Natasha's Dance. A Cultural History of Russia by Orlando Figes


Natasha’s Dance. A Cultural History of Russia

by Orlando Figes


Natasha’s Dance is a spectacular, fascinating, intelligent, and in places, a very touching piece of work.


Although it is about Russian cultural history, it often felt more like a psychological and philosophical study of the “Russian soul” throughout the centuries. As if Russia had been lying on a couch and was being analyzed by various artists, intellectuals, nobles, serfs, and statesmen who were all trying to figure out who she was exactly, what she wanted, and how she wanted to be seen in the world. Existential questions, really.


From Peter the Great who founded St. Petersburg in 1703 and wanted Russia to be more European to the horrific years of Stalin’s terror and then up to the 1960’s.


This is a huge subject and just the amount of research that must have gone into this 586 page book (plus notes and lists for further reading) is awe-inspiring. Orlando Figes covers big themes and cultural movements, much of it through the eyes of painters, writers, and musicians. I learned so much that I wouldn’t even know where to begin listing it all, but I was fascinated by the customs he describes throughout the centuries, both those of the nobles and the peasants.


Details and anecdotes give life to the pages and there is even a shopping list of all the things one nobleman wanted to have imported from Europe in the late 18th century, which included things like 240 pounds of parmesan and 24 pairs of lace cuffs for nightshirts.  Only 12 pounds of coffee from Martinique though. I thought that a bit meager, considering how many pounds of coffee we drink in this household and we’re not in the habit of holding balls for thousands of people.


A section titled “Descendents of Genghiz Khan” starts off with Kandinsky’s travels to a remote Komi-region in 1889 to study Finno-Ugric beliefs because he thought he might want to become an anthropologist before he became an artist.


The bits about Tolstoy were also especially interesting as he seemed to be torn between wanting to live a simple peasant life yet he enjoyed the luxuries of his large estate (funnily enough, Tolstoy himself would make a great character for a novel!) and Chekhov was one of my favorites; I definitely want to read his works and also more about his life now. So you see, Natasha's Dance is kind of like a drug for those of us with a slight addiction to books and reading—it just makes you want more of the same…


Natasha’s Dance is just the kind of history book I love. It’s so captivating and well written that I was literally immersed in a different world, much like what happens with a really good novel. Many a household chore was left undone because I thought I’d read just a few pages before getting to work… Now I’m excited to read even more, but first I’ll have to page through Natasha’s Dance again to take another look at the dozens of passages I’ve marked with little sticky notes.


Cпасибо, Mr. Figes!


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