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34 of 34 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Absolutely Fantastic
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...
Published on 3 Nov 2004 by Tamarindos

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10 of 11 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Figes is one of the most accessible and intelligent historians around
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,...
Published on 12 April 2007 by Sam J. Ruddock


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34 of 34 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Absolutely Fantastic, 3 Nov 2004
This review is from: Natasha's Dance: A Cultural History of Russia (Paperback)
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!
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34 of 35 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A great book, if you don't mind its bias, 9 Jan 2006
This review is from: Natasha's Dance: A Cultural History of Russia (Paperback)
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.
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8 of 8 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Slavophiles and Westernizers, 31 Mar 2005
By 
Ralph Blumenau (London United Kingdom) - See all my reviews
(TOP 500 REVIEWER)   
This review is from: Natasha's Dance: A Cultural History of Russia (Paperback)
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.
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47 of 50 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Russia, after this book I want to get to know you better., 16 Dec 2003
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This review is from: Natasha's Dance: A Cultural History of Russia (Paperback)
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.
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32 of 35 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A unique and brilliant book, a must read if you want to understand Russia, 8 May 2007
By 
Petrolhead (Hong Kong) - See all my reviews
(VINE VOICE)   
This review is from: Natasha's Dance: A Cultural History of Russia (Paperback)
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.
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Interesting but would have been better with a good edit!, 21 Feb 2011
By 
Antenna (UK) - See all my reviews
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This review is from: Natasha's Dance: A Cultural History of Russia (Paperback)
"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.
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10 of 11 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Figes is one of the most accessible and intelligent historians around, 12 April 2007
By 
Sam J. Ruddock (Norwich, England) - See all my reviews
(REAL NAME)   
This review is from: Natasha's Dance: A Cultural History of Russia (Paperback)
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.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Fills out the fuller picture., 24 July 2009
By 
Michael Gale (Dorset) - See all my reviews
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This review is from: Natasha's Dance: A Cultural History of Russia (Paperback)
I particularly enjoy reading about the Soviet Union and began to trace history back from the revolution with Bunin's Cursed days and Bulgakov's White Guard. I felt as if i wanted to, and was ready to look back further into Russia's history, Orlando Figes excellent historical survey was just the ticket for the journey.
I do like his style of writing, his narrative trots along at a fair pace considering the weight of information offered. Don't expect to race through it, I spent 3 months reading his superb book The Whisperers.
I've read a review where it is stated that Mr Figes made a mistake regarding a clown act who were not actually shot by the Cheka . Ok, its disappointing when research mistakes are made, however I'm quite happy to overlook that, to err is human eh? This aberration does not, for me, detract from the new horizons that have opened up.
I'm now contentedly exploring Zamoyski's 1812 about the fateful march on Moscow, listening to Glinka and developing a real appreciation of Pushkin, thanks in no small part to Mr Figes wonderful book.
If you have the faintest interest in this marvelous country then waste no time and buy with one click!
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13 of 15 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A wonderful read, 9 Dec 2005
This review is from: Natasha's Dance: A Cultural History of Russia (Paperback)
This is one of the best books I have ever read. It is beautifully written, passionate, engaging, astonishingly well researched, but not in the slightest "academic" or dry in any sense. I have been to Russia once, but never knew a lot about the place, its literature, religions, or culture. Through Natasha's Dance I feel I have a handle on the place; now I would like to return there with this understanding and see it all again. Thank you Mr Figes for a real eye-opener and a marvellous page-turning read.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Russian Identity; Asiatic Origins to European Aristocracy and Soviet Antipathy, 2 Oct 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.

Recommended
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Natasha's Dance: A Cultural History of Russia
Natasha's Dance: A Cultural History of Russia by Orlando Figes (Paperback - 4 Sep 2003)
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