Subtitled “A Cultural History of Russia”, this is a book that should be right up my street, and has been lurking on Mount TBR for far too long! I did wonder if embarking on another chunkster (nearly 600 pages of small-ish type) was a good plan after “Anna Karenina” earlier in the month; but reading Tolstoy has put me in the mood for more Russian-ness and I liked the idea of a study of Slavic culture.


Figes is, of course, eminently eligible to write such a book as he is a Professor of History and specialises in Russia – in fact, I have his “A People’s Tragedy” also lurking on the Mount, but it looks even bigger and longer so will probably stay there a while! “Natasha’s Dance” famously takes its title from an episode in Tolstoy’s “War and Peace” where the aristocratic Countess Rostova performs a peasant dance purely from intuition, and the book looks at what it means to be Russian. Although called a ‘cultural’ history, the book’s range is wide, beginning with the ‘children of 1812’, the revolutionary Decembrists and their progeny.

Rather than structure the history in a sequential way, Figes instead chooses each section to focus upon a particular aspect of the empire and its culture. Thus, one chapter will cover religion and the search for the Russian soul; another the Asiatic inheritance of the people; yet another how culture survived (or didn’t) under the Soviet rule.

This is eminently readable history: peppered with personal stories, Figes excels in picking out individuals to support his story (from Tolstoy to Dostoevsky to Akhmatova to Stravinsky to Stasov and all points in-between). Because of the book’s structure, the same characters turn up more than once, but in a different context, and thus as you read the book you gain a really wide view of the history of the Russian Empire. And the detail is breathtaking: there are footnotes, but not too many; but it is the number of references that is staggering and makes you realise the breadth of Figes’ knowledge and research, and quite how much work has gone into this volume.

Each chapter uncovers stories of survival and resilience, and also heart-wrenching stories of suffering and loss; one of the stand-outs being the tale of Marina Tsvetaeva and her inability to copy with physical and cultural exile. Figes does not pull his punches, and punctures the myth of the good Russian peasant with chilling tales of brutality (which in all truth had been modelled from the top echelons downwards, from the time of Ivan the Terrible onwards). It’s fascinating to watch him relate how a myth has been built up, and then dismantle it later on in the book!


The richness of the Russian culture as reflected here is immense, and one of the biggest pluses about the book is the context it gives you. I’ve read a lot of Russian books and I like a lot of Russian paintings and music, but “Natasha’s Dance” gives such a good overview that you can see how the works of art you are enjoying sit in the culture and relate to other elements.

The final chapter, which focuses on émigré culture, was exceptionally moving and I found Figes’ thoughts on Nabokov particularly interesting. Certainly, so many of the Russian writers and artists were unable to function when uprooted from their native soil, and the impression gained is that the disparate people pulled together into a large empire were united by their love of the land. As Figes points out:

“A culture is more than a tradition. It cannot be contained in a library, let alone the ‘eight slim volumes’ which the exiles packed up in their bags. It is something visceral, emotional, instinctive, a sensibility that shapes the personality and binds that person to a people and a place.”

This was a deeply absorbing, fascinating and enjoyable read – highly recommended to anyone with a love of all things Russian!