Orlando Figes' "Natasha's Dance" will not be outdone for a very long time. This book is a wondrous journey through the history of what "Russia" and "Russianness" have meant, and the great triumphs and extraordinary sufferings of this country and its peoples. Figes tells us of the country's tremendous contribution to the world of culture and the equally tremendous price many had to pay to make it a better place to live.
Readers should be aware that this book and its author have engendered a great deal of controversy. His academic colleagues went after him on a witch hunt based on trivial errors in the book, revealing academics as many of them are: mean-spirited people who enjoy taking a colleague down a notch or two due to feel better about their own underachievements.
Figes is anything but an underachiever. His exemplary history of the 1917 Revolution caught many by surprise. Figes rewrote the history of that calamity in the widely acclaimed and widely selling "A People's Tragedy: The Russian Revolution 1891-1924." "Natasha's Dance" is the logical next step for this brilliant young historian.
What makes Figes a joy to read, while getting an education in the process, is his focus on people not the state. Russian history is replete with examples of the state attempting to force social change from the top down, but Figes reminds his readers that Russia also has a colorful history of free agency and efforts to create changes from the bottom. In addition, he forces us to understand that being an artist in Russia has always been considered a political statement: Poets were often deemed enemies of the state. There has probably been no other place in history where art has been so politicized.
This should not be the first book you read on Russia Figes is demanding of his audience. Even though his opus is more than 700 pages long, his commentary on Russia's most significant writers and artists will bewilder a novice without a basic knowledge of the country's political and social history. Those already initiated should buckle up and go on the colorful intellectual odyssey the author provides. The read is as enjoyable as it is well-researched. There is a new Russia in the making; the author provides the bricks and mortar you need to understand it.
For the most part, Figes' thesis is that the rising intelligentsia "took it upon themselves to create a national community of values and ideas through literature and the arts." The ideas of "Russia" and "Russianness" are relatively new, according to Figes, and he is correct. It was only in the 19th century that the Russian language was codified and the official national myths and traditions identified. Once this was firmly secured, Russia has never really looked back or to other cultures to ground its identity although its orientation to other cultures since, especially to the West, has continued to be a source of inspiration and torment.
Looking westward has historically informed Russia's elite about the poor state of its official culture. Emulating the West has also reminded Russia of what makes it different. Hence the title: The young gaulicized aristocrat Natasha in Tolstoy's "War and Peace" could still dance like a Russian peasant just because of her Russianness. For Figes, culture is not only learned; it is also experienced in a way that forms identity.
The only meaningful omissions to be observed in this extraordinary work are an awareness of how non-Russians contributed to the development of the country's cultural tradition and a lack of detail on the plight of the "engineers of the mind" during the Stalinist period up to the malaise of Brezhnev's pernicious "big sleep." Nonetheless, this is a profound work that should be on the bookshelf of anyone captivated by Russia and its peoples.
For Moscow-based readers, "Natasha's Dance" is available at the Anglia British Book Store for 1,500 rubles.