A New "Russian Traveler" in Germany: Dostoevsky's Misuse of Karamzin's Cosmopolitan Legacy

By Arndt, Charles | Germano-Slavica, Annual 2007 | Go to article overview
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A New "Russian Traveler" in Germany: Dostoevsky's Misuse of Karamzin's Cosmopolitan Legacy


Arndt, Charles, Germano-Slavica


1. Introduction

During Dostoevsky's time, as now, Nikolai Mikhailovich Karamzin occupied a seminal place in Russian culture. In addition to his reputation as founder of the country's Sentimentalist school and originator of linguistic changes that transformed the language, the historical figure of Karamzin also had a profound impact on Russia's sense of national identity. His Pis'ma russkogo puteshestvennika (Letters of a Russian Traveler) which appeared in Russia between 1791 and 1801, in the French journal Spectateur du Nord around 1798, and in a German translation by Richter in 1800, set up an image of the Russian aristocrat as a highly cultured man, who possessed, in the words of Prince Dmitrii Sviatopolk-Mirskii, "a new, enlightened, and cosmopolitan sensibility" (Mirsky 61). Paradoxically, Karamzin's Istoriia gosudarstva Rossiiskogo (History. of the Russian State, 1818-1825), with its epic panoramas of the country's past, and his Zapiska o drevnei i novoi Rossii (Memoir on Ancient and Modern Russia, 1811), with its insistence on traditional Russian values, also elevated the author to the status of a quintessential Russian patriot.

Although scholars have traditionally pointed to the influence of Karamzin's literary style on Dostoevsky, the primary reason for the novelist's continuing interest in the great historian and man of letters is none other than his own query into the Russian intelligentsia's sense of self vis-a-vis the West. Following his first trip to Europe in 1862, the novelist experiences an important affinity with Karamzin, viewing himself and the eighteenth-century writer as fellow intellectual "travelers," laden with the task of defining the intelligentsia's ideal attitude toward the enormous Western influence on Russia's politics and culture. In Dostoevsky's opinion, Karamzin's paradoxical image as a cosmopolitan traveler to Europe on the one hand, and an enthusiastic chronicler of his country's history on the other, qualifies him as a kind of balanced model for educated Russians. Indeed, toward the end of his life, the novelist even uses the writer/historian's legacy in an attempt to find common ground between Slavophiles and Westerners, insisting that Karamzin represents those Russian cultural figures of the recent past who were able to combine their Western erudition with an awareness and appreciation for their uniquely Russian identity.

2. Dostoevsky Follows Karamzin's Traveler into Europe: The Manipulation of Karamzin's Germany

Dostoevsky's first mention of Karamzin as a traveler to the West occurs in 1863, recorded in his own European travelogue under the title Zimnie zametki o letnikh vpechatleniiakh (Winter Notes on Summer Impressions). This is a brief but philosophically dense work, which, to use Konstantin Mochulskii's terminology, deals more with the "idea" of Europe than Europe itself (190). To fully appreciate the points of contact between the two literary figures within the Notes, however, we must briefly describe the latter's relationship to Russian travel-writing of the past.

Indeed, with the heavy post-Petrine emphasis placed on imitating the West, the tour of Europe for many educated Russians (certainly by Dostoevsky's time) had become a pilgrimage of sorts. The traveler was usually an aristocrat, who from an early age had assimilated so much from Western culture and literature that Europe, to use Iurii Mikhailovich Lotman's and Boris Andreevich Uspenskii's expression, "predstavlialas' ne real'no geograficheskim, a ideal' nym prostranstvom" (appeared not as a real geographic, but as an ideal space) (Appendix 563). At the same time, however, the journey to the West allowed educated Russians to "take a step back," as it were, and evaluate their own country more candidly. Thus, the travel diary, or travelogue as it is sometimes called, played an important role in forming the intelligentsia's sense of national identity: "Only by making the prescribed pilgrimage to the West, only by ceasing to regard Europe through the haze of distance as some enchanted land," Joseph Frank opines, "could a Russian best discover what aspects of European influence in his homeland he might wish to preserve and what discard" (233-234).

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