Dancing Through Russia's Cultural History, a review article by Margaret Black.


book cover


In Natasha's Dance: A Cultural History of Russia (2002), Orlando Figes sweeps us up with enormous assurance but a very light touch to whirl us round and round through the last 300 years of Russia's cultural history. Unlike two earlier general surveys, W. Bruce Lincoln's Between Heaven and Hell (1998) and James H. Billington's The Icon and the Axe (1966), Natasha's Dance doesn't begin with the conversion to Christianity of Prince Vladimir of Kiev and then trudge chronologically through the intervening thousand years to the present. Instead, Figes examines what he considers to be certain defining themes in Russian culture. His book opens when Peter the Great founds his new capital, St. Petersburg, in 1703, the moment, according to Figes, when Russia actively began interacting with European culture as a whole.

I must say up front that I am not a Russian expert or specialist of any sort. This volume caught my eye because I love Russian literature, and once, shortly after the Ice Age, I studied Russian history and lit in college. However, being an amateur is, I would argue, not a deficit here, since everything indicates that the book was intended for just such an audience as myself.

The title, Natasha's Dance, derives from the scene in Leo Tolstoy's War and Peace where aristocratic young Natasha Rostov feels impelled to dance because of the peasant music she is hearing. She performs perfectly even though she's never learned anything but proper European ballroom figures. Her innate "Russianness" has broken through despite all her Western education. In his Introduction, Figes denies the actual existence of any "quintessential" national Russian culture, but he does find "mythic images" of it, because Russians themselves were preoccupied with what it meant to be Russian.

The author considers eight themes. In the first, "European Russia," Figes dashes off a deceptively casual sketch of European influences on 18th- and early 19th-century Russia-in architecture, music, painting, sculpture, literature, dress, food, to say nothing of weapons and bureaucracy. He uses Russian voices (memoirs, Pushkin's Eugene Onegin, Tolstoy's War and Peace) for dramatic immediacy, as well as telling his own lively stories. The next section, on the "children of 1812," describes the transformation of the impressionable young aristocrats who experienced Napoleon's traumatic invasion of Russia and who served as officers of the peasant forces that drove Napoleon out. A dawning sense of the humanity of the serfs and of national responsibility emerged, leading to the abortive revolt of the Decembrists in 1825, which in turn gave birth to an entirely new type of Russian hero and heroine. It is only after the author has followed one particular Decembrist, Sergei Volkonsky, and his loyal wife, Maria, into their thirty-year exile in eastern Siberia that Figes finally turns, in the third section, to consider the old city of Moscow and its much more ancient ideologies. Here he reaches back into medieval times, the legacy of Ivan the Terrible, the Time of Troubles, and the disastrous schism in the Russian Orthodox Church. Music plays an important part in this analysis.

The remaining sections explore changing perceptions of the peasants, thought to be the repository of all that was "authentically Russian," the search for the "Russian soul," the role played in Russian culture by the "descendents of Genghiz Khan," the rise of revolutionary concepts in art, music, literature, and politics through the Bolshevik Revolution into the Soviet period, and finally the struggles of Russian émigrés to continue their artistic expression despite exile from their homeland. Literature, art, architecture, music, theater, ballet, crafts, movies-all are interwoven in Figes's study, along with fascinating 18th-century "shopping lists," peasant marriage customs, and Soviet housing arrangements.

Intriguing and informative as a thematic approach may be, however, it presents obvious problems for readers just getting acquainted with Russia's rich cultural past. Isolated aspects of Leo Tolstoy's life and works, for example, are dispersed over chapters concerned with European Russia, the impact of the Decembrist revolutionaries, the role of the city of Moscow, the preoccupation of the intelligentsia with the Russian peasant, and the search for the "Russian soul." For experts firmly in command of Tolstoy's life and works, this presents no problem. But Natasha's Dance is not meant for specialists. The famous group of composers known as the kuchka, or Mighty Handful—it included Musorgsky, Borodin, and Rimsky-Korsakov-are discussed extensively in the chapter on Moscow because of their subject matter (Boris Godunov, Old Believers), but essential information about the group as a whole, the aesthetic effects they sought to create, and the painters and writers with whom they were allied, doesn't appear until the section on "Eastern" influences in Russian culture. Although Figes has included an excellent chronology at the back of the book, most general readers will still be dizzied by the swirl of names and the swift changes of time.

