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Natasha's Dance - A Living Book as Vast as Russia


I find it extremely impressive when somebody writes a good cultural history, one which manages to gaze at a country from above and see all of its vast breadth, of domain after domain with each one possessing its secrets and mysteries - and then too zooms in on them, seeing them up close, revealing the magic of thought and beauty, of the endlessly detailed and mesmerizing story of something so overwhelming and massive. It is something which takes so much exploration and discovery, so many years of work, to be able to come to grips with it, to produce a work which embraces it as more than scattered lines, more than a painting, more than a sculpture - as an entire world. Natasha's Dance is one of these impressive books, in the way that it manages to embrace the sinuous flow of Russia and its thought and culture and history over the course of nearly three centuries, from the shaven nobles of Peter the Great plunged into a European world, to the return of Stravinsky to his native land, from the floating city of St. Petersberg to the wild exuberance of Moscow and the great steppes of Russia and the mountains of the Caucasus, from singers to writers to poets to musicians to historians to musicians, all wrapped up in this great epic saga.

Ballets russes

Ballets russes

The organization of the book is along roughly chronological lines for the most part, although the categorization into different themes helps to prevent this from becoming monotonous. The introduction lays out Fige's focus on attempting to discover Russia through its cultural elements and an exploration of the principal lines of cultural thoughts, with Slavophiles, Westerners, and Populists, and emphasizing that there was a real Russia - that it was not just a fiction or imaginary construction, but that an analysis and study of literature, stories, and cultural works enables us to see the real Russia and Russianness, and that this can enable us to come to grips with Russia as something other than foreign and alien.

"European Russia" covers the great Westernization of Russia stemming from Peter I, with the construction of its new fairy tale capital, St. Petersberg, famously alluded to in Russia as the city without foundations, built anew from nothing, a negation of the Russia that existed before. From this it goes on to talk about the high nobles such as the Sheremetevs who are used as a window on the nobility, their patronage of European culture, and their relationship to the serfs - the vast underclass of near-slaves that constituted the bedrock of Russian society. These serfs were more than just peasants as the book shows, with its examination of Russian musical and opera culture, strongly influenced by Europe but with its own Russian themes and ultimately national revival, and often animated by serf performers. Russian society as a whole could be viewed as a sort of theatre, of the new nobility acting out their parts as Europeans, trying to fulfill their scripts, with a constant split personality between Russianness and European, French, manners, shown in palaces with their European facades and public quarters and Russian private roomers. In language too, this showed itself, with a long struggle for Russian to gain sufficient sophistication and elegance to become its own literary language. Satire was a powerful tool of mocking this Frenchification of Russian society, with its affected airs and lack of sincerity, and contact with Europe led both to a Russian elite which felt itself part of a broader cosmopolitan world and yet also an increasing awareness of national difference - intensified by betrayal of the French Revolution and disappointment in Europe, that led to a stirring of patriotism among all classes of Russia against a foreign invader.

"Children of 1812" covers this, with the national fraternity found in the French invasion, expressed through the eyes of men such as Prince Sergei Volkonsky, with a discovery of the deep patriotic and spiritual reserves of the peasants and solidarity with patriotic aristocracy - and yet also a discrediting of much of the French-oriented Russian aristocratic classes. With it too came a rejection of the 18th century aristocratic world, of the ethos of state service that dominated the aristocracy, and reform movements that culminated in the Decembrist uprising of 1825, crushed by the Tsar with many of its participants sent to Siberia - with here too a melding with the common people a transformative experience for people such as Volkonsky, as populists embracing a religious superiority of the Russian peasant soul. Even among the nobility their culture changed and became more russified, less distant, and literature drew from Russian folk tales and Russian became more and more capable of expressing itself as a literary language. The peasant and his or her life became an increasing theme in Russian cultural works, nobles developed a cult of childhood which drew them closer to the common people they grew up with as children. And yet at the same time, or perhaps because of this, Russia became increasingly keenly aware of its backwardness compared to Europe, driving responses of either despairing gloom about its prospects or animating patriotic and Slavophile retorts, while history became a bitter battle ground between monarchists and democratic forces over the meaning and nature of Russian history.

"Moscow! Moscow!" shifts the image to the very Russian and almost Asian city of Moscow, the spiritual home of Russia, representative of the old in contrast to St. Petersburg with the new Europeanization of the country. It was defined by a more easy going and pleasurable stylem by its excesses, truly Russian unlike alienating St. Petersburg with its cold and regimented life. The capital of food and decadence, part of a mania among Russian nobility for eating (and eating well, in contrast to the relatively plain and simple food of the 17th century), and for drinking too, as vodka consumption ballooned in Russia. Russian architecture flourished with a neo-Rusian style coming into vogue in Moscow, and composers went to the people and peasants to find musical inspiration. Merchants financed the flourishing of culture in Moscow, but also were the subject of divided portrayals in Russian cultural productions, from greedy and grasping agents of capitalist transformations to the native soil elements who admired the merchants of Moscow as a representation of real Russian, authentic, development. Optimism of this sort also found its place in Anton Chekhov's plays, with confidence in development and progress.

