From Publishers Weekly
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 (A People's Tragedy) 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"), as well as the three sentences Shostakovich shyly exchanged with his idol, Stravinsky, when the latter returned to the Soviet Union after 50 years of exile (" `What do you think of Puccini?' `I can't stand him,' Stravinsky replied. `Oh, and neither can I, neither can I' "). 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.
Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information, Inc.
From Library Journal
Figes (history, Univ. of London; A People's Tragedy) describes the twists and turns of Russian history through cultural and artistic events from the founding of Rus in the 12th century through the Soviet era. He uses Tolstoy's War and Peace as a centerpiece of art imitating life. The title of Figes's book comes from the scene in which Natasha Rostov and her brother Nikolai are invited by their "uncle" to a rustic cabin to listen to him play Russian folk music on his guitar. Natasha instinctively begins a folk dance that is prompted by "unknown feelings in her heart." Tolstoy would have us believe that "Russia may be held together by unseen threads of native sensibilities," writes Figes. Nowhere is the clash between the European culture of the upper class and the Russian culture of the peasantry more evident. "The complex interactions between these two worlds had a crucial influence on the national consciousness and on all the arts of the 19th century." This interaction is a major feature of this book, which traces the formation of a culture. The writing style is distinctly nonacademic, making for a very enjoyable read. Recommended for academic and public libraries. Harry Willems, Southeast Kansas Lib. Syst., Iola
Copyright 2002 Reed Business Information, Inc.