- The Washington Times - Sunday, January 12, 2003

Orlando Figes
Metroplitan Books, $35, 729 pages, illus.

As the last great power to subscribe to the modern notion that machines are more important than human beings,after 1917 Russia proceeded to demonstrate just what that notion entailed. Exalting materialism and atheism, the Bolshevik regime dragooned and brutalized its own population, tried for seven decades to dominate the globe, and despoiled nature on a stupendous scale.
The Soviets also came close to destroying Russian culture, and thus Orlando Figes' captivating new survey, "Natasha's Dance: A Cultural History of Russia," is all the more timely. Concentrating on the 19th and 20th centuries, it covers less ground than earlier works by James Billington and the late W. Bruce Lincoln, but it is in every respect a worthy successor to Mr. Figes' highly praised "A People's Tragedy: The Russian Revolution, 1891-1924."
The title of the new book comes from the scene in "War and Peace" in which the aristocratic Natasha Rostova, on hearing a certain folk song for the first time, jumps to her feet and breaks into a peasant dance of which she has never seen or even heard. A few critics challenged Leo Tolstoy, insisting that Natasha must have witnessed the servants enjoying themselves in their spare time, but the master knew what he was doing. Natasha's Russianness, like his own, came from the soil, the language, nature, the angle of the sunlight and the smell of the air, the endless horizons of the Eurasian plain, human interaction, the food, the weather, the Orthodox Church. A leading Slavophile said that the "Russian people is not just a people, it is a humanity."
One runs no risk of understanding any of this by studying the rulers, none of whom, between Peter the Great and Nikita Khrushchev, were ethnic Russians, and all of whom considered Russian culture inferior. Mr. Figes turns instead to literature, music, the plastic arts, private and public archives and other sources to fashion his fascinating portrait of a nation.
Woven into the fabric of the book is a lively discussion of music, and at one point Mr. Figes explains the peculiar sound of the Church bells. In Russia the ringers strike the bells directly with hammers or with short cords attached to the clappers, whereas the Western technique is to swing the bells from the ground with long ropes, making "Russian-like" synchronization impossible.
On the estates of Russia's richest family, the Sheremetevs, 200,000 serfs tilled the soil, and a selected few were educated at the owners' expense to serve as architects, sculptors, artists, furniture-makers, actors, musicians, and so on. Each musician in the brass band on the property at Kuskovo knew a grand total of one note and displayed his skill by playing it precisely at the right moment. The number of musicians depended on the number of different notes in any given composition.
The one-note musicians played European airs for Count Sheremetev and his guests, but off duty they abandoned those horns for balalaikas, and they sang the "long-drawn, lyrical and melismatic song of the Russian peasantry" that inspired the reflex in Natasha. The "Mighty Five" composers Balakirev, Rimsky-Korsakov, Cui, Musorgsky, Borodin took songs like that, the Church's bells and chants, and the folk music of non-Russians peoples on the periphery of the empire to create that uniquely "Russian" sound which Mr. Figes calls "not just self-conscious but entirely invented."
Alexander Pushkin, Russia's Shakespeare, incorporated folk mythology and patterns of peasant speech into many of his works. Ivan Turgenev, Mikhail Saltykov-Shchedrin, Nikolai Leskov and other writers captured the folly, the dignity, and the sorrows of the provincial gentry and the peasants who served it. Tolstoy and Fyodor Dostoyevsky struggled not always successfully with their own primitive impulses, agonized over questions of faith, and quarreled with the Church.
Discussing such soul-searching, Mr. Figes notes that, while Western Christian theology "is based on a reasoned understanding of divinity," the Russian Orthodox Church "believes that God cannot be grasped by the human mind (for anything we know is inferior to Him)."
The Church's message was frequently misunderstood and that of the writers sometimes got lost. As Stanislavsky staged it at the Moscow Art Theater, Anton Chekhov's "The Cherry Orchard" became an elegy for a dying class at the end of a dying century, and so it has remained, with rare exceptions, to this day.
That, Mr. Figes insists, is not what Chekhov intended. Almost always portrayed as an unscrupulous type looking to turn a quick ruble, the businessman Lopakhin is actually the hero of the play, a decent sort who generously tries to help a muddled gentry family overtaken by hard times partly of its own making. "Far from lamenting the old gentry world," Mr. Figes maintains, the play "embraces the cultural forces that emerged in Moscow on the eve of the twentieth century."
Those forces weakened still further that increasingly shaky pillar Tolstoy personally did much of the shaking of Russian culture, the Orthodox Church. Toward the end of his life Chekhov claimed to have no faith, but Mr. Figes points out that his works are "filled with religious characters and themes. No other Russian writer, with the possible exception of Leskov, wrote so often or with so much tender feeling about people worshipping or about the ritual of the Church."
Nevertheless, as a man of science he was a physician Chekhov probably would have agreed with Mr. Figes that the Russian peasant was "never… more than semi-attached to the Orthodox religion" and that "nly a thin coat of Christianity had been painted over his ancient pagan folk culture." (The coat may have been even thinner in the United Kingdom, today one of the most secular societies on the planet.)
Mr. Figes gives the 20th-century emigres their due. Often querulous and always quarrelsome, they have played a critical role in preserving what is left of Russian culture, especially the language. Their ears accustomed to enforced Sovietese, which we may equate with "Ebonics," "rap," and television dialogue, Muscovites are often astonished to hear returning emigres speaking what Anna Akhmatova called the pure "Russian speech, [the] mighty Russian word" that she and others who remained in the homeland strived heroically to save from those quintessential philistines, the Bolsheviks.
Cut off forever from Russia and fearful of losing a single syllable of the language, the polyglot genius Vladimir Nabokov read dictionaries. (Notorious for rewarding fashionable mediocrity, the Nobel Committee ignored him, and Tolstoy.)
Some of the giants of Russian culture Osip Mandelshtam, Boris Pasternak, Marc Chagall, Isaak Babel were Jewish, and many of the gentiles identified with the suffering of the Jews. Dmitri Shostakovich said he liked Jewish music for its "ability to build a jolly melody on sad intonations." That also sums up Russian-Jewish humor, perhaps the world's richest.
One might wish Orlando Figes had paid more attention to this or that area of culture, or gently chide him for failing even to mention the great composer Alexander Glazunov, but his scholarly, affectionate portrait of a people tells us more about the real Russia than we can find in a hundred political histories. And it is worth nothing in conclusion that he has had the benefit of what has become an exceedingly rare commodity, superb editors.

Woodford McClellan is writing a book on the Communist International (Comintern), 1919-1945.

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