Boat Haulers on the Volga, a painting showing the dignity and suffering of the Russian people

Boat Haulers on the Volga, a painting showing the dignity and suffering of the Russian people

Turning to the countryside is chapter 4, "The Peasant Marriage," and particularly the fascination and fixation of Russian intellectuals and political movements such as the Populists on the "People," as they went to the countryside and sought to make themselves more like the Russian peasants, while simultaneously helping the people. Follow the emancipation of the serfs great hopes were pinned on the peasant as a citizen and the future of Russia, which peasants did not normally appreciate, suspicious and wary of the hordes of students and researchers who came among them. But still this had tremendous cultural influences among Russian composers, painters, and writers, most famously Tolstoy, whose life and thoughts is the subject of much of the chapter. Peasant life had its darker sides too, most notably with the brutal and atrocious treatment meeted out to peasant wives, with ruthless beatings and oppression, and intellectuals had to grapple with a countryside mired in despair and poverty, shown by Chekhov's work "Peasants," which struck a brutal blow against Russia's fixation on the virtues of its peasantry in 1897, fundamentally undermining Russia's self-image and self-worth. Peasants were driven off their land by poverty and the population explosion into the cities, hating and rejecting their former life and its squalor, the mainstay of what would become the Bolsheviks and the object of fear of Russia's liberal and modern elites. The slow death of the peasant world also gave birth to its immortalization and memory in the form of the Ballets Russes and Russian craft art exported to the West, drawing on often created Russian themes and folk art. The ballet had not been a serious art form, and yet it was suddenly elevated to the highest level of cultural appreciation, and new traditions such as the Matrioshka doll were born. Stravinsky composed music that in nature might be viewed as ethnographic, drawing from the traditions of Russian peasants, expressed in the collectiveness of the ballet.

Chapter 5, "In Search of the Russian Soul" consecrates itself to religion, the Orthodox Church, focusing on its doctrine, its ceremony, and the structure of life and emotions that it created for its believers. Orthodoxy however, was not inherently synonymous with the church, with the Old Believers constituting a vital splinter group, closer to the peasants and imbued with libertarian, anarchistic, and egalitarian traditions, while Christian socialism pervaded many peasants. Slavophiles were firmly wedded in their belief in the Orthodox Church as the True Church, focusing on communalism and believing that the Russians were most imbued with the Christian spirit, and deeply opposed to the individualism of the West. Much of this is related through Nikolai Gogol, before the book moves on to the religious views and superstitions of the peasants and noble classes themselves, and Tolstoy and Dostoevsky.

"Descendants of Genghiz Khan" looks at the Eastern motifs in Russian culture and folk traditions, which began to be embraced as part of the Russian cultural heritage in the latter part of the 19th century after its rejection for hundreds of years prior. The national myth before had been based on the idea that Russia was conquered by steppe barbarians and completely unaffected by them, an idea belayed by the significant cultural, linguistic, and ethnic influence on Russia. This continued as Russia expanded across the steppes, as a cultural melting pot between Russians and the "Tartars" played itself out across thousands of kilometers, and as oriental themes were adopted in Russian high art and music. The steppes were perceived by the Russians as altering their character, towards indolence and sloth, while increasingly the Russians noted their affinity and connection to the East rather than rejecting it, exemplified by the "Scythian Poets" who took their name from the Scythian people, with Nicholas Roerich its most famous artist. Revolution and violence were characterized as Asiatic, foreshadowing the revolution of 1917.

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Socialist realism celebrated heroic triumphs of workers and peasants who advanced the cause of Communism under the leadership of the Party

Socialist realism celebrated heroic triumphs of workers and peasants who advanced the cause of Communism under the leadership of the Party

"Russia through the Soviet Lens" immerses itself in the transformed Russia that emerged from the fires of revolution in 1917, through the eyes of the Russian poet Akhmatova, exploring the Soviet ideas on the transformation of man, on avant garde culture and the proletarian culture movement, its art, music, and housing. Soviet cinema was a vital tool used by the regime, once which during the 1920s too was the plaything of avant garde artists, most famously Eisenstein. But ultimately cultural orthodoxy would be instilled by the state, with the rise of socialist realism in all sectors, particularly writing, although in cinema too Stalin directed the turning out pf Soviet style Westerns and light hearted films full of gaiety for popular consumption in the 1930s: cultural politics as a whole became counter-revolutionary, pushing back to the 19th century and celebrating Pushkin and other writers, while Soviet censorship brutally repressed many independents. Akhmatova herself was under suspicion by the state and horribly persecuted and harassed, to the extent that in the interests of saving her son she wrote fawning poems for Stalin - rejecting them later on when she could. After the Second World War the USSR celebrated the greatness of Russian culture and its independence from the West, while developing folk cultures from the various lesser socialist republics, inauthentically most often. Science fiction boomed in the USSR, but much of it became more and more focused on the individual, religion, and the meaning of the Russian soul - which would continue to haunt Russia even in the last decades of the Soviet Union.

