A People's Tragedy, wrote Eric Hobsbawm, did "more to help us understand the Russian Revolution than any other book I know." Now, in Natasha's Dance, internationally renowned historian Orlando Figes 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. He skillfully interweaves the great works by Dostoevsky, 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. Figes's characters range high and low: the revered Tolstoy, who left his deathbed to search for the Kingdom of God, as well as the serf girl Praskovya, who became Russian opera's first superstar and shocked society by becoming her owner's wife.
Like the European-schooled countess Natasha performing an impromptu folk dance in Tolstoy's War and Peace, the spirit of "Russianness" is revealed by Figes as rich and uplifting, complex and contradictory a powerful force that unified a vast country and proved more lasting than any Russian ruler or state.
|Publisher:||Penguin Group (USA) Incorporated|
|Product dimensions:||5.91(w) x 9.06(h) x (d)|
About the Author
Orlando Figes is the author of A People's Tragedy, and 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 Times Literary Supplement, he is a professor of history at the University of London. He lives in Cambridge, England.
Read an Excerpt
With the shift of political power to St. Petersburg, Moscow became the capital of the good life for the nobility. Its grandees gave themselves to sensual amusement. Count Rakhmanov, for example, spent his whole inheritance in eight years ofgastronomy. He fed his poultry with truffles. He kept his crayfish in cream and parmesan instead of water. And he had his favorite fish, found only in the Sosna River a thousand miles away, delivered live to Moscow every day. Count Stroganov gave "Roman dinners" his guests lay on couches and were served by naked boys. Caviar and herring cheeks were typical hors d'oeuvres. Next came salmon lips, bear paws, and roast lynx. Then they had cuckoos roasted in honey, halibut liver, and burbot roe; oysters, poultry, and fresh figs; salted peaches and pineapples. Afterward, they would go into the banya and drink, eating caviar to build up a real thirst . . . Petersburgers despised Moscow for its sinful idleness, yet no one could deny its Russian character.
Orlando Figes is the author of A People's Tragedy and the 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 Times Literary Supplement, he is a professor of history at the University of London. He lives in Cambridge, England.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
This long but very readable book opens with an account of the scene in " War and Peace" where Natasha visits her "Uncle" in the country. Invited to join in a folk dance she does so, moving by instinct to rhythms seemingly alien to a well bred girl of her time when European culture held sway with Russian Aristocrats. " ....the spirit and the movements were those inimitable and unteachable Russian ones that "Uncle" had expected of her."With this engaging start, Orlando Figes sweeps us into an absorbing story of Russia, it's People. History and Culture. I learned much that I had never known. Reading of Russia's size and diversity, the ethnic mix making up her peoples, the dominance of the Tsarist regime and the influence of Byzantium , all added layers of knowledge to what I already knew of this country.There is a fascinating chapter on Religion. The Russian Orthodox Church with it's roots in the East did not satisfy all needs and it was interesting to read about the Monastery of Optina Pustyn where a major revival of the medieval hermetic tradition took place, with a hermitage built within it's walls.There is plenty on dissent within the Russian state and I was fascinated to read the story of the Decembrists, mainly aristocrats who bonded with the peasants during the Napoleonic invasion of 1812 and then concocted a hapless revolt against the ruling order. They paid dearly for it, and Figes focuses on the story of Sergei Volkonsky who lost his land, rank and status, being exiled to Siberia. His loyal wife earned plaudits for joining him, a fate she could have avoided.There is much more one could say, and it is hard to pick out highlights in a richly textured book, packed with incident, fascinating characters and with the epic sweep one would expect of a book covering such a long period and turbulent history.Figes method is to intertwine aspects of his narrative, with particular focus on certain personages such as the Volkonsky and Sheremetev families. In the chapter on Soviet Russia, the Revolutionary period is refracted through the experience of the poet Anna Akhmatova, allowing a different perspective on events one thought one knew about. It took me a long time to read this book but it was such a worthwhile experience that I do not grudge a second I spent on it.