Nicholas Karamzin, “Memoir of Ancient and Modern Russia”

Nicholas Karamzin is a Russian writer, poet, historian and critic. Karamzin wrote memoirs to try and change how the government was being run. He is also known as the founding father of Russian Conservatism. Alexander I greatly valued his advice on political matters and in 1811 Karamzin presented his work to Alexander to try and persuade him. 1811 was still considered a liberal period in Alexander’s rule so this could have had some affect on why the memoirs had little effect, and Mikhail Speransky was influential in Alexander’s life helping to push reforms of the government and government departments. Russia was also on the verge of going back to war with France. The major theme of the document is criticizing Mikhail Speransky (without ever calling him out) and the liberal government. Karamzin believed Alexander was a good ruler, and it was the liberal government and influences that was causing the problems in his reign. He criticized everything from Peter the Great, Catherine II, education, serfdom, and the overall government setup. The memoirs had no practical effect but it became an important piece of Russian literature.

Discussion Questions:

1.) Why didn’t Karamzin name Mikhail Speransky in the document?

2.) In the document Karamzin speaks highly of Alexander. Can we consider this document as propaganda for the Tsar? If yes, why would Alexander need such a document? What can this tell us about his situation and could it have been used for a broader influence as well?

3.) Can we consider Alexander a conservative ruler going against Peter the Great and Catherine II’s previous policies? Why might he want to portray Alexander as a conservative compared to Peter and Catherine? 

4.) How does Karamzin use people to legitimize his point of view through the document? (People’s willingness to change, the Senate, ex pg 283)

5.) What problems is Karamzin pointing out in the Russian Government?

6.) According to Karamzin, why is western influence on education a bad thing for the people? Could he believe that all western influence on Russia is bad, and would he not consider Russia to be a European country?

7.) How is the struggle between liberalism and conservatism in Russia affected by international situations like the French Revolution and Napoleon? 

8.) Even though Karamzin says that Alexander is a good, caring, kind ruler of Russia why is he trying to persuade Alexander not to emancipate the serfs?

9.) Why does Karamzin only focus on men in the Russian society (only mentions Catherine II) and not women and the roles they play?

10.) How is Karamzin making disguised attacks against Speransky in the last section of the document? 

One Reply to “Nicholas Karamzin, “Memoir of Ancient and Modern Russia””

  1. Concerning question #8 I believe that Karamzin would argue that in keeping the serfs enslaved that Alexander is again proving himself to be good, caring ruler. In his writing he argues that if serfs were freed from their current bondage they would have no place to go, as all land is owned by the gentry class, an indisputable truth. This would leave them, according to Karamzin, with only two options: to serve the land owner they had prior to their freedom, or to move on to a less demanding land owner. If they were to remain on the land of their previous land owner, they would be forced into harsh contracts, likely placing them into a state worse than before. If the serfs were to move on, it would be possible that many landowners would lose their ability to produce an adequate amount of agriculture, leaving them unable to pay their necessary dues to the state. Likely his most convincing argument at the time was his argument that the only way to free all serfs was to declare all men to be equal. A sentiment that was more than likely held by a minority of people.

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