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Wednesday, March 28, 2012

“Natasha's Dance: A Cultural History of Russia”, by Orlando Figes

544 pages, Metropolitan Books, ISBN-13: 978-0805057836

Although Figes takes the title from Natasha's dance in "War and Peace," he could have just as easily used Chichikov from "Dead Souls" as his vehicle, as he takes the reader along on a wild ride through Russia's rich cultural history. Figes explores his chapters thematically, exploring a compelling set of Russian ideas that revolve around the East-West duality that is so apparent in the works of great Russian artists, writers and musicians. Figes seems to be more at home when exploring the themes found in the great classical compositions, providing wonderful character sketches of composers such as Stravinsky, Prokofiev and Tchaikovsky.

Figes's expansive discussion of cultural influences and trends in Russian history opens with the reign of Peter the Great and runs through the first half of the twentieth century. He makes only brief forays into the era before 1700 (e.g., the lingering effects of the Mongol invasion), and he scans the years after Stalin sketchily in a final chapter on exiles from the Soviet Union (Nabokov, but not Brodsky, although he follows Stravinsky through the early 1960s). Still, that's over 250 years in 600 pages, and his focus allows him to analyze what are surely the most formative years of the Russian empire. Although he occasionally examines the visual arts, architecture, politics, and scholarship, Figes primarily discusses music, performance art and above all, literature. Even then, there's a lot to absorb, yet remarkably the book is a refreshing survey that will not only motivate many readers (including yours truly) to run out and buy some of the novels and orchestral works he mentions, but also provides a framework for appreciating all those newly purchased books and CDs.

It's not easy to summarize the themes that, according to Figes, pervade most of Russia's culture (and politics). At the risk of oversimplification, one could say that "Natasha's Dance" views the last three centuries as a clash of dualities. Peter the Great opened Russia to European exchanges, and, by the end of his reign, society in St. Petersburg was emulating Parisian trends to the point of caricature: "the aristocracy had become so bilingual that they slipped quite easily and imperceptibly from Russian into French and back again. Letters of a page or so could switch a dozen times, sometimes in the middle of a sentence." During the nineteenth century, however, many writers and artists longed to pull Russia back to its roots, and they found their "lost" heritage reflected in the eyes of the peasantry. (The war with Napoleon only hastened this retrenchment.) Thus, for example, one sees the unintentionally comical specter of Tolstoy trying to be like his serfs: "he idealized the peasants and loved to be with them, but for many years he could not bring himself to break from the conventions of society and become one himself." More seriously, by the beginning of the twentieth century, fine art was influenced less by European expectations and more by folk art and peasant dances (compare, for example, Tchaikovsky's "Swan Lake" with Stravinksy's "Firebird"). Nevertheless, the aristocracy continued to remain aloof from the "more Russian" customs of the peasantry – for many, the folk traditions never rose above a trendy curiosity – and this dissonance contributed to the tensions that led to the Russian Revolution.

I thought this was one of the best books I have ever read on Russia. In 500 beautifully written pages, it manages to say an awful lot - not just about the Russian arts and literature, nor simply about Russia as a place, its history, its customs, its religious traditions – but about that thing we call “culture” – Figes shows how the arts were intertwined with politics, religion, folklore and beliefs, to create a "national consciousness". His main argument – that Russian culture was defined by a dialogue between the high culture of the aristocracy and the folk culture of the peasantry – is brilliantly developed and original.

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