An immensely learned, ambitious effort to view Russian history through the lens of its arts, music, and literature.
A skilled practitioner of both narrative and intellectual history, Figes (History/Univ. of London; A People’s Tragedy, 1997, etc.) takes his title from a scene in War and Peace in which the highly cultured Natasha Rostov forgetting the French-influenced mores of the court to perform, enthusiastically and precisely, a Russian peasant dance. Natasha has never performed that dance, but she somehow knows it in her bones—just as, Russian intellectuals have long insisted, there is something genetic, something inborn, about “Russianness.” Figes charts the growth of this sense of difference over generations, as Russians eventually shed the Western-imitating ways of Peter the Great (whose capital, Petersburg, “differs from all other European cities by being like them all,” according to Alexander Herzen) to create their own sense of identity. This Russianness borrowed from many traditions; there is no single authentic Russian culture, Figes insists, any more than there is a single American one, “no quintessential national culture, only mythic images of it.” Natasha’s dance, for instance, takes in Mongol, Persian, Kazakh, ethnic Russian, and other cultures, just as Petersburg was built of stone from Finland, Sweden, Poland, Germany, Italy, and the Low Countries alongside Russian limestone. Just so, Soviet culture was an amalgam of traditions, continuous with its predecessors though with a peculiar purpose: to “train the human mind to see the world in a more socialistic way through new art forms.” A high level of seriousness pervades this excellent study, but Figes still has great fun with his subject, as when he recounts a testy meeting between Stravinsky and Shostakovich, both of them sitting in complete silence until Shostakovich asked, “ ‘What do you think of Puccini?’ ‘I can’t stand him,’ Stravinsky replied. ‘Oh, and neither can I, neither can I,’ said Shostakovich.”
A superb, enlightening work.