So what kind of book are you reading on holiday this summer? A murder-mystery perhaps? Or a heart-warming romance? How about nearly 600 pages on the cultural history of Russia? It perhaps isn’t the first thing that springs to mind but if you haven’t packed your suitcase yet, I’d recommend adding a copy of Natasha’s Dance by Orlando Figes. I took it on my holiday and it actually turned out to be something of a page-turner – very readable, engaging and interesting.
The book covers the history of Russia from the founding of St Petersburg in 1703 through to the early 1970s, and as it does so Figes explains how Russian art in almost every conceivable form – literature, classical music, fine arts, opera, ballet and even film – developed within its historical context. Figes ability to weave these two things together – the history and the culture – is where the true genius of the book lies. Figes uses the history to provide insight into the culture, and very much uses the arts to add colour and interest to the history. For example he illustrates the devotion of a group of women who followed their husbands into Siberian exile (following the failed Decembrist revolution in 1825) with this section of the poem Natalia Dolgorukaya by Ryleev:
I have forgotten my native city,
Wealth, honours and family name
To share with him Siberia’s cold
And endure the inconstancy of fate.
And he uses Anna Akhmatova’s poem, Requiem to illustrate the horror of the Stalin-era:
This was when the ones who smiled
Were the dead, glad to be at rest.
You might suspect that a book that is so broad in scope might focus on the big issues – wars and rulers etc, but one of the things about the book that makes it so readable is that it takes the time to focus on everyday life – marriage ceremonies for example and attitudes to bringing up children. Take for example this account of a peasant woman’s arranged marriage from Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin:
And I was just thirteen that year.
The marriage maker kept on calling
For two whole weeks to see my kin,
Till father blessed me and gave in.
Or Tolstoy’s account from Anna Karenina of how noble families insisted their children spoke French instead of Russian:
“What is it Tanya?” she said in French to the little girl who had come in. “Where’s my spade, Mama?”
“I am speaking French , and you must answer in French”. The little girl tried to, but she could not remember the French for spade.”
But the history isn’t just illustrated by literary accounts, the book includes over twenty colour pictures of works by painters, along with photographs and even a drawing of a set design for an opera – all of which help to bring the book alive. I also found myself wondering if there was an audio version of the book with the relevant music as I found myself downloading clips of Musorgsky and Prokofiev concerts so I could understand more clearly the points about the development of Russian music.
Some of the most memorable passages of the book are personal stories of the artists and the times they lived in. Tolstoy, for example, desperately wanted to live like a peasant (peasants were seen as guardians of the true Russian culture) and sometimes spent all day working in the fields but then would come home and dress for dinner served by waiters in white gloves! Stories from the Stalin-era are much sadder. I felt the heartache of Boris Pasternak who was Stalin’s favourite poet. Being favoured meant he escaped the hardships of the time but sadly couldn’t escape his own guilt at being unable to help those who were suffering. The story of Stravinsky’s return to Russia in 1962 (much of it told through the eyes of his assistant, Robert Craft) is a particularly moving account of an exile’s return full of lots of wonderful detail, from his reaction to seeing the Marinsky Theatre again, to how easily he slipped into speaking a Russian full of childhood phrases and expressions.
Happily for me, Figes (who is a Professor of History at Birkbeck College, University of London) doesn’t assume his readers have any prior knowledge of Russian history so the book served both as a useful introduction to the history of the country and to its culture. The only section where I could have done with a little more historical detail was the aftermath of the 1917 revolution as for some reason Figes rattled through that quite quickly. I can only assume that’s because one of his previous books is focused on the revolution and he didn’t want to repeat himself – or perhaps, more cynically, he’s hoping you might go and buy that book too?!
Actually I might well read more of his books – he has written several about Russia – because he writes very well with an easy-to-read, engaging style. After having read Natasha’s Dance I now also have a whole list of art galleries I want to visit, books to read, and I definitely plan to make more time to go to classical music concerts while I am here.