Russian literature had both blossomed and decayed under Catherine the Great. Seldom had a ruler shown so enthusiastic a surrender to a foreign culture, or made so visible a conquest of its living leaders, as in her love affair with the Enlightenment, and her adroit conscription of Voltaire, Diderot and Friedrich Melchior von Grimm as eloquent defenders of Russia in France and Germany. But then the Revolution came, all thrones trembled, and the gods of the Illumination were discarded as godfathers of the guillotine. The Russian court still spoke eighteenth-century French, but Russian writers proclaimed the beauty of the Russian language, and some, according to Mme. de Staël, “applied the epithets deaf and dumb to persons ignorant of the Russian tongue.”35 A mighty quarrel arose, and became a national duel, between the admirers of foreign models in literature and life and the upholders of native morals, manners, subjects, speech, and styles. This “Slavophil” spirit was an understandable and necessary self-assertion of the national mind and character; it opened the way for the flood of Russian literary genius in the nineteenth century. It derived considerable stimulus from the wars of Alexander and Napoleon.
Alexander himself symbolized the conflict through his own spirit and history. He was highly sensitive to beauty in nature and art, in woman and himself. He recognized in art the double miracle of duration given to passing loveliness or character, and of illuminating significance elicited from indiscriminate reality. The influence of La Harpe and a Francophile court made the grandson of German Catherine a gentleman rivaling any Gaul in manners and education. He naturally supported the efforts of Karamzin and others to import French graces and subtleties into Russian speech and ways. His friendship with Napoleon (1807–10) supported this Westward inclination; his conflict with Napoleon (1811–15) touched his Russian roots, and turned him to sympathy with Aleksandr Shiskov and the Slavophils. In each of these moods the Czar encouraged authors by pensions, sinecures, decorations, or gifts. He ordered governmental printing of important contributions to literature, science, or history. He subsidized translations of Adam Smith, Bentham, Beccaria, and Montesquieu. When he learned that Karamzin wished to write a history of Russia but feared that he would starve in the process, Alexander gave him an annuity of two thousand rubles, and ordered the Treasury to finance the publication of his volumes.36
Nikolai Mikhailovich Karamzin (1766–1826) was the son of a Tatar landowner in the province of Simbirsk on the lower Volga. He received a good education, learned German and French, and went well equipped for his eighteen months of travel in Germany, Switzerland, France, and England. Returning to Russia, he founded a monthly review, the Moskovsky zhurnal, whose most attractive contents were his own Letters of a Russian Traveler. His light and graceful style, describing not only objects seen but the feelings aroused in him, revealed the influence of Rousseau and the Russian tendency to sentiment. Karamzin went further on the Romantic line in his novel Poor Lisa (1792): a peasant girl, seduced and deserted, commits suicide. Though the tale made no pretense to be more than fiction, the spot where Lisa drowned herself became a pond of pilgrimage for Russian youths.37
Karamzin made his mark in almost every literary field. His poems, unabashedly Romantic, found a large audience. As a critic he shocked the Slavophils by importing French or English terms to replace what seemed, to his traveled ear, clumsy, inaccurate, or cacophonous in Russian terms or phrases. Shishkov denounced him as a traitor to his country. Karamzin stood his ground, and won: he purified and expanded the Russian language, reconciled it with music, and transmitted a cleansed and sharpened instrument to Pushkin and Lermontov.
Karamzin prevailed for another reason: he practiced what he preached, in twelve volumes constituting the first real History of Russia. Financial help from the government enabled him to give almost all his waking time to the task. He borrowed judiciously from early chroniclers, warmed their cold facts with emotion, and graced the long story with a clear and flowing style. When the first eight volumes appeared (1816–18), in an edition of three thousand copies, they were sold out in twenty-five days. It could not rival the histories of Voltaire, Hume, or Gibbon; it was frankly patriotic, and saw absolute monarchy as the proper government of a people fighting for its life against a merciless climate and barbarian invaders, and forced to create law as it spread. But it proved to be a precious mine of material for poets and novelists of the succeeding generations; here, for example, Pushkin found the story of Boris Godunov. It shared modestly with the repulse of Napoleon from Moscow in raising the Russian spirit to play its brilliant and unique part in the literature and music of the nineteenth century.
Ivan Andreevich Krylov (1769–1844) was the Aesop, as Karamzin was the Herodotus, of this Alexandrian spring. Son of a poor army officer, he may have taken from military camps some of the racy speech and satirical verve that sharpened his comedies till they drew blood from the status quo. When it silenced him he withdrew from literature into more practical pursuits—tutor, secretary, professional card player, gambler… Then, in 1809, he issued a book of fables which set all literate Russia laughing at all mankind except the reader. Some of these stories, as fables often do, echoed earlier fabulists, notably La Fontaine. Most of them—through the mouths of lions, elephants, crows, and other philosophers—expounded popular wisdom in popular language cut into ambling iambic verses of any convenient length. Krylov had rediscovered the secret of the great fabulist—that the only intelligible wisdom is that of the peasant, and its art is to find the ego behind the sham. Krylov exposed the vices, stupidity, wiles, and venality of men, and reckoned satire to be as good a tutor as a month in jail. Since only an exceptional reader thought that the story was about himself, the public bought the little volume eagerly—forty thousand copies in ten years—in a land where the ability to read was a proud distinction. Krylov tapped the vein periodically by publishing nine more volumes of fables between 1809 and 1843. The government, grateful for the general conservatism of Krylov, gave him a supporting post in the public library. He held it, lazy and content, till, one day in his seventy-fifth year, he ate too many partridges and died.38