Readers willing to surrender completely to Figes's lead, however, will slowly realize that they are achieving a modestly nuanced understanding of the context in which true giants of world literature, art, and music, as well as fascinating lesser figures, created their masterpieces. They may not be able to keep track of names or dates, but they gain a sense of what issues concerned the Russians and how those issues evolved.

Like Scheherazade, Figes holds his audience's rapt attention by clever use of tales and anecdotes. Tsar Peter has barely ordered the piles driven into the swamps out of which St. Petersburg emerges when Figes interrupts to tell the story of Nikolai Petrovich Sheremetev, 18th-century scion of a family "almost twice as rich as any other Russian noble family." Nikolai's enthusiasms were many and various and he gratified every one of them. These included building a lavish theater for performances by the private opera troupe he had trained from among his vast population of serfs. Little more than slaves, the peasant serfs could be drafted by their owners to do the most degrading and deadly of labors or elevated to the heights of artistic endeavor, all in the service, of course, of the owner's pleasure. It is their arbitrary elevation, as much as their degradation, that dramatizes the serfs' true plight. Then, in a story "straight out of comic opera," one brilliant serf diva, Praskovya, so captivated Nikolai with her beauty of mind and soul that he eventually did the unthinkable in status-obsessed Russia and married her. Her portrait, by Sheremetev's famous serf artist Nikolai Argunov, is one of the many splendid color plates in the book. Although shunned by society, Nikolai persuaded Tsar Alexander I to recognize the rights of their only son, born shortly before Praskovya's death, and devoted the rest of his life to good works.

The author's anecdotes can be moving, funny, and sometimes both at once. Near the end of Natasha's Dance Figes relates a charming story taken from E. Wilson's life of Shostakovich about the first meeting between Shostakovich and Stravinsky in 1962. Stravinsky despised Soviet Russia, but finally agreed to visit after 50 years of exile. Shostakovich, who admired Stravinsky's work beyond words, had remained in Russia after 1917, suffering life-threatening attacks and silencing under Stalin's capricious violence. At last the two men were brought together. After a long moment of complete silence, Shostakovich "plucked up the courage and opened the conversation:
'What do you think of Puccini?'
'I can't stand him,' Stravinsky replied.
'Oh, and neither can I, neither can I,' said Shostakovich." And that was all they said.

Figes repeats elements to help tie the sections of his book together. Sheremetev's famous Petersburg residence Fountain House, where Praskovya, "the finest singer in the Russia of her day, literate and conversant with several languages," lived in hiding, bore her son, and died, reappears in the section on the Soviet era, sadly run down and jammed full of desperate inhabitants, as the home of poet Anna Akhmatova. It survives the World War II siege of Leningrad, and when Akhmatova's funeral cortege of thousands moves in 1966 toward the cemetery, it stops at Fountain House for Anna to say one last goodbye to her beloved home.

Figes draws on the work of specialists to present a much more interesting discussion of painting, music, design, and cinema, than either Billington or Lincoln. Indeed, while Figes gives such famous literary giants as Pushkin, Gogol, Turgenev, Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, and Chekhov their due, he seems to feel that they're already known well enough so that he can concentrate on Musorgsky, say, or the painter Levitan or the artists' colony at Abramtsevo. Unlike Billington or Lincoln—or indeed the great bulk of Russian commentators—Figes finds positive and creative influences coming from the Mongols, later Tatars, and other non-Russian folk in Siberia. He also rescues Chekhov from a kind of limp-wristed nostalgia, particularly when he talks about Chekhov's experiences on Sakhalin. His anecdote about Tolstoy visiting the dying Chekhov to see how Chekhov is handling death provides terrifying insight into Tolstoy's own panic.

