Orlando Figes has become better known these days for his “scandalous” behaviour in rubbishing the work of fellow Russian historian Robert Service by anonymous comment. Personally, I’d say this was all fair comment: I’ve tried reading a book by Service, and you’ll little that’s more dry and tedious. Figes, on the other hand, is a wonderful read.
Natasha’s Dance is a cultural history of Russia. It’s not told chronologically – not strictly at least, though I suppose it does vaguely follow the customary passage of time – but rather by theme, or perhaps one might even say place (if we were to understand place, at least, as indicating an area in the space-time continuum). For each division, he then chooses an individual (an artist), who is used as a base from which to start the section and a cadence on which to finish it, but in between rambles off at any tangent he feels inclined, thus giving I think a far more rounded (because random) picture of Russia than you’d get from your average history. (One can’t help thinking of the enthusiastic lecturer who always has an anecdote to exemplify every occasion).
To take the last two chapters as examples, on, respectively, culture under the Soviet regime, and culture within the vast disapora that was driven out by said regime. The first takes as its start and end point the poet Anna Akhmatova, who – if at least, as is likely, you’re going to choose an opponent of the regime – is the obvious bet since she stayed in the Soviet Union and lived through it all; but wanders off, as the inclination takes him, to Mandelstam and Shostakovich, Eisenstein and Pilnyak. Then the second uses Marina Tsvetaeva for the same purpose, to represent the exiled brigade: their opposition to the regime, but the terrible nostalgia that draws them back – in Tsvetaeva’s case to her death – bringing in again – as he goes along – Nabokov and his conversion to English, Prokofiev and Stravinsky, Kandinsky and Chagall, even Maxim Gorky – some of whom returned, others didn’t.
Anyway, it’s a wonderful introduction to Russian culture, placed a lot of the literature in particular into context for me, and in general enthused me to read yet more Russian books.