Matt Forney
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Natasha’s Dance: A Cultural History of Russia by Orlando Figes

natashas-danceRussia is a country that is admired by most in the manosphere for good reasons. Their culture defends traditionalism and patriotism against the cultural Marxism of the West; they have a leader that, whatever his flaws, puts his country’s interests first; their women are skinny, feminine and attractive. But how many Russia fanboys actually understand the country’s culture? Not many, I’d gather.

After reading Natasha’s Dance, I can confidently say that I don’t understand Russians, and I probably never will.

That’s not a slam on the book. Orlando Figes’ lengthy history on Russian culture, starting with the reign of Peter the Great and ending with the fall of the Soviet Union, is worth reading for the breadth and depth of information it contains. But even as I pored through its chapters, becoming informed on every aspect of Russian history, a final answer to the Russian question eluded me.

Hell, you could say that it eludes Figes too, seeing as I can’t recall him actually being able to sum up the Russian character at any point in the book.

The closest comparison I can make is to the Mongols. Can anyone today truly say that we can understand what made Genghis Khan and his contemporaries tick? Their boundless drive to conquer the world, their weirdly 20th century view of religion, their idea of merciful execution being stoning people so their blood wouldn’t spill out of their bodies; none of it makes any sense to us. They remain alien, unknowable.

What we can say with confidence is what the Russians are not. For starters, they’re not European, any more than the Turks are. As Figes points out in the introductory chapter, for most of its history, Russia was a tiny, landlocked tribe with only the slimmest toehold on the European continent. Indeed, this is precisely why Peter the Great had to fight tooth and nail to Europeanize Russia during his reign:

The cultural advancements of the Muscovite boyars was well behind that of the European nobles in the seventeenth century. Olearius considered them ‘among the barbarians… [with] crude opinions about the elevated natural sciences and arts.'” Dr. Collins complained that ‘they know not how to eat peas and carrots boiled but, like swine, eat them shells and all.’ This backwardness was in part the result of the Mongol occupation of Russia from about 1230 to the middle of the fifteenth century. The Tatars left a profound trace on boyar customs and habits. For over three hundred years, the period of the Renaissance in the West, Russia was cut off from European civilization. The country which emerged from the Mongol period was far more inward-looking than it had been at the start of the thirteenth century, when Kieven Rus’, the loose confederation of principalities which constituted the first Russian state, had been intimately linked with Byzantium. The old princely families were undermined and made more servile to the state of Muscovy, whose economic and military power provided the key to Russia’s liberation from the Mongol khans…

Natasha’s Dance is not a straight recitation of Russian history, but a deliberate exploration of its culture throughout the centuries, focusing on its artists, writers and musicians. Figes weaves in quotes and references to countless writers and poets and pays special attention to defining artists during certain chapters, such as Tolstoy in “The Peasant Marriage” and Nabokov in “Russia Abroad.” Additionally, Natasha’s Dance includes a number of photos and illustrations from various parts of Russian history, including a full-color selection midway through the book.

Beginning with Peter the Great’s sacking of the boyars (the petty, cruel aristocracy that dominated Russia prior to his coronation) and his construction of St. Petersburg, a capital city that was a world apart from the inland, insular Moscow, the Russian intelligentsia underwent a number of attitude adjustments. Peter’s Europeanizing reforms encouraged Russians to worship the West (to the point where Russian aristocrats were more fluent in French than Russian), but the Napoleonic invasion of 1812 killed the intelligentsia’s Francophilia and rekindled their nationalism.

While Figes can get dry at times, the book remains an interesting read throughout.

My personal favorite chapters were in the middle of the book, describing an artistic movement in the mid-19th century where privileged writers began lionizing the miserable lives of Russia’s peasants in a moronic “noble savage” fashion. The descriptions of these clowns is so similar to modern-day leftists who worship turd world shitholes and convert to phony foreign religions like Buddhism is astounding. Figes also lays into Leo Tolstoy, their intellectual father; if, like me, you always found Tolstoy to be a patronizing creep, Natasha’s Dance will confirm your suspicions:

Tolstoy loved to be among the peasants. He derived intense pleasure—emotional, erotic—from their physical presence. The ‘spring-like’ smell of their beards would send him into raptures of delight. He loved to kiss the peasant men. The peasant women he found irresistable—sexually attractive and available to him by his ‘squire’s rights.’ Tolstoy’s diaries are filled with details of his conquests of the female serfs on his estate—a diary he presented, according to the custom, to his bride Sonya (as Levin does to Kitty) on the eve of their wedding: ’21 April 1858. A wonderful day. Peasant women in the garden and by the well. I’m like a man possessed.’ Tolstoy was not handsome, but he had a huge sex drive and, in addition to the thirteen children Sonya bore, there were at least a dozen other children fathered by him in the villages of his estate.

If I were to fault Natasha’s Dance for anything, aside from Figes’ overly academic tone (which seems endemic to most Western books about eastern Europe and Russia), it would be the book’s relatively narrow scope. To be sure, the book details every aspect of Russian life from the 1700’s up to the late 20th century, from the aristocracy down to the peasantry and the horrors of communism, but it has nothing on Russian culture before or after those periods. While I suppose writing about contemporary Russia would be outside the book’s milieu, the relative absence of information on pre-18th century Russian culture is a letdown.

Nonetheless, if you’re looking for a book that doesn’t just tell you about Russia, but attempts to detail the Russians’ unique character, Natasha’s Dance is a wonderful read.

Click here to buy Natasha’s Dance: A Cultural History of Russia.

Read Next: Vodkaberg: Nine Years in Russia by English Teacher X

  • “For starters, they’re not European, any more than the Turks are.” I know you’re not this incredibly stupid. Russians are as non-European as Turks? Really? Orthodox Christian Russians descended from Nordic adventurers and Slavic plainsmen are on the same level as Islamic Turks?

    Russia is European. It was too, however, a part of Europe sliced off and sent down a wildly different trajectory from the rest of Europe a long time ago. Russia’s language is Indo-European, Russia’s people are genetically European, Russia’s location is geographically European and Russia’s religion is as European as Roman Catholicism, although it is descended (obviously) from the Eastern Greek Orthodox tradition, not the Western Catholic.

  • Steve

    Matt, if you’re interested in Russia from the period prior to Peter the Great, check out Kievan Russia by George Vernadsky. The first couple of chapters in The Icon and the Axe by James H. Billinton may also be helpful. Russia’s First Civil War by Chester S. L. Dunning is an excellent study of the Time of Troubles (a period that confused the hell out of me before I read the book.) I also recommend Sergei Eisenstein’s Alexander Nevsky and Andrei Tarkovsky’s Andrei Rublev.

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