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Natasha's Dance: A Cultural History of Russia

Book review by Edna Boardman, Bismarck, North Dakota

Figes, Orlando. Natasha’s Dance: A Cultural History of Russia. New York: Henry Holt, Metropolitan Books, 2002.


The lives of the Germans in Russia were greatly affected by what was going on in the minds of the intellectuals and gentry and what was taking place in Moscow and St. Petersburg even if they didn'¹t always know it. This history of Russia's cultural evolution from the late 1600s to the present day will be most instructive to the German Russian who is curious about the larger culture in which the colonists found themselves.

Modern Russian history began with Peter the Great, the czar who grew up hanging around the German Quarter of Moscow soaking up the learning of western Europe. He decided that Russia was backward, and when he became czar, he devoted tremendous energy to turning the country around. He went to the capitals of western Europe to see how they talked and acted and ate, how they built ships and designed buildings and governed themselves. He couldn't help noticing that the French and English and Dutch and Italians regarded Russians as barbarian and primitive. (Peter's men once trashed an English palace they were given to occupy, apparently unaware they were doing anything wrong.) He decided to build a new capital combining western European and Russian elements, and so, despite terrible human cost, St. Petersburg was built.

For much of the next 200 years, the aristocracy of Russia adopted many of the customs, the language, and way of acting of western Europe, especially the French. This couldn't last indefinitely, of course, but when eventually there was a backlash, it was mostly the fault of the French. Napoleon sought to conquer Russia in 1812. When the Russians saw that his army was going to thrust all the way to Moscow, the Russians evacuated and burned it, destroying some four fifths of the city. It was winter, there were no supplies, and when the army tried to make it back to France, most of the soldiers died. The Russians let old man winter do most of their fighting.

Here are some elements Figes treats in this book:

Beginning around the time of Alexander I, the czar who invited the Black Sea Germans to come to Russia, there was a great passion among the aristocracy to rediscover their Russian roots. It wasn't easy. They sought to unlearn many of their French ways and replace them with Russian elements. This strengthened an east-west conflict within the Russian identity.

Russia developed its own distinctive literature, music, art, and architecture. In the process, they drew heavily from the culture of the peasants, whom for awhile they imagined to be pure and innocent, much as the Indians in America were once viewed as noble savages. The Aristocracy took notice of the peasants' folklore, music, dance, superstitions, dress, religion, crafts and decorative arts, language...

This caused some wrenching change because Russia had a long history of looking down on the working classes called peasants and serfs. The relationship among the classes was very conflicted. While the nobles were supported in a luxurious lifestyle by the labors of the enslaved serfs, they commonly regarded them as subhuman, without feelings or worth. Their labor was commandeered to build mansions and roads, produce food for sumptuous banquets, and entertain the aristocracy with operas, plays, and orchestras. Serf "whipping boys" would take the punishments for noble boys' misdeeds, and nobles sometimes took serf women as mistresses. Many nobles and their ladies treated Serfs cruelly, though most of them had been raised by serf wet nurses and nannies who told them stories and sang and sometimes took them to serf events. Many loved and sheltered their nannies all their lives. During hunting forays and during the War of 1812, noblemen got to know serfs on a more equal basis and saw in them the cultural roots they had been taught to disdain.

Figes, for his information and insights, digs deeply into works of Russian literature (poetry, novels including science fiction, which was more mainstream from its start than it was in the west), art, drama, dance (folk dances and ballet), and music to trace the evolution of a Russian style and a Russian identity and spirit. This pattern proved true in both czarist and communist times. The musicianship became high level and included both folk instruments and western-style orchestras. Serfs were trained to perform even at high levels.

Religion as practiced in the Orthodox Church was defined in terms of ritual, not in terms of theology, as evolved in the west. Catastrophic persecution was related to changes in which church officials tried to return the people to what they thought were more authentic Greek forms. Old Believers persisted despite the most horrendous pressures. Big but not only issue: Should a person make the sign of the cross with two fingers or three? The faith of the people had a mystical edge as exemplified in the life of the monasteries, in the sects that proliferated, and in the veneration of the odd character of the Holy Fool or staretz (Rasputin was a type). Christianity, practices drawn from ancient paganism, and sometimes reasoning existed side by side.

Figes wades into terra incognita for many readers when he explores the cultural contributions of the Mongols who ruled Russia for several centuries. When the khanates broke up, many of their people settled among the Russians. Language, names, and customs of all kinds can be traced to Asiatics.

Some very disparate elements fall under the definition of culture: The common use of whips to punish, romanticizing of the steppes and the peasant culture, a tradition of vodka drinking, especially among the aristocracy; not every day necessarily but, when it was used, imbibed to drunkenness. The switch from many years of using French back to Russian, and that throughout the country. The very long admiration of the Decembrists, an intellectual protest group put down and dispersed by Nicholas I.

In a chapter on communist times, Figes describes a nation so different from czarist Russia it hardly seems he's talking about the same country. In its early days, social change was promoted by intellectual idealists who envisioned a utopia in which none of the old social rules applied. They sought to eliminate the class structure (not too bad an idea), marriage, religion, and old forms of government, but nothing they tried worked for long. Then the paranoid hardliners came to power with their terror and and censorship. Art, music, film, drama, and literature were pressed to become instruments of the state and socialist realism, but the arts remained powerful cultural forces in a manner to which Americans have a hard time relating. Western governments tend not to put poets under surveillance. World War II provided a respite because people had to work together, but afterwards surveillance and suspicion, arrests and torture were reinstated. The intellectual community under Stalin was always under a cloud, but he could never eliminate the arts entirely.

The final chapter deals with the emigre community that established itself in foreign countries after 1917. Some 3 million Russians fled the country and settled in communities in Berlin, Paris, New York, Hollywood, and other population centers around the world. There they wrote books, composed music (concert-goers today rarely attend a concert without hearing the music that welled from this talented group), and performed dance, especially ballet. They longed for their mother country, but most of the few that returned found themselves in grave danger. Though they disagreed about what their country was and should become, they challenged the communist system and helped interpret it to the rest of the world.

This is not an easy book to read, but it contains some powerful insights on the larger culture of the country in which the Germans in Russia lived. I found myself skimming the literary analyses, though these would be valuable to students of the impact of the arts on a culture. The book was very long--almost 800 pages--but in that Figes almost totally ignored the culture of the German colonies and presumably that of other minorities, it could easily have run twice as long. Since scholarly works like this do not include the Germans from Russia (it just hints at their hardships and dispersal), they point up the necessity for the German-Russians themselves to do what is necessary to fill the gap.

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