Tuesday, December 30, 2008
I have had this curiosity about Russian history for a while now. I haven't read much because most books I run across are modern history, about the Revolution in 1917 or the Soviet era. This book looked more interesting because it is a "cultural" history of Russia. Ever since I read The Secret History of Moscow I've wondered about the culture, the images and allusions that I knew I was missing as I read that book.
I learned a lot. I learned that the reason all Russian history books seem to start with Peter the Great is because the type of history we are used to did begin with him. The two hundred years before were rather confused and before then the Mongols ruled. Before that I'm not sure. There were certain specific dates that popped up, like the Slavic Rus kingdom converting to Christianity in 962, but there does not seem to be much record of Russian ancient history. Or maybe it is just there isn't much interest in Russia of what happened in those years.
One of the reasons for that could be the historian dilemma of what to do with hundreds of years of people not doing anything exciting like huge wars and cultural shifts and kings and royalty. Peter the Great made his nobility come to Petersburg and start acting like Europeans. Before that they lived in a similar style to the peasants. The cultural gap between the landholders and the serfs was not that great until the upper classes decided to follow a more Western way of life. So it is easier to describe the history, and the culture after 1703 because the things historians like to talk about were more evident then.
I liked the book. It discussed some Russian characteristics that have become quite famous: the Russian Church, the drinking, the stoic acceptance of fate, the impassivity and lack of action. The conflicted soul of Russians who struggle to find the balance between East and West. The plight of the serf and the guilt of those who noticed it. All of these were explained with a clarity and sympathy I liked.
The last part of the book was less enjoyable, but I think that is mainly because the "cultural" aspects of the 20th century have become more esoteric, intended only for the intellectuals who can understand them. The Soviet reaction to art is telling. They wanted to control all aspects of life, so making rules for art is understandable. But after letting the avant-guarde leftists take over cinema and visual arts, they realized the people didn't watch, read or look at the art that was being produced. Stalin himself commented that we need to make things beautiful, what is wrong with making things beautiful? All of the famous artists and directors, the ones in charge of culture, were making things that regular people did not understand or like. So in the typical Stalinist way, they were all declared enemies of the people and sent to Siberia and a new crop of artists, who could make things Stalin liked was installed. Which ended the section on Soviet art because when a dictator is calling the shots no one will make real art, beautiful or esoteric.
The book mostly made me sad for the millions of people in Russia who lived their lives as illiterate serfs, unable to improve or see themselves as more than cogs in a machine. The Soviet ideas and lack of respect for the individual came directly out of their past of serfs, peasants and barbarity. I use that word not to say the Russians as a people are or were barbarians, but that when people live on the very edges of survival for hundreds of years their souls are deadened and they lose hope.
Natasha's Dance. Dr Orlando Figes. Metropolitan Books. 2002