Natasha's Dance : A Cultural History of Russia
by Orlando Figes
Release Date: 17 October, 2003
I disagree with the reviewer who finds this not quite "heavyweight" enough. It is not an academic book - and thank God for that - but a superb introduction to the history and the culture of Russia.
Figes starts with a wonderful account of the building of St Petersburg in the 1700s, and goes on to discuss the meaning of Europe to Russian culture in the eighteenth century. Europe caused a split in the Russian national identity - and much of Russian culture in the nineteenth century was concerned with how to reconcile the two almost contradictory halves of the Russian character: the native Russian (or Muscovite) and the European (or Petrine).
The next chapter takes up the story of 1812, when Russia's writers and artist first began to think about the ways of developing a distinctively "Russian style" in contrast to the West. This is when the Slavophiles were born. There are lots of fascinating details here - on the Russian customs of child-rearing, on interior design and Russian fashions.
The next three chapters explore various facets of Russian culture in the nineteenth century: the Moscow tradition; the romantic fascination with the Russian peasants (which Figes explores as a search for nationhood); and the influence of the Orthodox tradition on Russian literature and art.
Then there is a speculative chapetr on the cultural influence of the Asiatic steppe/ For me, this was the most original and the most interesting chapter in the book (Rachel Polonsky, in her hatchet-job review in the TLS doesn;t even mention it). In this chapter Figes digs down deep into peasant culture and folklore, showing how the shamanic beliefs of the steppeland nomads (the "Decsendants of Genghiz Khan") left their trace on the Russians/
Finally there are two long chapterson the twentieth century when Russian culture was divided into two: the first on Soviet culture and the last on the emigration to the West. I didn't quite agree with Figes's argument - that in the end Soviet culture was peripheral and failed to change the underlying Russian cultural traditions (represented by Akhmatova). But I was moved by the tremendous emotional impact of these final chapters, which (more than anything I've ever read before) assert triumphantly the endurance of the Russian people and their culture over politics.
I am not surprised that Figes has his critics. He writes too well, too flamboyantly;he tackles bigger themes than most academics dare. But for the general reader Natasha's Dance is a rich delight. On every page there is something new and fascinating. There are sumptuous illustrations. And for those who want to read more "heavyweight" volumes there is a comprehensive guide to further reading at the end.
In sum- this is a wonderful, enriching book, for anybody with a psssing interest in Russia, its history and culture.
This is a really fascinating book. Figes explores the development of the Russian national identity and the extraordinary role of literature and all the other arts in Russian history.
It is not meant to be a "comprehensive history" of all the Russian arts but an interpretation of the Russian tradition. Figes makes this clear in the Introduction - so it is quite unfair to criticize his book for omissions.
Natasha's Dance is a wonderfully rich and entertaining read. Figes writes quite beautifully. As in A People's Tragedy (his brilliant history of the Russian Revolution), Figes develops his analysis through mini-narratives which bring his "cultural history" to life. The book starts for example with a rivetting account of the building of St Petersburg in the early eighteenth century, which leads him to the theme of the first chapter - the elusive and ambiguous ideal of European civilization. The chapters are thematically arranged but the chapters follow in a sort of sequence - from the 18th to the 20th centuries - which gives the book a grander narrative.
All the major themes of Russian culture are discussed: the tension between the ("high") European culture of the aristocracy and the native ("low") culture of the peasantry; the contrast between Moscow and St Petersburg; the religious searching for the "Russian soul" (developed beautifully through the biographies of Gogol, Dostoevsky and Tolstoy); and the influence of Asia (fascinating stuff!). There are also chapters on Soviet culture and the emigres.
At 700 pages this is a long book . But don't let that put you off. It reads like a novel. And there are some wonderful pictures. Overall a bargain - and a "must buy".