The rite of return

Pushkin's poetry, Tolstoy's novels, Stravinsky's music - Russia's golden age gave the people the spi

In 1962, Stravinsky accepted a Soviet invitation to visit the country of his birth. It was exactly 50 years since he had left Russia and there was a complicated tangle of emotions behind his decision to return. As an emigre, he had always given the impression of violently rejecting his own Russian past. He told his close friend and musical assistant, the conductor Robert Craft, that he thought about his childhood in St Petersburg as a "period of waiting for the moment when I could send everyone and everything connected with it to hell".

Much of this antipathy was an emigre's reaction to the Soviet regime. The mere mention of the Soviet Union was enough to send him into a rage. In 1957, when a hapless German waiter came up to his table and asked if he was proud of the Russians because of the recent Sputnik breakthrough into space, Stravinsky became "furious in equal measure with the Russians for having done it and with the Americans for not having done it".

He was particularly scathing about the Soviet musical, where the spirit of the Rimsky-Korsakovs and Glazunovs who had howled abuse at The Rite of Spring was still alive and kicking against the modernists. His music had been banned from the Soviet concert repertory since the beginning of the 1930s, when Stravinsky was denounced by the Soviet musical establishment as "an artistic ideologist of the Imperialist bourgeoisie". It was a sort of musical cold war.

But after Stalin's death, the climate changed. The Khrushchev "thaw" had brought an end to the Stalinist campaign against the so-called "formalists" and had restored Shostakovich to his rightful place at the head of the Soviet musical establishment. Young composers were emerging who took inspiration from Stravinsky's work (Edison Denisov, Sofia Gubaidulina and Alfred Schnittke). A brilliant generation of Soviet musicians (Oistrakh, Richter, Rostropovich, the Beethoven Quartet) was becoming well-known through recordings and tours in the west. Russia seemed to be returning to the centre of the European music world - the place which it had occupied when Stravinsky had left it in 1912.

Despite his own denials, Stravinsky had always regretted the circumstances of his exile from Russia. He bore the severance from his past like an open wound. The fact that he turned 80 in 1962 must have played a part in his decision to return. As he grew older, he thought more of his own childhood. He often slipped into childish Russian phrases and diminutives. He reread the books he had read in Russia - like Gorky's Mother. "I read it when it was first published [in 1906] and am trying again now," he told Craft, "probably because I want to go back into myself." Stravinsky told the US press that his decision to go to the Soviet Union had nothing to do with nostalgia. But that sentiment was surely at its heart.

On 21 September, the Stravinskys landed at Sheremetyevo in a Soviet plane. Straining to catch a glimpse of the forests turning yellow, the meadows, fields and lakes as the plane came in to land, Stravinsky was choking with excitement and emotion, according to Craft, who accompanied the couple throughout their trip. When the plane came to a halt and the hatch was opened, Stravinsky emerged and, standing at the top of the landing stairs, bowed down low in the Russian tradition. It was a gesture from another age, just as Stravinsky's sunglasses, which now protected him from the television lights, symbolised another kind of life in Hollywood. As he descended, Stravinsky was surrounded by a large welcoming committee, out of which emerged a stout woman with Tatar eyes, or so it seemed to Craft. She was the well-known pianist Maria Yudina.

The trip released a huge outpouring of emotion in Stravinsky. In the 15 years that Robert Craft had known him, he had never realised how important Russia was to him, or how much of it was still inside his heart. "Only two days ago, in Paris, I would have denied that IS [Stravinsky] . . . could ever be at home here again . . . Now I see that half a century of expatriation can be, whether or not it has been, forgotten in a night." It was not to the Soviet Union that Stravinsky had returned. He had come back to Russia.

At the Novodevichy monastery, the Stravinskys were far more moved than Craft had ever seen them - "not for any religious or political reason but simply because the Novodevichy is the Russia that they knew, the Russia that is still a part of them". Behind the ancient walls of the monastery was an island of the Old Russia. In the gardens, women dressed in black kerchiefs and worn-out coats and shoes were tending to the graves, and in the church a priest was leading a service where, as it seemed to Craft, the "more fervent members [of the congregation] lie kowtow, in the totally prostrate position that IS used to assume during his own devotions in the Russian Church in Hollywood". Despite all the turmoil that the Soviet Union had gone through, there were still some Russian values that remained unchanged.

