Natasha's Dance A Cultural History of Russia

Orlando Figes




Trade Paperback

768 Pages


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A New York Times Notable Book
Shortlisted for the Samuel Johnson Prize

Orlando Figes's A People's Tragedy, Eric Hobsbawm wrote, did "more to help us understand the Russian Revolution than any other book I know." Now, in Natasha's Dance, he does the same for Russian culture, summoning the myriad elements that formed a nation and held it together.

Beginning in the eighteenth century with the building of St. Petersburg—a "window on the West"—and culminating with the challenges posed to Russian identity by the Soviet regime, Figes examines how writers, artists, and musicians grappled with the idea of Russia itself: its character, spiritual essence, and destiny. What did it mean to be Russian—an illiterate serf or an imperial courtier? Figes interweaves the great works, by Dostoevsky and Chekhov, Stravinsky and Chagall, with folk embroidery, peasant songs, religious icons, and all the customs of daily life, from food and drink to bathing habits to beliefs about the spirit world. His characters range high and low: Tolstoy, who left his deathbed to search for the Kingdom of God; the serf girl Praskovya, who became the Russian opera's first superstar and shocked society by becoming her owner's wife; Stravinsky, who returned to Russia after fifty years in the West and discovered that the homeland he had left had never left his heart.

Like the European-schooled countess Natasha performing an impromptu folk dance in War and Peace, the spirit of "Russianess" is revealed by Figes as rich and uplifting, complex and contradictory—a powerful force that unified a vast, riven country and proved more lasting than any Russian ruler or state.


Praise for Natasha's Dance

"A sweeping cultural survey of Russia over the past three centuries—consistently rich and thought provoking."—The Economist

"Absolutely brimming with ideas, full of unforgettable stories and characters, Natasha's Dance tells a most remarkable story: How a backward country, obsessed with its backwardness, managed in a single century to produce the most passionate, innovative, searching art and literature of any Western society, in the process transforming Western culture as a whole. In the telling, Orlando Figes displays his gift for narrative power, his love of telling detail, and his great compassion for the lunatics and geniuses who fill his pages. Extraordinary."—Michael Ignatieff

"Stunning and ambitious . . . Its thematic chapters examine such subjects as art, customs, folklore, religion, cuisine, education, and—most important—the works of novelists, poets, composers, historians, philosophers, and choreographers. Figes captures nothing less than Russians' complex and protean notions regarding their national identity, and their tortured and not infrequently violent efforts to define and determine it."—The Atlantic Monthly

"Figes' new work goes far more deeply and profoundly into that aggregation of feelings, attitudes, and hopes than any political or social approach could. A revealing and stimulating effort."—Robert Conquest, author of The Harvest of Sorrow and The Great Terror

"A most welcome sequel to Figes's much-praised history of the Russian Revolution . . . Figes succeeds in describing the extraordinary scope and power of Russian culture—and in outlining its great themes and issues—in a way that gives the reader a far better understanding of Russia than any history focusing solely on the progress of autocrats, wars and conquests . . . One welcome feature is that it draws much of its material directly from original Russian sources, giving a firsthand taste of the richness and variety of Russian art that scholarly works often exclude . . . Natasha's Dance covers enormous ground, ranging across the impact of the Mongol occupation, the influence of Russian Orthodoxy, the ravages of Stalinism and its attempt to harness art to its ideological agenda through the doctrine of Socialist Realism and the Russians in exile."—Serge Schmemann, The New York Times Book Review

"A joyous work, clearly inspired by admiration and affection for the diverse figures who, for all their contradictions and self-deluding myths, helped create one of the world's most vibrant cultures."—The New Leader

"Sharp and original . . . beautifully wrought . . . an ambitious cultural synthesis."—The Boston Globe

"Staggering . . . A vivid, entertaining, and enlightening account of what it has meant to be culturally a Russian over the last three centuries."—Los Angeles Times

"Impressively wide-ranging . . . Figes is unlike anyone else in the vast range of information he draws on, in the vigor and intensity of his writing, in his eye for the dramatic detail, and most of all in the use he makes of private lives to illustrate the themes . . . he so generously explores in Natasha's Dance."—Joseph Frank, The London Review of Books

"A tour de force by the great scholarly storyteller of modern Russian historians . . . Just as all things Russian require the hyperbolic superlative, so do Figes' Russian histories: he has done it again. Written beautifully, with striking wit, joie de vivre and learning worn lightly, magnificently and broadly researched, with brilliant but simple analysis, this superb, flamboyant, and masterful tour d'horizon is fun, anecdotal, and fascinating, colorful and playful."—Simon Seba-Montefiore, Financial Times (London)

"Figes' description of the evolution of the Russian national identity is so successful and so much fun to read that I hesitate to write too much about it, for fear of spoiling the pleasures and surprises of the book for its potential audience . . . The themes are in some sense obvious: the national obsession with the 'Russian soul'; the split between the Europeanised culture of the aristocrats and the native culture of the peasants; the influence (and the reaction against) the West—yet Figes has written about them in fresh and unusual ways."—Anne Applebaum, The Sunday Telegraph

"Magnificent . . . This book examines the tangled roots of nationhood and culture . . . A joy to read."—Robert Service, The Guardian

"An immensely learned, ambitious effort to view Russian history through the lens of its arts, f0music, and literature . . . A superb, enlightening work."—Kirkus Reviews

"Even if one takes nothing else away from this elegant, tightly focused survey of Russian culture, it's impossible to forget the telling little anecdotes that University of London history professor Figes relates about Russia's artists, writers, musicians, intellectuals and courtiers as he traces the cultural movements of the last three centuries. He shares Ilya Repin's recollection of how peasants reacted to his friend Leo Tolstoy's fumbling attempts to join them in manual labor ('Never in my life have I seen a clearer expression of irony on a simple peasant's face') . . . Full of resounding moments like these, Figes's book focuses on the ideas that have preoccupied Russian artists in the modern era: Just what is 'Russianness,' and does the quality come from its peasants or its nobility, from Europe or from Asia? He examines canonical works of art and literature as well as the lives of their creators: Tolstoy, Tchaikovsky, Chagall, Stanislavsky, Eisenstein and many others. Figes also shows how the fine arts have been influenced by the Orthodox liturgy, peasant songs and crafts, and myriad social and economic factors from Russian noblemen's unusual attachments to their peasant nannies to the 19th-century growth of vodka production. The book's thematically organized chapters are devoted to subjects like the cultural influence of Moscow or the legacy of the Mongol invasion, and with each chapter Figes moves toward the 1917 revolution and the Soviet era, deftly integrating strands of political and social history into his narrative. This is a treat for Russophiles and a unique introduction to Russian history."—Publishers Weekly

Reviews from Goodreads



  • Orlando Figes

  • Orlando Figes is the author of A People's Tragedy, recipient of the Wolfson Prize for History and the Los Angeles Times Book Prize, among others. A regular contributor to The New York Times, The Washington Post, and The New York Review of Books, he is a professor of history at the University of London. He lives in Cambridge, England.

  • Orlando Figes
    Orlando Figes