His proudest moment had been when two peasants bowed to the ground, Russian style, and thanked him for his book

Joseph Frank

  • Natasha’s Dance: A Cultural History of Russia by Orlando Figes
    Allen Lane, 729 pp, £25.00, October 2002, ISBN 0 7139 9517 3

The title of Orlando Figes’s impressively wide-ranging book refers to a scene in War and Peace in which Natasha Rostov, the finest product of the European education favoured by the Russian aristocracy for more than a century, visits the far from luxurious home of a distant relative. He is a nobleman living in the country with his serf ‘wife’, Anisya; he has, it seems, abandoned that superior attitude to the Russian ‘people’, the narod, that generally characterises his class. He strikes up a folk-song on his guitar, and challenges Natasha, who has never danced to such music before, to do so now. Suddenly she finds herself performing the native steps with perfect rhythm and grace. ‘Where, when and how,’ the narrator asks, ‘had this young countess, educated by an émigrée French governess, imbibed from the Russian air she breathed that spirit, and obtained that manner which the pas de châle, one would have supposed, had long ago effaced?’ Anisya and the other peasants in the room are deeply moved: ‘this slim, graceful countess reared in silks and velvets . . . was able to understand all that was in Anisya . . . and in every Russian man and woman.’ The moment fits with Tolstoy’s aim to compose a great patriotic epic portraying the unity of the Russian people in the face of foreign invasion. But here, as with all the other creative work he uses, Figes interprets the scene as expressing a fundamental historical truth about Russian culture.

Natasha’s dance reveals the split between an aristocratic upper class whose mentality, ideas and values have been shaped by their European education, and a vast mass of peasantry still living in a pious world untouched by the Renaissance and Reformation, let alone the blasphemous European 18th century. But it also demonstrates the continued existence within the general cultural psyche of instinctive responses in line with a wholly Russian tradition. This continual seesaw between the old and the new, the hereditary and the innovative, between the fascination with the foreign and the comfort of the customary, provides Figes with his structure. As he says, his book is not so much a history as ‘an interpretation of a culture’, and it is an interpretation governed by this dialectic.

Figes makes no claim to have uncovered some ‘pure, organic or essential core’ of Russian culture. Indeed, he does the opposite: Tolstoy’s scene represents a ‘historical myth’ invented to resolve the dilemma created by Russian history. ‘Forced to become Europeans, the educated classes had become so alienated from the old Russia . . . that when, in Tolstoy’s age, they struggled to define themselves as “Russians” once again, they were obliged to reinvent their nation through historical and artistic myths.’ These myths, shaped by literature and art, became a driving force in Russian cultural life.

The Russian problem ever since has been the struggle to wrest some sort of unity out of these conflicting alternatives. ‘In a way that was extraordinary, if not unique to Russia, the country’s artistic energy was almost wholly given to the quest to grasp the idea of its nationality.’ What was Russia: ‘the Tsar’s Empire or the muddy one-street village where Natasha’s “Uncle” lived?’ This question was posed in other and more complex terms as time went on, but it continued to form the leitmotif, not only of Russian culture itself, but of all those who have studied its modern history; there is nothing original about Figes’s point of view. But he is unlike anyone else in the vast range of information he draws on, in the vigour and intensity of his writing, in his eye for the dramatic detail, and most of all in the use he makes of private lives to illustrate his themes. It is in these private histories, he writes, ‘that we may find . . . the unseen threads of a common Russian sensibility such as Tolstoy had imagined in his dancing scene’. Since Peter the Great, however, this ‘common Russian sensibility’ always contained a European admixture, and Figes criticises those – Rilke, Thomas Mann, Virginia Woolf – who swallowed whole the myth of a completely indigenous ‘Russian soul’. All the great Russians ‘were Europeans too, and the two identities were intertwined and mutually dependent in a variety of ways’.

