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Natasha's Dance: A Cultural History of Russia

4.15  ·  Rating Details  ·  1,899 Ratings  ·  154 Reviews
Beginning in the eighteenth century with the building of St. Petersburg and culminating with the Soviet regime, Figes examines how writers, artists, and musicians grappled with the idea of Russia itself--its character, spiritual essence, and destiny. Skillfully interweaving the great works--by Dostoevsky, Stravinsky, and Chagall--with folk embroidery, peasant songs, religi ...more
Paperback, 729 pages
Published October 17th 2003 by Picador (first published 2002)
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Dec 19, 2007 Katya rated it it was ok
Figes has gathered a lot of cultural information and organized it into one book, which is very helpful if you want to get a general review of Russia's culture without referring to multiple sources. Some threads that go through the entire book and tie the narrative together, such as the history of the Fountain House in St. Petersburg, almost give you an impression that you are reading fiction. However, some of the information that Figes offers is incorrect. For example, when talking about Dostoev ...more
Chiara Pagliochini
« L’odore della terra russa è diverso, e queste sono cose che non si possono dimenticare… Un uomo ha un solo luogo di nascita, una sola patria, un solo paese – può avere un solo paese – e il luogo di nascita è il fattore più importante della sua vita. […] Non ho lasciato la Russia di mia volontà, anche se c’era molto che non mi piaceva nella mia Russia e nella Russia in genere. Ma il diritto di criticare la Russia è mio, perché la Russia è mia e perché io l’amo, e non concedo questo diritto a ne ...more
Apr 20, 2009 Susan rated it it was amazing
I'm tempted to say that this is a great book because like Russian art it has a soul, but that sounds presumptuous since I've not an expert on any Russian art and I've never been to Russia. But I've been a fan of Russian literature--especially the great novels of the 19th century, and of Russian music and particularly of the Russian ballet and its offshoots in the West.

The book starts with an episode from War and Peace in which Natasha and her brother visit an retired army officer (their uncle) w
Apr 11, 2013 rosshalde rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: history
Nataşa’nın dansı ismini Tolstoy’un "Savaş ve Barış" isimli eserindeki Nataşa karakterinin bir soylu olmasına rağmen bir köy müziği eşliğindeki dansından alıyor. Yazar burada karakterin farklı öğretilerle büyütülmüş olmasına rağmen içindeki Rus ruhunu her daim korumasından etkilenerek bu tarih kitabına bu ismi vermiş.

Kitap 8 ana bölümden oluşan bir kültürel tarih incelemesi. Salt bilgi içerikli olduğu için bir kurgu romandan beklenilen akıcılık bu eserden beklenmemeli ancak muadillerine göre kol
Dec 04, 2012 Rebecka rated it it was amazing
I've been reading this book on and off for years, often re-reading the same passages since if you study just about anything related to Russia, you can use this book in a paper. It's an awesome book, and it should be obligatory reading in any Russian class. I love the way in which it is written, which shows immense skill and planning on behalf of Figes. Authors or composers are not just presented in the manner birth-life-death, but interwoven in a specific time frame. Each chapter jumps back and ...more
Jul 01, 2012 Chris rated it liked it
Debating between a three and four star rating for this. It wasn't necessarily 'bad' in most regards but it didn't stand out as being exceptional either. There were a couple factual errors but others have pointed those out so I will concede to them. Mostly, I was aggravated with its structure. There were many interesting avenues it mentioned but never really explored. I understand this is just supposed to be an overview of Russian culture and I did learn quite a bit from it but I think I would ha ...more
It has been a tour de force getting through this book, but so wonderful and rewarding. Figes covers everything and everyone; at times my lack of real knowledge of Russian history let me down, but as Natasha's Dance renders clearly, Russian culture is so rich and fascinating that there really was no time to get into the whys and wherefores of the Russian revolution and whatnot. (I think I picked up a fair bit of history peripherally from this book anyway). The book is chronological, starting from ...more
Jan 24, 2013 Janet rated it it was amazing
Shelves: russia
I found this a great, wide net for Russian culture--I read it before a trip to Russia, and despite Figes continuing to be controversial figure in Russian scholarship, no one ever questioned his thoroughness. A great great introduction to Russian history and culture.

The book was assigned reading for an alumni trip to Russia I took in 2006, and I was SO glad I'd tackled it--though it's a monster, to be sure. Easy reading, and divided thematically rather than chronologically, which prevents it fro
Nov 29, 2012 Mike rated it liked it
Shelves: history
As a schoolboy I wrote to Orlando Figes as part of the project to write my graduation paper. It was 1998 and the questions I asked did not make much sense, but ask I did before getting on with writing my piece. I had read the recently published 'A People's Tragedy' and Figes could do no wrong in my eyes.