"Russia Abroad," the last chapter of the book, wanders through the émigré communities that had fled Russia, with how they grappled with the momentous changes that had happened in Russia, their homesickness and yearning for a place far away and a time lost, their artists and cultural values, with individuals like Nabakov and his literary works, the music of Stravinsky, and the lives of him and others. Some would return to Russia, such as Maxim Gorky, shaken by the violence of the "Asiatic" revolution who would return to Stalin's Russia, and perhaps murder by Stalin. Stravinsky too, would return to Russia briefly in 1962, stepping back to his native land and back into his native culture, slipping into never-forgotten thoughts and a language: despite the long separation and the travails along the way, he was Russian in the end, defined by it, a shadow which he could never shake.

Figes' has the great accomplishment of being able to cover a great breadth of detail, in an impressively long and detailed work, one which does not quail from facing a huge array of subjects from art to music to literature to national self-image, to traditions in Russia. Although I haven't yet red other of Figes' books, this seems to be a common theme for all of his works - from a People's Tragedy: A History of the Russian Revolution to The Europeans. It is a thoroughly vast subject, vast much like Russia's huge geographic breadth and yet Figes manages to tie it together very impressively and to cover a boggling number of different cultural elements with a sympathetic and knowledgeable perspective. Figes has the not-always common trait of a historian in that he makes one feel like one is party to the events unfolding, that you are an intimate member of confidants to whom secrets are revealed - and not just reading a blasé history book.

The humanizing touch which is applied to Russia's history and its individuals is what makes this book so excellent in my opinion. It would be easy to write a cold and inhuman look at Russia's cultural history, to simply treat ideas, and to have it be a good book, one like a dictionary to be fished through at will for whatever subject one needs. But Natasha's Dance is so much more, because it is fundamentally a story of people - and what after all is a nation, if not the people who make it up? The book doesn't revolve around characters, but it presents the story of the cultural creations of individuals and gives a vision into how Russia evolved and developed. It takes as its title an intensely human moment, Natasha, from War and Peace, discovering her real Russian roots and dancing - and the book is built on this theme, of individuals and seeing the evolution of Russia through their lives and actions.

An excellent subcategorization into different eras and an attempt to understand the general zeitgeist of each time helps to make a foreign and strange subject much more understandable. The Europeanization of Russia, specifically under the imprint of French influence, is one such thing, or the attempt of the return to the land, with Russian socialists and thinkers going out to the countryside to attempt to draw wisdom from Russian peasants. Or what about the battle over Russia's identity as European or Asiatic, seemingly particularly pitched in the later half of the 19th century, which manages to incorporate the cultural influence of Russia's great territorial expansion across Asia?

Many books are rather dry and don't dig deeply into questions of the actual import of the subject to the present. One of my favorite examples of this is "A History of the Czech Lands" which manages to cover the thousands of years of history of Czechia, and yet in doing so almost never manages to actually touch upon the importance of this history and what happened in it to the identity of the modern Czech people and the questions bound up in this history. By contrast, Orlando Figes has an overwhelming focus on what matters most: the question of what it means to be Russian. This leads to an excellent examination of critical themes of Russian cultural history, from the relative positioning of Russia between East and West, as a European or Asian country or something in between, of the conflict between foreign influences and the soil, of the political question of the country and of Tsardom and Orthodoxy - these tensions are at the heart of the experience of the question of what it means to be Russian, and the book's treatment of them is excellent to give a better understanding of Russian history and its meaning to contemporary Russians. This reaches its highest point in the final chapters which provide a simultaneous treatment of the development of Soviet socialist culture internally and the diaspora community outside of Russia: in their own way they show opposite mirrors of the Russian experience.

To my eyes, this is what constitutes the central theme of the book: that Russia has been riven by historical divisions, by contradictions, by contrasts, which have defined it and its character. This is not the only theme - you can also point to the ever present nature of "russianness," so that even during the height of the Frenchification of Russian in the 18th century, or at the height of Soviet revolutionary communism in the 1920 and 30s, the old peasant spirit shone through nevertheless. But both of these eras to me speak themselves of rival nations of what it meant to be Russian and alternate paths for the country. Figes makes this clearly felt and is capable of both showing the zeitgeist of the time and also the revolts against it.

And yet this contradiction - between an ur-Russia and the introduction of foreign culture - is somewhat shorn of its final value because the book starts only in the early 18th century, even if it makes references to before. It embraces the legacy of Peter the Great: of a Russia dragged from the past into the present, almost without a history so quick was its transformation, without a past - and yet clearly Russia did have a past, even if it required the massive changes of the present to be aware of it fully. Furthermore, although I am not sufficiently versed myself in Russian history to be able to indicate the errors, reviews elsewhere note that Figes has made a number of mistakes in his work, which while not enough to seriously undermine it, still detract from some of its value.

Despite these omissions, I still heartily recommend Natasha's Dance as an excellent book to gain a newfound vision on the cultural development of Russia, one which is extremely impressive in its reach, breadth, understanding, organization, and detail. It answers real, pertinent questions about Russia for foreigners, with excellent illustrations and a brilliant usage of individuals to convey the Russian story, and enables a personal look on a fascinatingly different, but not incomprehensible, culture and people.

© 2020 Ryan C Thomas

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