Blood and soil. Russia - Edward Skidelsky enjoys a contentious cultural history

Natasha's Dance

Orlando Figes <em>Allen Lane, The Penguin Press, 679pp, £25</em>

ISBN 0713995173

Over one of our innumerable cups of tea, my Moscow landlady told me a story about a friend of hers whose father had been a general in the KGB. During one of his late-night revels, the father had summoned his young son downstairs, stood him on a table and ordered him to sing to the assembled company. Another KGB general - a Caucasian figure, attired in fur coat and hat - was moved to drunken tears by the boy's singing. Kissing him, he promised him anything he wanted. The boy wanted a teddy bear. The general gathered him up in his fur coat and carried him downstairs to the waiting fleet of Black Marias. They sped off at top speed to GUM, the Harrods of Moscow. The manager had been woken in advance. Dressed only in pyjamas, he conducted them around the empty shop, offering them anything they wanted. They filled their cars with teddy bears and left. Nothing was paid for. "There," said my landlady defiantly. "Your stupid Prince Charles doesn't have power like that!"

It was a revealing remark. My landlady hated the communist regime, and the KGB above all. If she could have had her way, they would all have been shot. Yet she was not about to join with me, a foreigner, in condemning them. And so, only half in jest, she transformed what might have been a denunciation into an aesthetic glorification of power. National loyalty overcame democratic principle. The general may have been ghastly, but at least he was Russian, and that was enough to give even his ghastliness the aura of glamour. The bond of shared nationality ran deeper than any political or moral division.

Russian patriotism is an emotion that produces embarrassment in many English people. It exists at the furthest possible extreme from the "civic patriotism" that we are nowadays taught to admire. Not pride in shared principles, but shared humiliation and suffering is the bread on which it feeds. It has inspired ludicrous claims for the superiority of all things Russian, as well as vicious campaigns against the Jews and other peoples. But it has also inspired great self-sacrifice. The many emigres who returned to face likely death or imprisonment in the Soviet Union testify to its fanatical intensity. Indeed, the word "patriotism" seems altogether too decorous to describe this self-abasing love.

The achievement of Orlando Figes is to have written sympathetically about this - to an outsider - alien and often disturbing passion. Russia's search for itself, for its own distinctive voice and outlook, is the overarching theme of Natasha's Dance. The title alludes to the scene in War and Peace in which the young countess Natasha instinctively, without any prior instruction, picks up the rhythms of a peasant dance. Natasha's dance becomes a metaphor for the attempt of the Russian upper classes "to break free from the foreign conventions of their society and search for a sense of nationhood based on 'Russian' principles". The flowering of painting, literature and above all music in the 19th century was inspired, according to Figes, by this attempt to create an authentically Russian style, independent of French or German models. The Russian people - meaning the peasantry, clergy and merchant class, rather than the Europeanised aristocracy - emerge as the ultimate source of everything distinctive in Russian culture.

Figes's interest in "Russianness" is not new. His first research was into the world-view of the pre-revolutionary peasantry. His last major work, the hugely successful A People's Tragedy, interpreted the revolution as a distinctly Russian phenomenon, with roots in peasant conceptions of social justice rather than Marxist theory. Natasha's Dance extends this approach to cultural history. Figes has little to say about the horizontal connections between the high cultures of Europe; his interest is in the vertical connections between high and popular culture within Russia itself. This approach has become fashionable since the collapse of the Soviet Union and the rebirth of the Russian state. But it is one-sided, to say the least. There is nothing here about the German philosophers - Schelling, Hegel and Marx - who throughout the 19th and early 20th century exercised such dominance over the Russian intelligentsia. Even when they asserted their national originality, Russian writers were imitating the stance of their German Romantic mentors. And many of the most "characteristic" features of Russian life were first discovered by foreigners such as the Marquise de Custine and Baron von Haxthausen. The idea of Russia was, ironically, the least Russian of ideas.

