I recently finished reading Orlando Figes’ “Natasha’s Dance: A Cultural History of Russia.” It is equally as dense and thorough as it is fascinating and insightful. Never before have I encountered history as detailed as this examined through the lens of the arts and literature. One should not be surprised at all to know that a lot about Russian history can be gleaned from Gogol, Tolstoy, Akhmatova, Stravinsky, Kandinsky, Diaghilev, et al, and in ways that simply don’t come across by reading a simple historian’s guide to insert-location-here.
Russia is a culture of endless inner struggles. The 20th century alone saw them transition from monarchy to Socialist state to democracy (though linking Vladimir Putin with democracy seems a bit like linking Lady Gaga with normal). Historically, they have fought a constant internal battle of east vs. west, with St. Petersburg and Moscow serving as the symbols of these powerful “who are we?” sentiments. Russia has been ruled by some of the most famous (and infamous) figures throughout time, from the descendants of Genghis Khan and the Golden Horde to Boris Godunov to Peter and Catherine (they’re GRRRRRRREAT!) to Lenin and Stalin. Continue reading