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
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
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.