Orlando Figes is an interesting writer, and one who should take a lot of credit for his part in steering mass-published Russian history away from the cover-all texts of a decade ago (including th
John Carter McKnight
Mar 02, 2014 John Carter McKnight rated it it was amazing
A cultural history of Russia that's immensely readable and absolutely exhaustively referenced: it's a goldmine of primary sources. The structure is thematic, ratcheting forward and back across topics in a way that actually reinforces nicely the broad structure of Russian history by returning to key places and times from different perspectives.

Natasha's Dance is hefty, at some 580 pages, but some of the most fluid and engaging nonfiction I've read. Figes' style is conversational but never shallo
Would have rated this five stars, but when I read this line: "[...] and his brilliant comic novel The Heart of a Dog (where a Pavlov-like experimental scientist transplants the brain and sexual organs of a dog into a human being)", it made me wonder what other 'mistakes' are in the book regarding works/historical events I'm not familiar with yet. As well as that it'd be nice to know how culture progressed from 1960s to the 90s and beyond.

That aside, Figes gives an overview of Russian culture fr
Anya Nielsen
Feb 01, 2015 Anya Nielsen rated it it was ok
Orlando Figes is a Professor of History at Birkbeck College, University of London and has written 8 books about Russia. Natasha's Dance is a seminal work of over 700 pages with maps and notes and further reading.
History is a statement of facts, that is those that have not been suppressed in the archives. Writing history is uncomplicated but writing about the culture of Russia without being Russian is infinitely more difficult. Figes facts are impressive but I felt a certain underlying antipathy
Does what it says on the tin.

Broken down into thematic sections, Figes offers analysis of the roles Europe and Asia played in the Russian imagination and world view, social and architectural differences between St. Petersburg and Moscow, peasant traditions and their influence on high culture, the love affair and dismal breakup between the avant garde and the Soviet state, and many more aspects of Russia's diverse cultural history, often following key players' biographical details to illustrate h
K.M. Weiland
Oct 29, 2013 K.M. Weiland rated it it was amazing
I've always been nominally interested in Russian history (the Romanovs mostly), but I've never really studied anything beyond the 1917 Revolution. This mammoth approach to Russia's cultural history provides a fascinating glimpse into the heart of a foreign nation - and, in so doing, an interesting, if perhaps unintended, perspective on my own national ideology.

I can't comment on Figes's historicity or accuracy, since much of what's here is new material to me. But I will say that I found it fasc
Pak Sun Ng
Jan 24, 2016 Pak Sun Ng rated it liked it
The best parts are the Moscow-St Petersburg dichotomy and Soviet Russia. An ambitious book with many unfamiliar yet important names and literary works, thus challenging to read. "Russia Abroad" reminds me of post-imperial China too.
Mar 28, 2016 Lucas rated it it was amazing
There's a massive amount of absorb from Figes, from insights on broad cultural themes and movements in Russian literature, art, music, architecture and even cooking, but it's the little things in Natahsa's Dance -- anecdotes about the great figures of Russian culture -- that are really memorable. A shame that Figes doesn't tackle the fall of the Soviet Union, or even mention it, but an exceptional readable history nonetheless.
Robert Morris
Jan 16, 2015 Robert Morris rated it really liked it
The theme of this book is Russia's attempt to understand itself. Figes documents the many ways that artists attempted to do this over 200 years. It's amazing how similar the search seems, even after revolutions (in every sense) in the consumers and sensibilities guiding the culture. Whether the heights of society were inhabited by Aristocrats, Commissars or Oligarchs, a sense of Russia's significance, and a struggle to understand exactly what that significance was shines through. I found the Rus ...more
Peter Ellwood
Oct 03, 2014 Peter Ellwood rated it it was amazing
I read this, knowing that Orlando Figes' name was under a bit of a cloud because he had admitted to writing one or two positive reviews of his own work on the likes of Amazon or Goodreads; and because one or two jealous academics had claimed he made up one or two of the quotes he put in The Whisperers.

Well. All I can say is that I read it too, at the recommendation of a pretty intellectual Russian national, who said "read this book and you will understand Russia".