Natasha’s Dance contains eight sections, each of which explores one manifestion of this underlying dialectic. Beginning with the establishment of St Petersburg by Peter the Great, it ends with the Russian exiles scattered throughout the world by the Bolshevik Revolution. There is thus a loose chronological structure, but within each section the material is thematic: Figes moves freely from past to present and the themes are implied by vivid juxtapositions of historical, cultural or personal events. The first page, for example, reads like a historical novel: ‘On a misty spring morning in 1703, a dozen Russian horsemen rode across the bleak and barren marshlands where the Neva river runs into the Baltic sea. They were looking for a site to build a fort against the Swedes, then at war with Russia.’ Peter, the ‘Tsar of landlocked Russia’, dismounts from his horse, carves a cross on the marshy ground with his sword, and declares: ‘Here shall be a town.’ The entire book is written more or less in this expressive narrative style, which carries the reader easily along, although, here and there, one might have wished for more analysis.

St Petersburg, built at enormous cost of labour and human life, was an artificial city in which Russians never really felt at home. Their distress is brilliantly conveyed in Pushkin’s poem The Bronze Horseman (an allusion to Falconet’s statue of Peter on a rearing charger). Herzen described the city as a huge barracks, and it was often associated with military imagery. Peter endeavoured to do with the Russian upper class what he had done with the city, forcing them to assume a synthetic personality by becoming as European as possible. They learned to be more comfortable speaking foreign languages (usually French) than their own, and behaved, dressed and ate in imitation of European models (Figes includes a page-long list of the exotic foods from Europe ordered by the immensely wealthy Sheremetev family). The palaces built by the aristocracy – usually the work of European architects and containing grand reception halls and galleries filled with paintings, bought by the yard, from European artists – were ‘an oasis of European culture in the desert of the Russian peasant soil’. But there were parts of them, ‘the bedrooms and boudoirs . . . the chapel and the icon room . . . the servant quarters, where a more informal “Russian” way of life was to be found’.

The strains of inner division began to show around the end of the 18th century. The Russian nobleman who despised his own country and its people became a stock satirical type for a whole group of minor writers: Kniazhnin, Kheraskov, Fonvizin. The best known work of this kind is Griboedov’s Woe from Wit, whose main character, Chatsky, on returning home from abroad, finds Russian life intolerable and flees it once again. Travel writers of the time, however, found little to praise when they ventured abroad; and the final blow to the idealisation of European culture was dealt by the French Revolution. Nikolai Karamzin’s Letters of a Russian Traveller, which contains a fascinating interview with Kant, ends recoiling before the Terror. ‘The idea that the West was morally corrupt was echoed by virtually every Russian writer from Pushkin to the Slavophiles,’ Figes writes; it was taken up later by Herzen and Dostoevsky.

The hegemony of European (and particularly French) culture was further undermined by the Napoleonic invasion and the war that followed. Figes’s second section, ‘Children of 1812’, focuses on the generation that fought the war and emerged from it with new ideas and values. The wartime sense of community between the officers and their peasant soldiers, as well as the experience of living in Europe and observing (and enjoying) its relative freedom, led to a desire among young aristocrats to import some of its benefits for their countrymen. Such sentiments resulted in the abortive Decembrist rebellion of 1825, when a group of officers attempted to mount a coup before Nicholas I acceded to the throne. One of the leaders’ main aims was to abolish serfdom and bring the peasants the freedom they deserved, but the illiterate peasant-soldiers refused to follow, and when leaflets were distributed calling for konstitutsia – a ‘constitution’ – they thought it was a girl’s name.

All the same, the democratic attitudes of the Decembrists continued to gain ground. There was a notable trend among the aristocracy to try to return to Russian customs and a Russian way of life. The vogue for the dacha, the simple country house, dates from this time; so does a change in women’s dress. Powdered wigs and heavy scents were abandoned, as elsewhere in Europe, but Figes suggests that ‘in Russia the fashion for the natural had an extra, national dimension.’ He sees Pushkin’s Tatiana as the embodiment of the new ideal (the poet had Decembrist friends), and cites her rejection of St Petersburg glamour ‘for just my books, the simple joys/of our old home, its walks and flowers/for all those haunts that I once knew’. He also stresses the importance of the reference to her nanny a few lines later (there is an extensive discussion of the importance of peasant nursemaids in inculcating their aristocratic charges with the social and religious values of the peasantry). It is the memory of her beloved nanny, who had been forced into marriage as a child but remained faithful to her vows, that inspires Tatiana’s decision to sacrifice herself to the husband she does not love – a decision that Dostoevsky, in his famous Pushkin speech of 1880, saw as an affirmation of true Russian values.

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