Wednesday, January 28, 2015

European RC #2

I read this book for the European Reading Challenge 2015.

Natasha’s Dance: A Cultural History of Russia - Orlando Figes

The author is probably best-known for his prize-winning narrative history A People’s Tragedy: The Russian Revolution, 1891 – 1924. He takes the title of this intellectual history from a scene in War and Peace. Princess Natasha tosses her French-influenced ways aside as she dances a Russian peasant dance. Nobody taught her the steps, hand motions, or stillness of her head. In short, not needing instruction, she just has the knack, through genetics, or inherited characteristics, what Lafcadio Hearn would call “the race ghost.”

Without bugging us general readers with the jargon of Theory, Figes argues that the Russian sense of identity has been socially constructed over the course of time. Russian thinkers rejected the automatic Westerner-worship of Peter the Great to create their own sense of identity, literary language, and canon of literature, often coming up with ideas as dubious as “the race ghost.” Figes persuasively argues Russian culture has borrowed from many traditions such as Mongol, Persian, Kazakh, and ethnic Russian, besides the usual Western European traditions.

This is a serious book, but it is readable. As he proved in A People’s Tragedy, he has an eye for the telling anecdote, which is often quite funny or forceful or both. This on the effect of sheer numbers of serfs available for tasks:

At Kuskovo, there was a horn band in which, to save time on the training of the players, each musician was taught to play just one note. The number of players depended on the number of different notes in a tune; their sole skill lay in playing their note at the appropriate moment.

I highly recommend this brilliant work to readers into things and people Russian.

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