on 3 November 2004
This really is one of the best books I have ever read. It has an enormous, if not terrifying scope, but Orlando Figes pulls everything together in a totally coherent and interesting way. I am not surprised it took him years to write! For many years I have had an interest in Russian culture, mainly the literature, and I have also read histories of Russia, but by taking culture as the central theme, the book provides an incredibly vivid picture of the history in general. I particularly enjoyed the chapter about the "east". It is superbly written, easy to follow, which is a rarity these days amongst general academic books. The final chapter, which deals with people alive in my lifetime I found particularly poignant and I was desperately sad when I had finished the book, although I now have a very long list of cds to buy! Thank you Orlando Figes for an amazing work of scholarship, which is also a joy to read!
on 9 January 2006
If you are interested in Russian history and culture, this book is definitely worth reading. If you, like me, read every volume of classical Russian literature you can get your hands on, it will explain a lot of background facts and help you connect the dots. The book is written in a bold manner that might be viewed as controversial for the lack of focus (each chapter consists of several stories that are interwoven into each other), but it generally works very well for painting the big picture, and it is fun to read.
One thing that might be viewed as a certain deficiency is the author's bias. He shows occassional tendency to put down widely recognized authors and diminish their credit (Tolstoy, Bunin, Dostoyevsky, Rimsky-Korsakov) and on the other hand, he seems to spend way too much time on two women poets, Akhmatova and Cvetaeva, because he likes them, and their life stories suit his story-telling purposes.
This is all great - if you already know something about the subject, it's very interesting to confront your (or generally accepted) views and experience with a different point of view, that is nonetheless very intelligent and stimulating. But if you are a newcomer, it might give you a slightly distorted view of things. So if you bear in mind that this book is more of a personal confession of passion for and vast knowledge of Russian culture rather than an "academic" overview, you will not be disappointed. Also, the book is a great reference, so it's really worth buying to have it handy.
A superb account of the cultural history of Russia since the end of the 18th century, bringing most vividly alive the tension between slavophiles and westernizers. The last chapter, on the Russian émigrés during the Stalinist period, is the finest of the lot, and his account of how some of them returned to Russia from Khrushchev's time onwards is very moving. I learnt something new on almost every page of this 586 pages long book.
on 16 December 2003
This is an excellent book. Though it is arranged thematically rather than chronologically, timelines are not confusing. The great debates of Russian culture - between East and West, between peasant and aristocrat, between Orthodoxy and the Old Belief - are presented vividly and clearly. The countryside and cities come alive with characters, not just of the great figures of Russian literature and art but of the nameless millions and their beliefs, culture, attitudes and preoccupations. Natasha's Dance made me want to learn much more about Russia, its people, its history, its literature and art. And that, to me, is the measure of success of a cultural history such as this.
"Natasha's Dance" weaves a dense canvas of information round the average reader's ragbag of knowledge about Russia.
Figes begins with Peter the Great's attempt to drag Russia into the mainstream of European culture with the imposition of the classical style city of St. Petersburg on the marshlands of the River Neva. He contrasts this with Moscow and "Old Russia" based on the Eastern Orthodox Church, onion domes and icons, and the close ties with the land, and the sometimes romanticised simple life of the serfs. He traces the early attempts of some aristocrats, radicalised by fighting alongside their serfs against Napoleon, to introduce the democracy which Russia has never really been able to achieve. Then there is the strong influence of Asia, brought partly by the Tartars sweeping in across the vast steppes.
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 crazy persecution of those who remained.
Although I am very interested in the subject matter, I found this book hard going. It is quite longwinded and repetitious, as if the author himself sometimes loses sight of the wood for the trees in the vast amount of information he has gathered. There are too many overlong extracts from novels and romantic poems which now seem quite dated. However, I liked the inclusion of Akhmatova's poetry, perhaps because it conveys so vividly what it was like to live under the Soviet regime.
Figes refers to a large number of lesser known writers and composers, no doubt in the interest of academic rigour but this is off-putting for the general reader - the names are hard to take in and we learn too little about them for it to be worth the effort. Perhaps this type of detail would have been better in a glossary at the end.
Coverage of major figures is quite fragmented which can be confusing. The author's choice of whom to cover and in what depth seems quite arbitrary. I now have a much better appreciation of Stravinsky but Tchaikovsky gets far less mention than the female poet Tsetaeva who is no longer widely known.
Although the book would have benefited from a thorough edit, on balance I recommend it for the wealth of fascinating anecdotes. To do it justice, it needs to be read a second time, possibly after a few months at least, to give time to absorb more of the detail - say to get a better grasp of the roles of Prokofiev as opposed to Shostakovitch.
