Natasha's Dance is Orlando Figes's epic, richly evocative and unparalleled exploration of Russia, its culture and people. Vast in scale and woven through with extraordinary stories and characters, it ranges from the splendour of eighteenth-century St Petersburg to the power of Stalinist propaganda, from folk art to the magic rituals of Asiatic shamans, from the poetry of Pushkin to the music of Mussorgsky and the film of Eisenstein, bringing to life an extraordinary cast of serf artists and aristocrats, revolutionaries and exiles, priests and libertines.
Figes's book takes its title from a famous scene in War and Peace, where the young and beautiful Countess Natasha hears a popular melody and, instinctively aware of the peasant rhythm and steps, begins to dance to it. Tolstoy shows that however grand and foreign-educated they might be, at heart the Russians are Russians.
Here Orlando Figes explores the meaning of Natasha's dance: the often contradictory impulses and shared sensibilities that have given rise to one of the world's most dazzling cultures. He shows how, perhaps more than any other country, Russia's sense of identity is embodied in its culture: not only its great poetry, music, books and paintings, but also in its common ideas, customs, habits and beliefs. Despite Russia's immense size and diversity it is this unique temperament that has held together a people scattered from Europe to Asia and enabled them to survive in the face of their own fearful history.
Beautifully written and gloriously vivid, Natasha's Dance is a triumphant assertion of the greatness of Russia's culture and the remarkable lives of those who have shaped it.
Extract from Chapter 2, 'European Russia':
[The Russian aristocracy was] so immersed in foreign languages that many found it challenging to speak or write their own. Princess Dashkova, a vocal advocate of Russian culture and the only female president ever of the Russian Academy of Sciences, had the finest European education. 'We were instructed in four different languages, and spoke French fluently,' she wrote in her memoirs, 'but my Russian was extremely poor.' Count Karl Nesselrode, a Baltic German and Russia's foreign minister from 1815 to 1856, could not write or even speak the language of the country he was meant to represent. French was the language of high society, and in high-born families the language of all personal relationships as well. The Volkonskys, for example, a family whose fortunes we shall follow in this book, spoke mainly French among themselves, Mademoiselle Callame, a French governess in the Volkonsky household, recalled that in nearly fifty years of service she never heard the Volkonskys speak a word of Russian, except to give orders to the domestic staff. This was true even of Maria (née Raevskaya), the wife of Prince Sergei Volkonsky, Tsar Alexander's favourite aide-de-camp in 1812. Despite the fact that she had been brought up in the Ukrainian provinces, where noble families were more inclined to speak their native Russian tongue, Maria could not write in Russian properly. Her letters to her husband were in French. Her spoken Russian, which she had picked up from the servants, was very primitive and full of peasant slang. It was a common paradox that the most refined and cultured Russians could speak only the peasant form of Russian which they had learnt from the servants as children.
Extract from Chapter 5, 'In Search of the Russian Soul':
The desperate peasant woman in The Brothers Karamazov who has lost her boy is told by Zosima that God has taken him and given him the rank of an angel. In peasant Russia it was generally believed, in the words of a villager from Riazan province, that 'the souls of little children go straight up to heaven.' Such thoughts must have been of real comfort. For the peasantry believed in a universe where the earth and spirit worlds were intimately linked in one continuum. The spirit world was a constant presence in their daily lives, with demons and angels at every turn. The fortunes of the souls of their kin were a matter of the highest importance. There were good and bad spirits in the Russian peasant world, and how a person died determined whether his spirit would also be good or bad. The peasant thought it was essential to prepare for death, to make the dying comfortable, to pray for them, to end all arguments with them, to dispose properly of their property, and to give them a Christian burial (sometimes with a candle and a bread ladder to help them on their way) in order that their souls could rise up peacefully to the spirit world. Those who died dissatisfied would return to haunt the living as demons or diseases. Hence, in many places it became the custom to bury murder victims, those who died by suicide or poisoning, deformed people and sorcerers and witches outside the boundaries of the cemetery. During a severe harvest failure it was even known for the peasants to exhume the corpses of those whose evil spirits were thought to be to blame. In the peasant belief system the spirits of the dead led an active life. Their souls ate and slept, they felt cold and pain, and they often came back to the family household, where by custom they took up residence behind the stove.
Natasha's Dance was published in 2002 to international critical acclaim:
Robin Buss in The Independent:
'One of those books that, at times, makes you wonder how you have managed to do without it.'
Anne Applebaum in The Sunday Telegraph:
'It is so much fun to read that I hesitate to write too much, for fear of spoiling the pleasures and surprises of the book.'
Simon Sebag Montefiore in the Financial Times:
'A tour de force by the great storyteller of modern Russian historians…Figes mobilizes a cast of serf harems, dynasties, politburos, libertines, filmmakers, novelists, composers, poets, tsars and tyrants…superb, flamboyant and masterful.'
Natasha's Dance was short-listed for the Duff Cooper Prize and the Samuel Johnson Prize in 2003. It has been translated into over twenty languages. It was awarded the prestigious Przeglad Wschodni Award for the best foreign book on East European history in Poland in 2009.