How does Figes stand up next to Billington and Lincoln? Both Figes and Lincoln use Billington's The Icon and the Axe extensively, and this magisterial work is still in print. Billington's narrative of the medieval period, especially his analysis of the religious schism, is simply superior. He also provides ample evidence that Russia was subject to significant Western influence long before Peter smashed his window on the West. Of the three books, The Icon and the Axe has the strongest discussion of philosophy, particularly political philosophy, and Billington's detailed examination of Masonry in Russia—a subject not even mentioned in the other two—is profound. In general, however, Billington's book seems intended for academics, and historians at that, rather than those interested in art, music, or literature. He can get a bit dull. And finally, Billington published well before the unimaginable-at-that-time downfall of the Soviet regime. This strongly affects how he looks at Russian cultural production since the Bolshevik Revolution. None of the three discuss culture since the fall of the Soviet Union.

Lincoln's Between Heaven and Hell, also still in print, provides all the comforts of a contemporary comprehensive chronological study. The intended tour-de-force opening—describing the festivities surrounding the coronation of Tsar Nicholas II that culminated in a disaster—doesn't work, but once the text proper begins, some of Lincoln's literary flourishes are very nice, as when he compares the arrangement of bells in cathedrals to the arrangement of icons on the iconostasis. Both Lincoln and Figes do a nice job of describing the evolution of music and painting in the face of the Russian Orthodox prohibition of instrumental music and realistic figurative painting. It is amusing to think that these artistic battles were being fought at the same time that a similar battle was proceeding in Islamic Istanbul, a story marvelously fictionalized recently in Orhan Pamuk's My Name is Red.

Billington's volume has only black and white illustrations of paintings which cry out to be seen in color. He does, however, have a very good map of European Russia. Inexplicably, Lincoln's book has no maps at all, which seems inexcusable to me. Lincoln does have an interesting selection of color plates, but the images have been so reduced in size as to be useless in some cases. Figes has a magnificent set of good-sized color plates. His map of European Russia isn't as good as Billington's, but then he also has a map of Siberian Russia as well as maps of St. Petersburg and Moscow. All the volumes have excellent notes, but only Billington and Figes have critical bibliographies or lists of suggested readings. Figes wins the extras competition by having a chronology (of course, he has more need of one) and a glossary of Russian terms.

I should also mention that for reasons utterly beyond me, Figes aroused great ire in a reviewer for the Times Literary Supplement. There followed a brief exchange of fire between partisans and opponents which some say was secretly encouraged by the publisher to increase sales. The hostile critic apparently felt that Figes had made what seem to me minor errors, and, more heinously, had stolen his material from specialist books by others. For example, Figes uses one music historian extensively—giving him lavish credit, incidentally, in his very complete notes and suggested readings-and the material on the Decembrists also relies on specialist monographs. Frankly, this is precisely what I'd expect and hope. As a general reader I'm not going to even hear about, let alone get a chance to read such scholarly works. I want the author of my general survey to assimilate the work of many others, and draw generously on primary sources, which Figes does.

Figes writes with energy, enthusiasm, and invention, gathering into his account most of the cultural figures and problems that interest readers today. He is so lively and entertaining that those who don't recognize the names or get lost in time may well be willing to do the work of orienting themselves with other books (probably Lincoln's!). I confess that I had a ball at Natasha's Dance. Long as the volume looks, it's so engaging that it seems short and concise. The evening's festivities are over far too soon.

Natasha's Dance: A Cultural History of Russia. By Orlando Figes. NY: Henry Holt and Company, 2002. 729 pages. $35.
Between Heaven and Hell: The Story of a Thousand Years of Artistic Life in Russia. By W. Bruce Lincoln. NY: Viking, 1998. 525 pages. $34.95.
The Icon and the Axe: An Interpretive History of Russian Culture. By James H. Billington. NY: Alfred A. Knopf, 1966. 819 pages. Paper $22.

Margaret Black is a freelance writer and editor who reviews books for an alternative weekly newspaper in upstate New York.
See her work in Offcourse Issues #12 and #14.

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