Natasha's Dance: A Cultural History of Russia

by Orlando Figes

Published by Metropolitan Books

729 pages, 2002

Buy it online





Mystery Inside Enigma

Reviewed by Ed Voves


As Europe stumbled into war in 1939, Winston Churchill commented on the uncertain role that Soviet Russia might play in the conflict. "I cannot forecast to you the action of Russia," Churchill declared. "It is a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma."

Churchill's mystification was well founded. As Orlando Figes' new cultural history of Russia shows, the true character of this vast country is almost impossible to grasp. Is Russia a European nation based on Western values or is its culture an Asian import, a product of the Mongol conquest during the Middle Ages? Or is Russia a realm unique onto itself?

These questions are fitting ones for the author to consider. Figes, who teaches history at the University of London, previously wrote A People's Tragedy, a soul stirring chronicle of the Russian Revolution. Natasha's Dance illuminates Russia's cultural history with the same winning combination of vivid character studies and perceptive analysis of major events and trends. Virtually every facet of Russian culture -- from the influence of Siberian shamans on the art of Vasily Kandinsky to science fiction writing during the Soviet era -- is surveyed with critical insight and a warm, empathetic grasp of the character of Russia's peoples.

Solving the riddle of Russia's heritage, however, is no easy task. Nor is it an exclusive problem for Western historians: it has confounded the intelligentsia of Russia even more. Some of Russia's greatest minds have sought the answer in their fellow citizens' response to the cultural hegemony of the nation's Tsarist and Soviet governments. Others have asserted that the solution lies in the mythic past, in the origin of the Slavic peoples long before Russia existed as a state.

Leo Tolstoy, who figures prominently in Figes' book, believed that the answer to Russia's identity could be found in the lives of the peasant class and in the subtle ways that they influenced the aristocrats who literally owned them until their emancipation by Tsar Alexander II in 1861. Tolstoy illustrated the special nature of the serfs' relationship with the Russian nobility in an episode from War and Peace. While visiting the estate of her uncle in the hinterland of Russia Tolstoy's heroine, Natasha Rostov, takes part in a peasant dance. Despite her total lack of training, Natasha masters the tempo and rhythm of the dance by an instinctive process vastly different from the formal lessons in French culture that were instilled in her and other daughters of the Russian aristocracy. This incident, which supplies the title of Figes' book, reveals the "unseen threads of a native sensibility" which bound the nobility and serfs together as children of Mother Russia.

Tolstoy, in his depiction of Natasha's dance, emphasized the importance of spiritual values which he and other commentators on the Russian scene believed could be traced to the simple religious faith of the peasantry and their communal lifestyle. Much of this conviction was revealed by the events of the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917 to be romantic fiction. This dangerous delusion, however, was of central importance to the development of Russia's culture during the 19th century. Great nobles and merchant princes, like Tolstoy or the great impresario of the Ballet Russe, Serge Diaghilev, were the chief arbiters of Russian ideas and arts. Yet it was they who unwittingly helped to lay the foundation for the brutal classless utopia of the Soviet Union.

Such displays of aristocratic radicalism proved deeply troubling to Russian artists and writers who had experienced real poverty. Ilya Repin, one of Russia's greatest painters of the 19th century, was the son of peasant parents. In 1887, he visited Tolstoy on his rural estate in order to paint his portrait. He was appalled to witness the great writer, dressed in peasant garb for a few hours of work in the fields, followed by lavish dinners at his manor house. Repin noted that the peasants were not deceived, regarding Tolstoy with barely concealed disenchantment. "Never in my life," Repin wrote, "have I seen a clearer expression of irony on a simple peasant's face."

Repin's ability to gauge the emotions of Russia's downtrodden classes stemmed from more than memories of his youth. When he painted his first great masterpiece, "The Volga Barge Haulers," he spent months living with his subjects, learning their lives and thoughts in a way that Tolstoy never did. It was Repin's misfortune, and of Russia's leading cultural figures in general, that their work was embraced as part of vast schemes of social reform which achieved little or nothing of actual benefit for the peasants and the growing body of urban poor. Repin's "Volga Barge Haulers" ended up gracing the wall of a grand duke's palace, a sadly appropriate reflection of Russia's tragic plight in the decades before the Revolution.

There is a term in the Russian language for this unique form of social malaise. It is "Oblomovshchina," based on the 1859 novel Oblomov by Ivan Goncharov, whose protagonist is a nobleman who spends his life dreamily planning for a utopian future while lying around in his dressing gown. The full consequences of Russia's march down the road of good intentions would not be realized until 1917. But Figes relates many a tale of tragic loss in Natasha's Dance to match that of his earlier study of the Russian Revolution.

One of the most vivid of these stories concerns Count Nikolai Sheremetev and his wife Praskovya, a peasant girl whom he trained to be one of Russia's first great opera divas in the late 1700s. In a plot right out of a sentimental novel of the period, Sheremetev fell in love and secretly married Praskovya. The resulting scandal, when the news finally became public knowledge, blighted their lives, ruining Praskovya's career and contributing to her early death. Count Sheremetev spent the rest of his life building hospitals and doing charitable works to honor his wife's memory.

Figes allows his readers to decide for themselves whether Russia is a nation of the East or of the West. But in the pages of this poignant and memorable book, he presents a saga that leaves no doubt as to the tragic brilliance of Russia's cultural heritage. | March 2003


Ed Voves is a news researcher for the Philadelphia Inquirer and the Philadelphia Daily News. He frequently reviews books on a wide range of topics, chiefly history and the life sciences, and has interviewed many writers including Maurice Sendak and Umberto Ecco.