Orlando Figes: Natasha’s Dance

February 2, 2022

Anyone who has read any Russian literature or history must be aware of how different a nation Russia feels compared with ourselves or other European nations; sadly this awareness never seems to percolate down to politicians… Agains the current backdrop of the Ukraine crisis, I was constantly struck by the lack of ability or willingness of Western leaders and politicians to see the world from the perspective of Russia and its people, which might actually inform a more helpful and sensible response to them. But we are incapable of going beyond the triumphalism of “we won the Cold War”. It was in the hope of digging deeper and understanding more, that I finally opened this tome which I’d bought nearly 20 years ago.

Figes offers an excellent, clear and detailed contextual background at the start, and this is possibly the best part of the book, as he takes us far back into the country’s history. Russia had no experience of the Renaissance, and no religious Reformation: here are two major differences which set it apart from the rest of Europe. Then there is the power of Orthodox Church rule, which I’d never really grasped, and it gradually became clear how the church developed into an arm of the state and its power as time passes, far more a part of the establishment than the Church of England is here, for example, with there being only the one faith in Russia. Then there were the long years of Tatar rule. And serfdom, an idea we have no conception of here in the West, and it struck me quite forcefully how Stalin’s labour camps were in many ways a return to that idea, an almost endless supply of slave labour at the service of the rulers.

The idea that you could send troublemakers to Siberia – thousands of miles away – reminded me that we transported criminals to the American colonies and later to Australia, but Russia sent away clever people, intellectuals, dangerous thinkers, and then eventually allowed a lot of them to return home.

Figes documents the relationship between Russia and Europe, or rather the relationship between the Russian intellectuals, aristocracy and bourgeoisie and Europe, for the peasantry and serfs were a class completely apart. Does Russia belong in Europe or not? This is a question which still poses itself today, even though in different terms. From an incredibly wide knowledge of Russian history, art, literature and culture generally, Figes shows us the love/hate relationship which has endured for centuries: Russian feelings of inferiority when they compared themselves with what Europe had attained culturally and economically, and equally the Russian sense of purity and superiority when faced with what they perceived as our decadence…

Russians sought to imitate us, and then to derive and develop something better and more specifically Russian from their encounters with the West, but the pull (and the repulsion) has always been there. This ambivalence has been long-lasting as over centuries the country sought to define and understand itself in relation to the west. Is the famed Russian soul, the Russian psyche, really different from ours?

We eventually move on to the idea that Russians are somehow prone to collective emotion and political excess, which Figes illustrates by reference to the Populists of the 19th century and the Bolsheviks of the 20th. He sees a quasi-religious angle to the Russian revolution, anchored in the nation’s past. Soviets wrestled with how to transform the backwardness of Russian society, and their attempts were too radical and wide-ranging to have succeeded anywhere, perhaps least of all in such a backward nation. Excesses developed easily and were widespread.

Where the book falls down, in my estimation, is in the burden of too much detail, too much reference to the minutiae of various paintings, operas, ballets etc. In places it’s repetitive, in others it doesn’t make for clarity when you can’t see the paintings, for example; there are some illustrations included, but too few for the general reader to follow Figes’ analysis.

The section on Soviet art and culture feels very much tacked on to the rest of the book and not linked with Figes general thesis; clearly late capitalism and its effects were much more extreme in that country than in the rest of Europe, which links in with the idea that Russia did not go through the bourgeois phase, in the Marxist interpretation of history and economic development. I got the impression that Figes regards the art and culture of the Soviet era as an aberration; he is almost dismissive of it. He spends as much time on emigres as the homeland. However, he is interesting on artists’ experiences of exile, and how its effects were far broader than we can imagine.

Russia is obviously a country of extremes, and this must be connected with the sheer physical vastness of the country; even the USA, another vast and extreme nation in some ways, is only half the size. The church is very much a tool of the state; it reinforced Tsarist power, and was even invoked by Stalin in the darkest days of the Great Patriotic War. It is very different from Western Christianity, anchored in ritual, rather than based on theology.

It’s a useful book and I learned quite a lot from it; my sense of the background to Russian history is rather clearer, and yet the overall effect was not as coherent as I had hoped.

One Response to “Orlando Figes: Natasha’s Dance”

  1. penwithlit Says:

    Reblogged this on penwithlit and commented:
    Interesting about the Orthodox Church which has quite recently become independent from Russia in the Ukraine. Altogether a complex topic, don’t you think? It is on my lengthening tbr list!!

    Like


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: