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Natasha's Dance: A Cultural History of Russia Hardcover – October 21, 2002

4.5 out of 5 stars 110 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

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.

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 544 pages
  • Publisher: Metropolitan Books; 1st edition (October 21, 2002)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0805057838
  • ISBN-13: 978-0805057836
  • Product Dimensions: 5.9 x 2.2 x 10.7 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 2.5 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (110 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #422,648 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

By Bruce Loveitt on December 4, 2002
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
I usually like to give my reviews catchy little titles. I was going to call this one "Fabulous Figes". I finally decided it was more important to just come right out and say this is the best book I read this year. Of course, if we were in January or February, that statement wouldn't mean too much! (Kind of like movie reviews that come out early in the year..."Best Darn Romantic Comedy I've Seen...So Far!) Since we're in December, and considering I've read about 70 books this year, that makes the statement a little more impressive. Okay, so now I've got to "put my money where my mouth is" and tell you what makes "Natasha's Dance" so good. First, the book is beautifully written. It is lyrical, poignant, funny, thoughtful, etc. Like all good popular historians, Mr. Figes has a novelist's flair. Second, the book is wonderfully structured. The author decided to give each chapter a particular theme. So, despite the daunting task Mr. Figes has assigned himself (a cultural history of Russia!), the book doesn't ramble. It has a tight focus. On the other hand, there are enough themes covered that you don't feel anything relevant has been left out. Some of the themes that are covered: how Russian culture was influenced by both Asia and Western Europe; peasant life- the reality vs. how the urban intellectuals imagined it to be; Moscow vs. St. Petersburg (i.e.- their competition with each other, and changing fortunes as cultural centers); the search for the Russian soul- the religious beliefs of some of the famous Russian authors (Pushkin, Tolstoy, Gogol, Turgenev, Dostoevsky, Chekhov, etc.); the distortion and manipulation of culture by the Bolsheviks; and, finally, the effect that emigration from "Mother Russia" had on various cultural figures- such as Prokofiev, Rachmaninov, Stravinsky, Gorky and Nabokov.Read more ›
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Format: Hardcover
I disagree with the reviewer who finds this not quite "heavyweight" enough. It is not an academic book - and thank God for that - but a superb introduction to the history and the culture of Russia.
Figes starts with a wonderful account of the building of St Petersburg in the 1700s, and goes on to discuss the meaning of Europe to Russian culture in the eighteenth century. Europe caused a split in the Russian national identity - and much of Russian culture in the nineteenth century was concerned with how to reconcile the two almost contradictory halves of the Russian character: the native Russian (or Muscovite) and the European (or Petrine).
The next chapter takes up the story of 1812, when Russia's writers and artist first began to think about the ways of developing a distinctively "Russian style" in contrast to the West. This is when the Slavophiles were born. There are lots of fascinating details here - on the Russian customs of child-rearing, on interior design and Russian fashions.
The next three chapters explore various facets of Russian culture in the nineteenth century: the Moscow tradition; the romantic fascination with the Russian peasants (which Figes explores as a search for nationhood); and the influence of the Orthodox tradition on Russian literature and art.
Then there is a speculative chapetr on the cultural influence of the Asiatic steppe/ For me, this was the most original and the most interesting chapter in the book (Rachel Polonsky, in her hatchet-job review in the TLS doesn;t even mention it).
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Format: Hardcover
Although Figes takes the title from Natasha's dance in "War and Peace," he could have just as easily used Chichikov from "Dead Souls" as his vehicle, as he takes the reader along on a wild ride through Russia's rich cultural history. Figes explores his chapters thematically, exploring a compelling set of Russian ideas that revolve around the East-West duality that is so apparent in the works of great Russian artists, writers and musicians. Figes seems to be more at home when exploring the themes found in the great classical compositions, providing wonderful character sketches of composers such as Stravinsky, Prokofiev and Tchaikovsky.
He also takes on virtually all of the major Russian novels of the past two centuries, starting with "Eugene Onegin," noting the inspirations and the thoughts that pervaded these works. He notes that it was Pushkin who gave Russia a literary voice, which it would never forsake, as each writer that succeeded him built on the language he had to a large part invented. Ultimately, we get Nabokov's thoughts on the subject as Figes covers the emigres in the concluding chapter. Nabokov imagined himself as a latter-day Pushkin, devoting a considerable amount of time to a translation and analysis of Pushkin's great literary work, before embarking on his own major works.
Figes captures the mood and energy of the time, the tumultuous reign of the Tsars, their Tatar origins, their identification with Byzantine, the Decembrist revolt and the Bolshevik Revolution. He casts a light on some of the major figures of the time, such as Volkhonsky who defied the Tsar and was sentenced to Siberia. Rather than submit to the elements, Volkhonsky rose to become a people's hero, greatly inspiring the works of Pushkin and Tolstoy.
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