February 1, 1818 was a milestone in the history of Russian culture, marking the release of the first eight volumes of Nikolai Karamzin’s History of the Russian State. Releasing eight volumes at once was what might today be called “an astute marketing move.” Anticipation had been building for several years as the Russian reading public eagerly awaited the writer, poet, and historian’s magnum opus. The eight volumes – covering Russia’s history from Rurik to Ivan the Terrible – was a cultural bombshell.
This was the first history of Russia read by a broad readership, not just historians. An engaging narrative and accessible language, uncluttered by scholarly references, served to make Karamzin’s History both readable and entertaining. As the poet Alexander Pushkin described it, “everyone, even high-society ladies, rushed to read the history of their fatherland, which they had not previously known.”
But at the same time, History of the Russian State triggered heated debate. To get a sense of the author’s viewpoint, one need have looked no further than the dedication to Alexander I, which concluded with the words: “The history of the people belongs to the tsar.” For Karamzin, autocracy was Russia’s natural form of government, a logical outcome of the country’s history, an early part of which, in Karamzin’s narrative, involved the inhabitants of ancient Rus asking the Varangians to rule over them and establish order. In other words, Russians had no desire for autonomy.
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