So I did. And, maybe, I do. It's
Mar 13, 2014 Simon rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
I couldn't put this down. Figes' writing is splendid, and his insights into the Russian character and history are provocative, he supports them with what appears to be a masterful understanding of her literature and arts. I don't think anyone can better his descriptions of the differences between Moscow and St. Petersburg as illustrative of the deep bifurcation in the Russian soul. It is particularly interesting when he discusses the artificiality of the cultural construct for Russian "identity" ...more
Katrina Sark
Apr 13, 2016 Katrina Sark rated it really liked it
p.xxv – In Tolstoy’s War and Peace there is a famous and rather lovely scene where Natasha Rostov and her brother Nikolai are invited by their “Uncle” (as Natasha calls him) to his simple wooden cabin at the end of a day’s hunting in the words. [When the peasants begin to sing and dance, Natasha joins them and without ever dancing folk dances before instantly pick it up and dances like one of them.]
p.xxvii – Nowhere has the artist been more burdened with the task of moral leadership and nationa
May 26, 2013 Ffiamma rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
tentativo di spiegazione dell'anima/cultura russa- attraverso la storia, la letteratura, la religione, la musica, il cinema. orlando figes scrive in modo chiaro e accattivante, magari senza dire nulla di davvero nuovo o illuminante- ma in ogni caso ho molto amato questo libro (per l'argomento che tratta, perché in fondo non fa male sentirsi ripetere certe cose, per un ripasso generale sulla cultura)
Connie Kronlokken
This was a wonderful book for me, tying so many stories together, many of which I already knew, but some, such as that of the Decemberist Sergei Volkhonsky, I did not. Figes writes his cultural history through the influential people of the time, those most visible through music, painting, publishing. He places them in context, and also against each other. For instance showing that Prokofiev, not wanting to compete with Rachmaninoff in America, or Stravinsky, who was in Paris, returned to Russia ...more
Jim Hale
Jan 10, 2014 Jim Hale rated it it was amazing
Shelves: russian, history
My three children are all adopted from Russia and Ukraine and I hope they will all get around to reading and appreciating this beautiful book. How the Russian and Ukrainian people have managed to sustain the arts with such excellence is a wonder. Orlando Figes must surely be the finest historian writing about Russian history today. This book is highly recommended.
Nguyen Santiago
Commonsensical and repetitious, Natasha's Dance is centred around a never-ending list of well-known dualities in Russian culture. West/East, aristocrat/serf, good serf/bad serf, Russian Orthodox/various Christianities, etc/etc - over and over we are given accounts of people's lives to illuminate these binaries, in no particular order and with no overarching analysis or intellectual depth.

There are large holes in the telling, for example the ignoring of the Jews and their place in Russian histor
Katia Nosenko
Aug 11, 2012 Katia Nosenko rated it it was amazing
Well written journey into the Russian cultural and social history. I liked the most the first part of the book. Of course it is a bit sketchy as the subject is huge, but there are a lot of interesting facts and you can see that the research has been done for the book.
Apr 18, 2013 Jessica rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: russia
Someone called it a mixed bag and this is true. However, you have to admire the breadth and scope he attempts to cover. I enjoyed this as a jumping off point to many new avenues of investigation in Russian history, music and art and for that I am grateful.
Elise Noorda
Aug 08, 2012 Elise Noorda rated it really liked it
"A Cultural History of Russia" about sums it up. This book looks at the history of Russia through the arts - the influence of Russia's history on the arts and the influence of the arts on Russia's history. Such an interesting perspective.
John Alexander
Jan 28, 2014 John Alexander rated it it was amazing
Shelves: history
One of my favorite books. It's written thematically rather than chronologically; typically this would put me off a historical text, but for Figes's purposes it works. (And to be clear, it is roughly chronological, but there is definitely some skipping around in order to fully realize some of the concepts.) It is rife with wonderful trivia, like the story about the Russian aristocrat in St. Petersburg who had so many servants that, in order to have them perform a symphony, rather than teach a gro ...more
Carey Combe
Sep 03, 2012 Carey Combe rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: eye-opening
Apart from the stuff on music - which had my head spinning - I totally lived this book. Almost an anthropological as well as a cultural look at Russia. If you love Russian literature you'll love this.

Opening: On a misty spring morning in 1703 a dozen Russian horsemen rode across the bleak and barren marshlands where the Neva river runs into the Baltic Sea. They were looking for a site to build a fort against the Swedes, then at war with Russia, and the owners of these long abandoned swamps.

Even though the author is a sock puppet*, I still need to read this book.


2015 Reboot as I didn't bookmark where I was up to the last time this was picked up.

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Mad about Royal H...: Natasha's Dance by Orlando Figes 1 3 Nov 03, 2015 04:55PM  
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Orlando Figes is a British historian of Russia, and a professor of history at Birkbeck, University of London.
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