Book Review: Natasha's Dance: A Cultural History of Russia

By Orlando Figes

Orlando Figes is Professor of History at Birkbeck College, University of London. He is the author of many books on Russian history, one of which I have already reviewed at HASM: The Whisperers: Private Life in Stalin's Russia. In  this sumptuously smooth and elegantly bound 2003 offering he asks what is and what should be Russia's national identity? This big (786 pages), impressively researched book boldly attempts the monumental task of taking  in the whole sweep of Russian culture and history, linking literature, theatre, dance, opera and more.

Price: £14:99
Publication Date: 2003
ISBN: 978-0140297966
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It is organised thematically around a number of crucial trends in the development of Russian culture, including Peter the Great and his Europeanization of Russia, the impact of victory over Napoleon in 1812, the fortunes of Moscow, the Orthodox church and Asian influences on Russian culture. It also provides rich anecdotal details of a number of leading individuals and movements in Russian cultural life, such as Russia versus western Europe, St. Petersburg versus Moscow, aristocrats versus peasants, imperial Russia versus Soviet Russia, and Russia at home versus émigré Russia. In addition, for each topic, the author succeeds in finding appropriate texts by the usual suspects -Alexander Pushkin, Nikolai Gogol', Anton Chekhov, Maksim Gor'kii, Sergei Eisenstein etc, to illustrate whatever point is being made.

The chapter I enjoyed most was 'Russia through the Soviet lens' in which the authorities rejected 'art for art's sake' and tried to use it as a tool to transform workers into efficient and compliant machines. The sense of loss of those who were forced into exile is moving, as is Stalin's extreme persecution of those who remained. Despite having modernist tendencies, I felt a genuine desire to look back further into Russia's history.

This book will be invaluable to casual readers of Russian novels, symphony subscribers who attend concerts of Russian music, or museum goers who see the occasional show devoted to the Russian avant-garde, allowing them to place the 'exotic' works they encounter in a larger historical context. The professional Russian historian, however, hoping to find a supplementary text for an undergraduate class, will probably be underwhelmed, forced to ask in what ways the author changes or challenges established opinion about the topics he discusses? In treating the main and familiar lines of Russian cultural development, the author ignores side channels or to resurrect a forgotten or underappreciated figure. It is, perhaps, unfair to ask the creator of a book designed for a popular audience to satisfy simultaneously a scholarly reader, nevertheless, it is hard to shake the feeling that this book could easily have been written forty years ago because the basic view of culture that it espouses dates from then or even earlier.

However the author does employ one inventive technique. He uses the lives of two important Russian families, the Sheremetovs and the Volkonskiis, as a kind of narrative bond, the narrative itself is of course lucid and effortless making it extremely pleasurable, if a little long winded, reading.

In short, this is a more or less ideal book for its broad target audience, it allows occasional students of Russian culture to place works they know into contexts that do not challenge received opinion about what Russia 'really is.' Professionals will find themselves envious of Figes's ability to produce an award-winning lucid narrative, but also somewhat annoyed by his unwillingness to take scholarly risks.