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Were Russians Nothing but Copycats?

NATASHA'S DANCE: A Cultural History of Russia, By Orlando Figes, Metropolitan Books: 730 pp., $35

October 06, 2002|HUGH McLEAN | Hugh McLean is the author of "Nikolai Leskov: The Man and His Art" and is the editor of "In the Shade of the Giant: Essays on Tolstoy." He is professor emeritus of Slavic languages and literature at UC Berkeley.

The "Natasha" whose "dance" Orlando Figes has chosen as the identifying metaphor for his "cultural history of Russia" is Natasha Rostova, heroine of Tolstoy's "War and Peace." After an exciting day of fox-hunting, she and her aristocratic party repair to the modest home of "Uncle," a distant relative much lower in social status. There a very "Russian" (nonaristocratic) meal is topped off by some equally "Russian" guitar music, which inspires Natasha, taught only the most refined "European" ballroom dancing, to perform--perfectly--a very "Russian" (peasant) folk dance.

Tolstoy (quite implausibly) attributes this miraculous act of cultural cross-dressing to the "Russian air she breathed"; for him the dance symbolized a much-desired symbiotic unity of the whole Russian nation, lord and peasant, shown in his novel in their common determination to expel the French invaders of 1812 and, as here, to some degree sharing a common "culture." In Orlando Figes' history of this culture, the major theme is the interaction thus symbolized between the European culture first assimilated by the nobility and the "native" culture of the peasant masses.

Figes, author of two earlier books on Russian history (a study of the pre-Revolutionary peasantry and a prize-winning history of the 1917 Revolution), begins the story of Europeanization with the reforms of Peter the Great in the early 18th century and continued less coercively by his successors. Not surprisingly, this program of cultural assimilation triggered a reaction. Were Russians nothing but copycats? Even in the 18th century, latent patriots therefore sought to celebrate what was native in their culture. This highly charged internal face-off between European influence and Russian tradition continued even after the Revolution of 1917. It is a complex and fascinating story, and Figes tells it well, with lots of picturesque detail.

Figes has formulated the nature of this confrontation impartially and clearly, recognizing that no cultures are "pure"; all are amalgams of various influences developed over time, some home-grown, but mostly borrowed. He also does not claim completeness; an all-inclusive history would require many volumes, even if it confined itself to "high" culture (literature, art, architecture, music) rather than to culture in the larger anthropological sense. Instead, he has selected certain recurrent themes, which he formulates and selectively illustrates.

We begin with St. Petersburg, Peter's fiat city, his "window to Europe." As Figes aptly puts it, St. Petersburg was not only a new city, it was also a "project of cultural engineering." Peter compelled the leading noble families to build Western-style houses in the new capital. One such family was the Sheremetevs, whose extravagant palace on the Fontanka Canal much later contained the humble dwelling of the great poet Anna Akhmatova, providing Figes with a neat symbolic linkage. Where once a serf orchestra had performed European music, a poet of European stature, whose portrait by Modigliani hung on her wall, recorded in immortal words the devastation her country suffered from the nightmarish cruelty and cultural vandalism of Stalin's tyranny.

Between these two poles, Figes takes us through successive stages, among them the "Decembrist" conspiracy of 1825, when the "children of 1812" made a hopelessly ineffective attempt to "Europeanize," by coup d'etat, the archaic Russian autocracy. Figes then focuses vividly on one of the conspirators, Sergei Volkonsky, scion of a prominent aristocratic family, who spent 30 years in Siberian exile. During those years, the stifling reign of Nicholas I, the confrontation between "Europe" and "Russia" continued on many levels, the government's efforts to isolate the country from baneful Western influences being countered by the intelligentsia's determination to continue importing them.

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