Stravinsky rejoiced in his rediscovery of Russian speech. From the moment he arrived, he slipped back easily into modes of Russian speech and conversation, using terms and phrases, even long-forgotten childhood expressions, that he had not employed for more than 50 years.

Craft was struck by the transformation in Stravinsky's character. Asked whether he believed that he was seeing "the true Stravinsky" in his Russian element, the American replied that "all ISs are true enough . . . but my picture of him is finally being given its background, which does wash out a great deal of what I had supposed to be 'traits of character' or personal idiosyncrasies".

Craft also wrote that, as a result of the visit to Russia, his ear became attuned to the Russian elements of Stravinsky's music during the post-Russia years. The Russianness of Stravinsky's later music is not immediately obvious. But it is there. From the Symphony of Psalms (1930) to the Requiem (1966), his musical language retains a Russian core.

There was much of Russia in Stravinsky's heart. It was made up of more than the icons in his house, the books he read or the favourite childhood spoon from which he ate. He retained a physical sensation and memory of the land, Russian habits and customs, Russian ways of speech and social interaction, and all these feelings came flooding back to him from the moment he set foot on his native soil. The western public saw Stravinsky as an exile visiting the country of his birth. But the Russians recognised him as a Russian coming home.

A culture is made up of more than works of art. It cannot be contained in a library - let alone the eight slim volumes of Pushkin's work that the poet Khodasevich "packed up in a bag" when he left Soviet Russia in 1922: "All I possess are eight slim volumes,/And they contain my native land." A culture is expressed in the unwritten codes, signs and symbols, rituals and gestures, the customs and conventions, the social beliefs and common attitudes that fix the public meaning of these works and organise the inner life of a society. It is something visceral, emotional, instinctive, a sensibility that shapes the personality and binds that person to a people and a place.

Russia is an immense place - a vast open plane that spans across one-sixth of the world's surface. Historically, its culture was profoundly shaped by the diverse influences of Byzantium, Scandinavia, western Europe, Persia, central Asia and Mongolia. It was much too complex, too socially divided, too ill-defined geographically, and perhaps too big, for a single culture to be passed off as the national heritage.

Yet there was a Russian temperament, a set of native customs, habits and beliefs that held this scattered people together; and it found expression in the supreme works of art, from the poetry of Pushkin to the novels of Tolstoy and the music of Stravinsky, that stand as monuments to Russia's golden age. That elusive temperament has proved far more lasting, and more meaningful, than any Russian state. It gave the people the spirit to survive the darkest moments of their history, and united those who fled from Soviet Russia after 1917.

"Where is Shostakovich?" Stravinsky kept on asking from the moment he arrived. While Stravinsky was in Moscow, Shostakovich was in Leningrad; and just as Stravinsky went to Leningrad, Shostakovich returned to Moscow. As an artist, Shostakovich worshipped Stravinsky. He was his secret muse. Underneath the glass of his working desk, he kept two photographs: one of himself with the Beethoven Quartet; the other, a large portrait of Stravinsky.

They met at last in Moscow, at a banquet at the Metropole Hotel. The meeting was neither a reunion nor a reconciliation of the two Russias that had gone their separate ways in 1917. But it was a symbol of a cultural unity that, in the end, would triumph over politics. The two composers lived in separate worlds, but their music kept a single Russian beat.

It was a memorable occasion - one of those quintessentially "Russian" occasions that are punctuated by a regular succession of increasingly expansive vodka toasts - and soon, Craft recalled, the room was turned into a "Finnish bath, in whose vapours everyone, proclaiming and acclaiming each other's Russianness, says almost the same thing . . . Again and again, each one abases himself before the mystery of their Russianness, and so, I realise with a shock, does I S, whose replies are soon overtaking the toasts."

In a perfectly sober speech - he was the least alcoholically elevated of anyone in the room - Stravinsky proclaimed: "The smell of the Russian earth is different, and such things are impossible to forget . . . A man has one birthplace, one fatherland, one country - he can have only one country - and the place of his birth is the most important factor in his life . . . I did not leave Russia of my own will, even though I disliked much in my Russia and in Russia generally. Yet the right to criticise Russia is mine because Russia is mine and because I love it, and I do not give any foreigner that right."

He meant every word.

Natasha's Dance: a cultural history of Russia by Orlando Figes is just published by Allen Lane, The Penguin Press (£25)