Saturday, March 29, 2008

Orlando Figes’s “Natasha’s Dance”: Mosh Pit or Mazurka?

Orlando Figes’s Natasha’s Dance: A Cultural History of Russia attempts, as Russians say, to embrace the unembraceable. Is it possible to reduce Russia’s cultural history and identity to 587 pages? Not really, so Figes reins in his material by embracing only selected topics, including the Decembrists, religion, Eastern influences, and Russians in emigration. He covers literature, fine art, and music, bookending the bulk of his narrative with Peter the Great’s selection of a site for St. Petersburg in 1703 and Igor Stravinskii’s 1962 trip to the USSR.

Natasha’s Dance enjoys enormous popularity, largely because it presupposes no familiarity with Russian history. Figes broadens its appeal by choosing some favorite figures for extended coverage. Some, such as serf singer Praskovia Sheremeteva and exiled Decembrist Sergei Volkonskii, don’t receive much attention among nonspecialists. Other profiles cover more familiar ground: writers Anna Akhmatova and Vladimir Nabokov, and composer Dmitrii Shostakovich.

Trying to cover so many people and art forms in so few pages can create writing dilemmas, and Natasha’s Dance ends up a chaotic piece of prose, a mosh pit of Russian culture. The book and I aren’t a close match, tastewise, particularly since I prefer chronological history and felt whipsawed when Figes shifted from century to century to fit his accounts into thematic silos.

The regrettably brief plot summary of Mikhail Bulgakov’s Soviet-era Master and Margarita, for example, lands not with its contemporaries in the “Russia Through the Soviet Lens” chapter, but toward the end of the “Moscow! Moscow!” chapter because “M&M” is based in Moscow. The next section after “Moscow! Moscow!” is the beginning of a new chapter, “The Peasant Marriage,” which goes back to 1874 to look at народники, or populists.

I also sometimes had the feeling Figes left out crucial material to avoid complicating his theses. The “Descendants of Genghis Khan” chapter, for example, begins with Vasilii Kandinskii’s (Vasily Kandinsky) 1889 anthropological research into paganism in the Komi region. Figes then drops back in time to Mongol horsemen of 1237. He ends the chapter by considering horses in Kandinskii’s paintings as dual shaman and religious symbols and draws in other examples of horses as symbols of Russia’s Asiatic legacy. Fine, but, oddly, Figes doesn’t mention Kandinskii’s depictions of horsemen of the apocalypse, and he ignores much of Kandinskii’s broader significance: his symbolist beliefs about colors and the fluid boundaries between painting and music, expressed in Concerning the Spiritual in Art.

These and other structural and informational peculiarities are frustrating, as are some of Figes’s grand statements, most of which add only superfluous drama. On page 228, for example: “Like an unsolved riddle, the peasant remained unknown and perhaps unknowable.” There are also rhetorical “burning” questions, like these regarding Russian identity, on page 366, “Were they Europeans or Asians? Were they the subjects of the Tsar or descendants of Genghis Khan?”

This portentous style contrasts sharply with the admirably measured tone of Figes’s The Whisperers, and Natasha’s Dance suffers, perhaps unfairly, because I read The Whisperers first. In The Whisperers Figes writes with restraint and respect as he addresses one aspect of Soviet history, the Stalin-era repression. His neutral tone allows voices from oral history to carry the book, showing the human impact of Joseph Stalin’s excesses against the Soviet population. (My review of The Whisperers.)

On the positive side, the breadth of material in Natasha’s Dance means there should be something new or interesting for most general readers or unmethodical specialists. I found some passages, such as the brief history of early Soviet cinema, entertaining, and I appreciated Figes’s examination of Lev Tolstoy’s War and Peace as a novel about how Decembrism grew out of the War of 1812. Although I thought the summaries of many novels became tedious because they lacked context and/or analysis, I hope they will inspire new readers.

One of the most useful aspects of the book is its end matter: notes, a chronology, and a detailed “Guide to Further Reading.” Figes’s bibliography includes two books that I read in college courses and recommend highly: Nicholas Riasanovsky’s A History of Russia and James Billington’s The Icon and the Axe: An Interpretive History of Russian Culture. I particularly enjoyed the Billington book, which looks at cultural and intellectual history beginning with Kievan Rus’ and ending with a contemplative section on “The Irony of Russian History.”

I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that Natasha’s Dance provoked a literary row in Great Britain when Rachel Polonsky published what was evidently a scathing review in the Times Literary Supplement in 2002. I haven’t read it because I couldn’t find it online, but The Complete Review posted an accounting of the matter in 2002. The fuss continued into this week (!) when The Guardian paid damages to Polonsky “after publishing defamatory allegations that her review of a book was motivated by some grudge or professional envy.” (Article.)

Summary: Although I don’t share the enthusiasm of many other readers for Natasha’s Dance, I think it is worth reading as an introduction to selected topics in Russian cultural history. Many figures in Figes’s peripheral vision receive short shrift in a book that, understandably, makes no attempt at balance or comprehensiveness. I can’t blame Figes for wanting to write about what he enjoys – that’s what I do, too – but Natasha’s Dance may disappoint readers looking for chronology or completeness.

Books mentioned in this posting:

The Whisperers: Private Life in Stalin's Russia
Natashas Dance: A Cultural History of Russia
The Icon and the Axe : An Interpretive History of Russian Culture
A History of Russia: Combined Volume


  1. Another useful review. Thanks especially for the recommendation of alternatives.

  2. Thanks for the review, Lisa. I have this one on my TBR-pile, but like you, I read The Whisperers first. Natasha's Dance seems like one of those book that you need to read one part of, then put it away to read something else and then pick it up again to read another part, not one to read from cover to cover at once.

  3. Myrthe, I think you're right! Continuity is minimal enough that you could read the chapters out of order and not lose much.

  4. Thanks for the review, it has helped me get a better understanding of this novel.

  5. 'Natasha's Dance' is not fiction of any kind but a work of cultural history.