Dying in their cloth - Orlando Figes:Natasha's Dance: A Cultural History of Russia

Russia was described by Winston Churchill as "a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma". It was a conventional thought, eccentrically expressed.

Russian high culture and its conundrums ravished the western 19th-century imagination. The novelists Turgenev, Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky conquered Europe. Even Turgenev, whose prose was carefully coutured, depicted the sharp edges of Russian life. Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky, though, were out on their own. Their characters - aristocrats, Caucasian tribesmen, drunkards, prostitutes and soldiers - gambled, sang and philosophised in each other's company.

Along with the novelists came the composers Glinka and Tchaikovsky and painters such as Repin. Their willingness to reconstruct the cultural forms of the day appealed to western readers and spectators.

The captivation of the western mind lasted into the 20th century. The dramatist Chekhov, the composer Stravinsky and the poet Blok earned global fame, and it appeared that every generation of Russian intellectuals would set an agenda for cultural creativity in Europe and elsewhere.

While wrestling with universal questions, as Orlando Figes's magnificent book reveals, these intellectuals were also exercised by the "Russian question". Theirs was a multisided debate. Contrary to the conventional historical image, not every intellectual objected to the imperial monarchy or to the social system. But most were indeed anti-monarchists.

Governmental censorship made it difficult for critics to function: not only novels and poems but even opera librettos had to be cautiously phrased. Yet generally, by using Aesopian language, artists could let their followers know what they thought - and they had more freedom than under the Soviet regime founded in October 1917.

The most contentious topic among them lay with problems of nationhood. What was it to be a Russian? What had been distinctive about Russia in the past? And what kind of future could await the country and its people in the future?

This book examines the tangled roots of nationhood and culture. The usual assumption is that intellectuals observed the peasantry from a clinical distance. Figes will have none of this. He argues that - or rather describes how - Russia's upper classes imbibed the peasant life from birth. Initially they did this in the most direct fashion: peasant wet-nurses suckled them. Their upbringing was left by their parents to peasant servants who taught them lullabies, superstitions and the festivals of the religious calendar.

In Tolstoy's War and Peace Natasha Rostova, at the end of a day's hunting, goes to a wooden hut where folk songs are played to the balalaika. Natasha twirls around. But it is not a waltz or polka she is doing. Without even thinking about it, she dances like a peasant girl.

Figes's point is that upper-class Russia was always much more "Russian" than it pretended. Members of the educated elite liked to impress each other with their European and urban sophistication; and in their palaces or salons in the cities they disdained to draw attention to their rural connections.

In any case Russia's upper classes oscillated between sympathy and hatred for the peasantry. Many landlords were brutes. Turgenev's own mother had her serfs whipped and sent into Siberian penal servitude for trivial instances of alleged disobedience.

Turgenev was among the first writers to insist that the peasants had much to teach the intelligentsia. Memories of childhood helped. But a chasm of distrust persisted between privileged writer and poor, downtrodden peasant.

When students went out into the countryside in the mid-1870s to talk with "the people", they were not greeted with enthusiasm. Peasants decided that many socialists among them were police spies and turned them over to the authorities for fear of being thought disloyal to the monarchy.

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