Natasha's Dance is in a class of its own. It is the only book that takes in the whole sweep of Russian culture and history, linking literature, theatre, dance, opera and more. Although I studied Russian language, literature and history and I was living in Moscow, there were many things that I just couldn't understand: why were Russians like they were? How did they be so boorish one moment but so cultured and romantic the next? What really happened when the Mongols invaded? Where did those matrioshka dolls come from? Why does Russian music sound different to western European music? What was life like in feudal peasant Russia? or in Siberian exile? How did one country produce peasants, communists, oligarchs, Tolstoy, Tchaikovsky and a whole lot of spies? In Russian literature, why was there so much about wet-nurses, religion, name days, icons, duelling, Decembrists, noble serfs and mystic fools? Who were the Cossacks? Did the entire Russian noble class really speak French to each other? Why didn't the peasants revolt earlier? And why did exiles harbour such a longing for their homeland, even though it was full of communists, corruption and subzero temperatures?
Natasha's Dance tells you all this and far more, much more than I can recall in one go. The name of the book, which is rather offputtingly esoteric, refers to a scene from War and Peace, which indicates what level of reader it is pitched at.
This book is not a light read. There is so much information, you may find you need to stop to take a thinking break after every page just to take it all in. It is so rich that you may be overwhelmed if you haven't got at least a passing knowledge of Russia. If you're not vaguely familiar with at least a handful of names such as Tolstoy, Pushkin, Chekhov, Stravinsky or Akhmatova, you might find Natasha's Dance is a bit of an uphill struggle, and it might be better to start with a gentler climb, like Anna Karenina or Doctor Zhivago.
But for those who know something about Russia and want to supercharge their understanding of the place and its people, this book is undeniably, uniquely, wonderful: a treasure trove.
on 2 October 2012
Natascha's Dance by Orlando Figes's is a staggering and well researched panorama of the evolution of Russian culture as expressed in her literature, poetry, plays, music, and art over the centuries.
The book takes its title from a scene in Tolstoy's War and Peace in which the upper-class Natasha Rostov falls instinctively into the rhythms of a peasant dance. Figes employs this scene as a metaphor for his book's central theme which is the conflict between the European cultural ideals of the Aristocracy in St.Petersburg and an Asiatic Russianess as embodied in old Moscow, the rural traditions and the surviving folk styles of the peasantry.
Figes's provides a remarkable exposition encompassing the changes from Holy Russia and The Old Believers schism, to the French influence as championed by Peter The Great's cultural revolution in the 18th century - his new European styled city of St.Petersburg and his demands that the Russian nobles speak French and drop their national costumery and beards, the conflict this gave rise to with old Moscow and the traditional expressions of Russian cultural identity.
He explores the Mongolian and Tartar origins as rediscovered through Russian folk researchers into the arts and cultures of the Steepes, their uptake by the artists and musicians of the times - and moves on to the Soviet era with its Stalinist repressions of Art and individuality.
Personally I found the last aspect of this study, the Stalinist repressions and the flight of the artistic emigre's, to be too intense and indepth for this book - I had wanted more of the earlier contextualization of what Russian identity and culture had been comprised of and how it had been expressed, shared and developed, before it was so dramatically destroyed.
Despite my reservations over the latter aspect of this study, this book makes sense of an otherwise confusing array of diverse styles and cultural developments.
A wonderful introduction to the developments and themes across Russia's cultural legacy.
on 12 April 2007
This is a cultural history of Russia over the past three centuries. Somehow Orlando Figes manages to draw together disparate concepts and unite them into a coherent view of a wonderfully unique culture. From peasant music and dance to classic literature and the affairs of the state, Figes delves into the heart of Russian culture to produce a work of supreme importance, both for students of Russian history, and those who wish to know more about the vivid, breathing entity that is culture. This is a readable but powerful work which seeks to create a lucid history of one of the biggest and most diverse countries in the world.
on 20 December 2014
This is a superb book, a real achievement and I recommend it very highly. In fact, I wish more people would read it, even if they're not particularly interested in Russia. For one thing, I think it may enable people to understand better, for example, the current situation existing between the West and Russia over Ukraine, which our Western newspapers, in my opinion, have not covered in anywhere near a balanced and intelligent way. I don't often sing the praises of a book so strongly, but this work warrants that. I do have a few, relatively minor reservations about the book, but they pale beside the overall pleasure I got from it. I first noticed the book years ago, and finally got round to reading it. I am very glad I did. It actually took me a long time to read, but I am a fairly slow reader. My excuse is that I like to savour books, and this is definitely one to be savoured. Incidentally, it's effectively about 580 pages long in the paperback edition, not the number stated in the description above, because the subsequent pages are the very extensive notes, bibliography, glossary, etc.
