Natasha's Dance: A Cultural History of Russia
In a recent book launch at the Kennan Institute, Orlando Figes, Professor of History at Birbeck College introduced and discussed his new book, Natasha's Dance: A Cultural History of Russia. Using the famous scene of Natasha dancing from Leo Tolstoy's War and Peace as an introduction, Figes explained that he wanted to explore the way in which music, art, and literature became "entangled with custom and social belief in the apprehension and artistic articulation of what we call national identity." The interaction of Russia's two worlds, aristocratic society and rural village life, had major influence on the national consciousness and all of the major forms of art during the 19th century. However, Figes noted that Russia is too complex, too big and too divided politically and socially for a national culture to be a part of national identity. According to Figes, "artistic myths" about the Russian culture were influential in shaping political ideas that helped organize Russian society.
Figes noted that Russian cultural masterpieces such as War and Peace were not merely works of art, but also "laboratories in which the artists proposed new ideas and commentaries on Russian society." Throughout his research he found the overarching theme of Russia itself, as artists attempted to explain the country's history, destiny and "spiritual essence." Figes explained that Russian cultural history is unique because "the country's artistic energy was wholly given to the task of grasping the idea of its nationality." Figes stated that nowhere else has the artist been so burdened with the task of national leadership and because of this nowhere has the artist been more feared or persecuted by the state. He noted that because Russian artists were alienated from official Russia by their politics and peasant Russia by their education, they attempted to create a national identity through literature and art.
According to Figes, at the heart of many of the greatest works of Russian art is the central question of what it means to be Russian. Questions about the Russian identity were illuminated in debates over whether Russian belonged in Europe or Asia, Petersburg or Moscow, or in the Tsar's Palace or the muddy villages of rural Russia. Symbolized by Natasha's dancing scene in War and Peace, Figes stated that this natural tension not only preoccupied Russian artists, but was also the driving force behind the Russian cultural renaissance of the 19th and early 20th centuries. He noted that from the beginning of the 18th century on, Russian aristocracy "immersed itself in the culture of the West," building European palaces, adopting foreign manners, reading foreign books and even speaking Western languages (French and English). However, Russian artists like Tolstoy were keenly aware of the unique nature of the native culture and looked for common threads in language, religion, or customs that might bind the elites with the Russian peasantry.
Figes concluded by saying that Russia's history is too complex and divided for a single national culture to be a part of a national identity. According to Figes, Russian culture, like most cultures, has been imported or borrowed from abroad and adapted in various ways. Figes suggested that it is more important to look at the "artistic myths" of Russian culture because "they were not just constructions of a national identity, but they played a crucial role in shaping the allegiances of Russia's politics, as well as the developing the notions of self in the most elevated forms of personal and national identity." He noted that in order to truly understand the Russian national identity, one must look at behavioral norms and customs reflected in as many different art forms as possible.