Book: Natasha’s Dance by Orlando Figes

A sprawling, but very interesting cultural history of Russia

November 21, 2010

Orlando Figes

Natasha’s Dance: A Cultural History of Russia

Picador, 2002

ISBN: 0-312-42195-8

586 pages (main text)


A while ago, a buddy of mine conceived an interest in Russian history and culture. There soon began to appear on her coffee table huge brick-like books with words such as “Firebird” in their titles. Eventually I became intrigued and asked to borrow one. Which is how I ended up reading Orlando Figes’s book Natasha’s Dance: A Cultural History of Russia. To someone like me who was virtually entirely ignorant of Russian history, it is a very interesting, though somewhat lengthy read.

The book is divided into eight large chapters. The first is “European Russia” and it begins with Tsar Nicholas the Great founding St Petersburg in 1709, improbably, on a swamp at the edge of the Baltic. Nicholas imported European and especially French culture wholesale, to the point that many aristocrats spoke French fluently and Russian poorly or not at all.

In the second chapter, “Children of 1812”, French culture becomes somewhat less popular after Napoleon invades. The aristocrats who fought alongside peasants as they chased Napoleon’s army from an evacuated Moscow back to Paris gained a new respect for them. Some (the “Decembrists”) even thought that some political liberalization might be a good idea. Tsar Alexander disagreed and various people ended up in Siberia.

The third chapter, “Moscow! Moscow!”, is about the nativist reaction to the European invasion and other slights, real (the Crimean War) and imagined. Indeed, the tension between “advanced” European culture (as symbolized by St Petersburg) and “authentic” native culture (as symbolized by Moscow) turns out to be a persistent thread in Russian history. The dance of the book’s title refers to a scene in War and Peace in which a young woman does a folk dance that she presumably hadn’t particularly studied, but gets it right through sheer Russian-ness.

The fourth chapter, “The Peasant Marriage”, continues the theme of the return to native culture, this time to the culture of peasants and farms. When rich and educated late-nineteenth-century Russians set out to find deep truths in the countryside, there was a good deal of mistrust on the part of peasants, mutual incomprehension between rich and poor, and disappointed expectations on the part of the rich. Tolstoy found farming to be much less fun than he had hoped. But Russian peasant villages were generally run communally. Surely that noble, native tradition pointed the way to a better society. (It’s one of the book’s lessons that Russian history would often be hilariously ironic if it weren’t so often tragic.)

The fifth chapter, “In search of the Russian Soul”, is about Russian spirituality and particularly people’s experiences with the Russian church. The Kievan Rus’ civilization (the apostrophe is for pronunciation; Rus’ rhymes with moose), of which Russia is a successor, adopted Christianity from the Byzantine (or Eastern Roman) Empire in 987 and Russians sometimes liked to think of their country as the “Third Rome” (Rome had fallen and so had Constantinople). And of course “Tsar” comes from “Caesar”. But there were also many folk traditions held over from pagan practices and the result was a unique spiritual culture.

In the sixth chapter, “Descendants of Genghiz Khan”, we find that Russians of the late nineteenth century sometimes took their rejection of western European culture still farther, choosing instead to embrace (sometimes invented) Mongol or Turkic heritage from central Asia. (Slavic, Mongol, and Turkic people had sometimes fought and sometimes mixed in the run-up to the creation of the Grand Duchy of Muscovy in the thirteenth century.) This sort of Orientalism was catnip to modern artists such as Kandinsky and Malevich and modernist composers such as Stravinsky.

In the seventh chapter, “Russia Through the Soviet Lens”, there is predictably little to say about culture under the Soviet regime. Russian people’s thirst for culture, and especially literature, remained strong, but through most of the era there was precious little to satisfy it. There is a predictably long list of artists who were censored, forced into internal exile, or just killed. Though it is rather interesting to see artists’ encouragement move from something like, “Make something that will inspire people to create a new and better society” to, “Well, you know, even if things aren’t working out just as we’d hoped, it’s not the artist’s job to portray the world as it is, but as it should be” and then on to, “Create propaganda!”. There’s another horrible irony in that the widespread and near-random killings and imprisonments of Stalin’s “purges” was so terrible that, at least to the sort of people that Mr Figes is writing about, the second world war came as something of a relief. At least there was something you could do about it. After the war, the purges resumed.

Chapter eight, “Russia Abroad”, is about the diaspora of Russian artists under Soviet rule. Almost all felt terrible homesickness and some even returned at great personal peril.

The book is very big and occasionally a trifle repetitive. Someone like me who was almost entirely ignorant of Russian history and culture would probably be equally happy with a slightly slimmer volume (if there is such a thing when Russia is involved). But there’s also nothing that I can wish had been omitted and the text is quite readable. There is a great deal that’s interesting in the book (including how much of Russian history seems to have happened in the nineteenth century) and someone who has an interest in the subject would surely find that it was worth the time to read.