Orlando Figes, Natasha's Dance: A Cultural History of Russia (Metropolitan Books, 2002)

So one of the problems of living in a garrett flat is that there can be far too many books. Now, given that I get many, many books as a reviewer for the most respected review publication of its kind on the 'Net, I do quite often need to weed the Library just a wee bit (the Library being spread over most of the flat, from the bedroom in the rear to the kitchen in the front; even the loo has some books in it). Fiction is easy. Most of it, unless it's going to be read over, gets turned into soft currency — thanks, Emma Bull and your Bone Dance novel for that useful term! — at several of our local used book shops in the Old Market, along with excess CDs. Which of course means that yet more books and compact discs come back here (at least temporarily). But non-fiction's not the same as fiction, in that it has a different reason for being here. I don't generally read any reference works from cover to cover, but I do use them every day in me work. Some are encyclopedias that I use to look up specific things — I use The Encyclopedia of Fantasy (edited by John Clute and John Grant) and a wonderful tome called The Companion to Irish Traditional Music (edited by Fintan Valley) almost every day. Same holds true for any number of similar works.

But there's another type of non-fiction ... it's the big, almost completely unwieldy, volume about a single subject. No, not a bad novel about demon cars from the American schlock writer Stephen King! Nor is it the latest badly written cookbook from the celebrity chef du jour. ("Du jour" in this household is a buzz word for oversized egos who sort of ramble from one badly managed endeavour to another.) No, I am talking about the serious works of cultural history that tell you everything that you could possibly want to know about a subject. Natasha's Dance, which takes its name from a character and a scene in Leo Tolstoy's War and Peace, is a cultural history of Mother Russia prior to the Revolution. I am a fanatic when it comes matters concerning Russia before Revolution. Indeed, last winter season I noted in GMR's "What's New" that we'd gone to St. Petersburg as guests of The Winter Court. "They're preparing to open up their residence here," I said, "once they leave us at Midwinter. 'Course we really didn't need to come to St. Petersburg, but how could we resist? When else will we get a chance to wear fur overcoats, leather boots, beaver hats, and dress to the nines? Not to mention the parties! Brigid, me wife, wears black and only black when in this city — an amazing sight with her red hair, green eyes, and pale skin. 'Tis enough to stir the blood of the most jaded male! Now we're off to catch the evening performance of the Nouveau Gollandiya Early-Music Ensemble, so I bid you adieu. .. Shall we go, me love"' So a history of this sort should appeal to me, eh? Indeed it did.

The weather was perfect as I sat down to read Natasha's Dance; a major storm was underway, complete with heavy snow, bitterly cold temperatures, and howling winds. I do believe it was even sleeting a bit, as I could hear sleet hitting the slates above our ceiling. There's a fireplace in our flat, so I got a roaring fire going, brewed a mug of Russian Caravan tea, and settled in me favourite chair. Many hours later — and at least one visit to the loo — I was finished with it. Orlando Figes is indeed a storyteller and historian who knows how to spin a good yarn. For decades now, I've looked for a good history free of the usual conservative screeds, be it that of the Conservative Party politicos in England or the even stupider Neo-Cons in America, that taint most histories of Mother Russia. Figes is an English academic who's refreshingly free of political bias in any form other than a genuine, and understandable, dislike of the Soviets. Can one say anything that justifies the horrors of Stalin? I think not!

The starting point for Natasha's Dance is that moment in War and Peace when, at her uncle's log cabin after a hard day's hunting in the woods with her brother Nikolai, the young countess Natasha dances a folk dance to the music of the balalaika — and proves her bred-in-the bone "Russianness." (The balalaika is descended from the dombra, a guitar of central Asian origin still commonly used in Kazakh music, and it came to Russia in the 16th century. The Russian peasant dance tradition was derived from oriental forms, in the view of some folklorists in the Nineteenth century.) Having danced it before, it still comes naturally to her. But what Tolstoy thought of as characteristically "Russian" in nature is not. As Figes demonstrates in exhausting detail, much of Russian culture derives from Asian cultures and the Europeanised aristocracy's romantic discovery of folk culture. (Same applies, of course, for much culture that is granted traditional status, i.e., Irish Traditional Music or Contradancing. What appears to be old often isn't more than a century or two old at the most. Any irate members of either group needn't bother e-mailing me, as it's the truth even if you don't like it!) Like most traditional folkways, Russian folk customs are really a fusion of other, much older, traditions.

Now understand that Russia is an odd beast, a bear, if you will, that haunts both itself and the West. What does it mean to be a Russian? What was and is now distinctive about Russia as a culture? (No, not vodka drinking. Figes nicely refutes the myth of drunken Russians. That too was a Soviet, not Russian, affair, as it underwrote the cost of the Soviet military.) And what kind of future could await the country and its people if the idea of a distinct Russian culture is lost — as Russia, reborn out of the ashes of the Soviet Union, loses itself and becomes more European and less Russian?

What Figes is deeply and passionately in love with are the intertwined threads of nationhood and culture. Most historians, being interested more in politics than culture, assert that the priveleged classes were separate from the culture of the Russian folk. Figes clearly refutes this rather groundless idea. He argues that — or rather describes how — Russia's upper classes drank, ate, danced, sang, and absorbed the peasant culture from their birth to the day they passed on. The Russian elite were a product of the peasant culture that most historians from the West think they had little or nothing to do with.

Hell, peasant wet-nurses suckled them. Yes, who do you think provided the tits that gave them milk? Not their mothers! And who sang them to them in the nursery? Again, not their mothers. The children of the ruling class were quite literally indoctrinated at the tit into the folk customs of Mother Russia. Their upbringing was left by their all-too-busy parents to peasant servants who taught them lullabies, superstitions, folk tales, and the myriad festivals of the Russian religious calendar. As they taught the parents, grandparents, and so forth for centuries beyond memory.

In Natasha's Dance, Figes shows that Russia's sense of identity is its culture: poetry, music, books and paintings may the material expression of what being Russian is; but its ideas, customs, and beliefs have kept this sprawling nation together in a way much different than countries like America and England. (The fact that some critics think that J.R.R. Tolkien created a "mythology for England" speaks volumes about a tragic lack of something the Russians take for granted.) Despite Russia's immense size and troubling history, it is this common culture that has held together a people scattered across Eurasia. Figes believes that Russia as Russia can indeed thrive in the future. I bloody well hope that he's right, because the idea of a splintered Russia is only slightly less scary than China coming apart!

All in all, this is the best book on Russia I've ever read. At 700 pages it is a very long book. But don't let that put you off, as it reads like a wonderfully-written novel. No, not like War and Peace, that plodding affair! Oh, and there are some wonderful pictures, and the original score for Igor Stravinsky's "The Rite of Spring," which barely predates the Revolution which ended the Old Order of Russian history and started the era we call the Soviet era.