This is my review of Natasha’s Dance: A Cultural History of Russia by Orlando Figes.
“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.