Firstly, it's important to say that it's highly readable. That's not always an easy thing to achieve as an author, especially when grappling with so many sources, a long period of time and a fairly complex subject, as Figes would have been compelled to do. Despite reading quite a lot, I tend to steer clear of long history books, or indeed most short ones, so was a bit wary of starting this. But it was instantly interesting, engaging and almost conversational in tone, without being at all simplistic or overly familiar and dumbed-down. One of the main themes of the book is Russia's spiritual, political and cultural conflict between embracing the ideas and approach of the West and the more patriotic Slavophile cultural ideals. This is at the core of the book, I think, and binds the whole together. I must say that discovering in this book that vast swathes of the Russian aristocracy embraced French culture to the extent that they banned their children speaking Russian was utterly shocking and amazing to me. It also made me realise that there is a wider, more benign type of nationalism which is patriotic and spiritual rather than how nationalism is too often portrayed currently by the West's liberal academics and writers. That is one of the reason I suppose I said above that I wished more people would read this book, especially with an open mind.
Figes also uses key figures - artists, writers and painters - as a way to structure the book. Each section (there are 8 sections of around 80 pages each) tends to begin by introducing such a person and weaves the chapter around them, going off to examine other issues and people, then returning to them. It's a narrative technique which works very well on the whole. However, about half-way through the book I did start to get a feeling that perhaps he was not going into the subject matter quite as deeply as perhaps he should. Despite the length of the book, to me it has strong hints of being a bit of a whistle-stop tour of Russia's cultural history. Maybe that's too strong a comment. But he writes about literature, theatre, music, painting etc., but not much about architecture, and nothing on theories of art, aesthetics, social theory and the history of cultural theory itself. I also felt I wanted to know more about the actual art these individuals produced, and how it related to the wider artistic world. I also wanted to know what came before the building of Petersburg by Peter the Great, which is where Figes starts his history, which seems sort of too recent to me.
Clearly Figes is a massive fan of Tolstoy, which is fair enough (although I'm not a fan myself). But in the central part of the book I felt he referred to Tolstoy a few too many times. Maybe I feel that way because Tolstoy struck me in the book, probably through no fault of his own, as a bit of... well... a fool. I thought long and hard before using that word, but it's the right one, I'm afraid. I am not impressed by Tolstoy's vision at all, or his life. And despite the tragic stories of the poets Anna Akhmatova and especially Marina Tsvetaeva, I cannot identify with their poetry which seems steeped in self-pity, even before any mishap befell them. I'm not saying they're not great poets, but their vanity puts me off. The point is that Figes does sing their praises, too much I believe, and a few paragraphs were far too sentimental (that's not bad though, in a 600 page book).
Finally, I also feel that Figes' history is too focused on the upper classes. Yes, of course, art during this period is bound to be produced by those with the 'leisure time', connections, attitudes and self-belief to produce such books, paintings, etc. But one feels that more space should have been given over to researching the attitudes, ideals and lives of the peasants, their religion and traditions. After all, these are also a integral part of a nation's culture.
In general Figes is politically neutral throughout the book, with perhaps occasionally a too patronising view of the peasantry revealing his own social status and attitudes, and also a somewhat judgmental Western view does occasionally creep in in the final section of the book.
But as I refer to at the start, I took away from this book, not only a feeling of fascination and enjoyment, but also gratitude that such effort and skill had been put into it by a very good writer.
Buy it, read it, enjoy it.
on 19 November 2012
This is one of the most interesting books I have read in recent years on the cultural history of Russia. The topics covered by the author, Orlando Figes, are wide-ranging and fascinating.
One of the topics focuses on the impact of Napoleon's invasion of 1812 on the nation's psyche, i.e. the awakening of the sense of "Russianness". It is exemplified by a Russian folk dance performed intuitively - without having been taught - by Natasha (Countess Natalia Rostov) in "War and Peace", thus the present book's title.
Other topics include the failed Decembrist uprising, Moscow, customs, religion (the Orthodox Church) and superstition, Asiatic Russia (i.e. the influence of Genghiz Khan and his descendants), art and artists (painting, music and dance), literature and prominent Russian emigres abroad.
Some of the topics I found particularly interesting include Prince Volkonsky, the leader of the Decembrist uprising of 1825, which was an attempt to modernize the country by some members of the nobility: he was exiled to a convicts' colony in Siberia, staying there for 30 years before returning to European Russia. Astonishingly, his wife, together with many other wives of political exiles and convicts, followed him on foot. Tolstoy was remotely related to Volkonsky, and the latter became the model for Prince Bolkonsky in "War and Peace." Other interesting personalities described include Diaghilev of Ballets Russes and Akhmatova, the famous poetess. Furthermore, the descriptions of old Moscow and its "Asiatic" and hedonistic customs, compared with formal St Petersburg, are really interesting.
As an appendix, there is a chronology of historical events and cultural landmarks, an extensive guide to further reading and detailed notes with sources of information. But, my brief review cannot do justice to the depth and breadth of the coverage of this fascinating book which made me want to explore more about Russian culture. I warmly recommend it to anyone who is interested in the rich Russian cultural history.