or russian sentences, a little resembling ours or japanese even, the subject goes first and all the other elements going in between and the verb goes the last one, so must be if that order if used in russian and with many archaic words added to that, that would result in some as if like heavier sounding seemingly longer continuing sentences maybe
    i remember reading Bednaya Lisa and thinking it’s boring cz was pretty skeptical of such stupid things like romantic suicides in general, i resented the Sobor parjskoi bogomateri too, such a stupid officer for Esmeralda to be in love with, but Radishev’s Puteshestvie i remember were not boring, a lot of interesting details, i remember reading with amazement that black teeth and mushki flies were considered at that time fashionable and that as if like caused me to lose any interest in things fashionable i guess indirectly of course, at around 12-13 yo 🙂

  4. Mirsky does hold up amazingly well. A kind of cultivated sensibility you just don’t find any more. The only literary history like his I can think of is Milosz’s History of Polish Literature, whose judgments, knowing nothing of the language and few of the authors, I’m not in a position to evaluate.

  5. I should get hold of that; I’ve liked all the Milosz I’ve read.

  6. Anyone’s got a downloadable version of Mirsky’s book? Seems that Wikipedia guys consider it in the public domain, and it surprises me a lot that it doesn’t appear on the mighty Internet Archive.

  7. Mirsky’s first edition came out in 1926, which puts it three years inside the copyright black hole in the U.S. “Before ’23 it’s free” is the rule of thumb.

  8. Ouch! Thanks Cowan.

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