This international world of ideas is missing from Natasha's Dance, as it was from A People's Tragedy. Figes's imagination is instead absorbed by the trifles, the "bric-a-brac that constitute a culture and a way of life". He is the least systematic of historians. He does not try to find a causal structure behind the abundance of detail. Perhaps, extrapolating from the failure of Marxism, he believes that there is no such structure to be found. This is a standard postmodern argument. But Figes's own technique seems to owe less to such theoretical considerations than to a straightforward delight in storytelling. He is a Romantic; strong, individual characters hold his interest. And Russian history abounds in such characters. There are marvellous portraits here of Chekhov, Rachmaninov and Stravinsky, as well as many lesser-known people. Their individual stories weave in and out in a way that can seem rambling but is in fact carefully orchestrated. Music is a central theme of Natasha's Dance, and Figes's own historical technique seems at times almost musical.

There is, however, an underlying argument in Natasha's Dance, even if it is not directly stated. The intelligentsia's quest for communion with the Russian people had, Figes suggests, both a cultural and a political dimension. Indeed, the two are virtually inseparable. Russian national identity was forged in the 1812 war of defence against Napoleon, during which the aristocratic officers noticed - apparently for the first time - the patriotism and bravery of ordinary Russians. They returned to their estates with "a new sense of commitment to their serfs". Many of them embraced constitutionalism and even republicanism. These hopes reached their climax in the abortive Decembrist revolt of 1825. But the "children of 1812" also tried to forge cultural links with the Russian people. They began speaking and writing in Russian rather than French, they Russified their dress, and - in a symbolic reversal of Peter the Great's ban - many of them grew beards. Pushkin's poetry, which for the first time incorporated ordinary modes of speech into literature, was the finest product of this national revival.

Throughout the 19th century, the intelligentsia's commitment to the Russian people had this twofold meaning. It was both a political commitment to democracy (later to socialism), and also a cultural commitment to the unique spirit presumed to be embodied in the Russian peasantry. Often these two commitments combined, as in the many attempts to envisage a genuinely Russian form of socialism based on the peasant "mir" or commune. The critic and publicist Vladimir Stasov, a democrat and champion of the "national school" in painting and music, embodied this link.

But after the collapse of popularism in the 1870s, cultural nationalism and political radicalism began to diverge. Champions of the "Russian soul" such as Dostoevsky turned against socialism, whereas socialists for their part looked askance at the Russian soul. The peasantry was increasingly dismissed as backward, "dark", mired in dirt and superstition. The truth is that the radical intelligentsia never forgave the people for disappointing its own, hopelessly unrealistic expectations. The Russian revolutionary tradition began with a declaration of love for the peasantry; it ended with its liquidation.

Was a union between the intelligentsia and peasantry based on common Russian principles ever any more than a sentimental hope? There were, to be sure, brief moments of connection. Figes lingers on these; they appeal to his novelist's imagination. He writes touchingly about the love felt by many aristocrats for their old nannies. But a similar kind of devo-tion was lavished on the Confederate "mamma" or the old colonial amah. Such relationships are no proof against oppression: they may flourish most powerfully in the midst of it, as a token gesture of compensation.

It was art, not politics, that finally gave substance to the dream of union with the people. This is the hidden meaning of Figes's title. Natasha never really danced her dance; it is only fiction. The communion that politics strove for in vain was realised fictionally, as painters, poets and musicians found inspiration in traditional peasant forms. The avant-garde, in particular, was impressed by the impersonal quality of icons and folk songs. Ancient and modern joined hands over the head of 19th-century Romanticism.

Redemption through art is the grand, subtly suggested theme of Natasha's Dance. In the chapter entitled "The Peasant Marriage", for example, Figes details the numerous abuses which a peasant wife could expect to undergo at the hands of her husband. He then, without any explanation, moves on to describe the folk-inspired music of Stravinsky, concluding with a superb description of his ballet Les Noces. Stravinsky's ballet is "the perfect ideal of the Russian peasantry". The meaning is clear: art has made good the misery of life. The theme of redemption through beauty must be a tempting one for any historian of Russia. For it is only as an aesthetic phenomenon, to paraphrase Nietzsche, that Russian history could ever possibly be justified.