Professor Orlando Figes, prize-winning author of A People’s Tragedy, returns with Natasha’s Dance: A Cultural History of Russia, an in-depth look into Russian culture and what it actually means to be Russian. Orlando Figes talks to penguin.co.uk about the inspiration behind Natasha’s Dance and his experiences of Russia.
What inspired you to write Natasha’s Dance?I wanted to write something positive, something beautiful and enjoyable that would express my passion for Russia. Working on A People’s Tragedy had been extremely grim in many ways. I spent many years in Soviet archives reading the dead language of Soviet bureaucrats. After that, I was approached by publishers who wanted me to write a sequel to A People’s Tragedy: the even more depressing story of the Stalinist era. But I could not face that then. I wanted to touch base with the good things in Russia, above all the culture I had always loved. This, it seemed to me, was the one thing that was lasting and worth holding onto from the Russian tradition, following the collapse of the Soviet regime; and my Russian friends all felt the same.
As a teenager I fell in love with Russia through its literature. Tolstoy was my first hero. Looking back, I see now why his preoccupation with the Big Ideas – the search for Truth, the question of the existence of a God – should have possessed me. Though my views of Tolstoy may have changed, my passion for Russia is still channelled through its books and paintings, its music and its poetry. When I go to Russia I cherish all the late-night conversations one inevitably has with one’s Russian friends about literature and art, and how all this relates to the question of ‘Russia'; its character, its history, its customs and conventions, its spiritual essence and its destiny. Nowhere in the West have I ever met such passion for ideas.
In a way Natasha’s Dance is a continuation of these passionate debates. After twenty years of studying Russia, I think I understand the true significance of its cultural achievements in the shaping of that nation; and its complex, sometimes baffling, identity.
How did you tackle such an enormous subject?With enormous difficulty! Natasha’s Dance has been a labour of love; but it’s also been a tempestuous affair, which nearly ended in divorce. I threw away two versions of the book – literally threw away! The major problem was trying to work out what a ‘cultural history’ should be trying to achieve. ‘Culture’ can mean anything and everything these days. I spent three years simply reading and taking general notes without a clear plan. It was at this point that I made my mind up; the ‘thing’ that I was after was a temperament, a sensibility that held the Russians together and, perhaps more than any state or church, defined them as a nation. And this temperament was embodied in their ‘culture': not just in their books and paintings but their customs and beliefs, their social habits and attitudes to childhood, marriage, death, the landscape, and so on. My aim was to tease out a ‘Russian temperament’, a common set of habits, ideas and attitudes, that could be related in a meaningful way to the works of high culture; like books and painting, poetry and music, operas and films, which form the central subject of Natasha’s Dance.
I also wanted to add a narrative dimension to the book. It seemed to me that the strength of Russia’s culture is (for want of a better word) its ‘interconnectedness': works of art are constantly referring to each other and especially to previous works. There is, in other words, a strong tradition, a cultural lineage – stretching back essentially to Pushkin – that binds the Russians to a common set of values and ideas. That is why I went into the archives in Russia: to find stories I could interweave through the narrative of Natasha’s Dance. Readers should watch out for the saga of the Sheremetev and Volkonsky clans, and for leitmotifs like St Petersburg, the icon or the horse: they are intended to suggest the rich and complex symbols and emotions of this cultural tradition.
How often do you travel to Russia and what was your most memorable experience there?These days I go once or twice a year, usually only for a short period because I have young children and a wife who works. But as the children get older I shall return to my previous pattern of going there for longer periods.
When I was a graduate student working on my Ph.D., I spent nearly two years in Moscow. We are talking now about the period between 1984 and 1986. It was extremely hard in many ways, a constant struggle to get food; a tiny cockroach-infested room shared with a Soviet student who kept a careful watch on me; endless hassles in my research. Access to the archives was extremely limited. Foreigners had to work in a special room. We could not look at the catalogues – they began to become available only around 1987 – so we had to find out the numbers of the files from Soviet historians and archivists. Carrying out historical research was tantamount to spying and to some extent that is how the Soviet authorities regarded my activities. There were a number of occasions when I was told that there were no more materials for me in the archives but I usually managed to buy myself more time by turning up with flowers for the pretty female head of the foreign room, who was of course an agent of the KGB. My success was also partly down to spending lots of time in the toilet: it was the one place where I could smoke (I have since given up) and since there was only one toilet in the building it was a good place to befriend the Soviet historians and archivists who also liked to smoke.
In spite of all the difficulties, and perhaps in part because of them, I had the time of my life during those two years at Moscow University. I met some wonderful people who became lasting friends.
What did you read when you were growing up?My mother was an editor at Blackies, the children’s publisher, in the 1960s, and she would bring home spare books from time to time. I remember Topsy and Tim from the age of about five. I loved Charlotte’s Web and Emil and the Detectives. At the age of about nine or ten I was bowled over by a book called I Am David by Anne Holm about an orphan who escapes from a concentration camp and walks alone across Europe. The first real history book I read was G.M. Trevelyan’s Illustrated Social History of England, I must have been about twelve. Then I discovered Emile Zola’s, Thérèse Raquin, followed by L’Assomoir and Germinal in those black Penguin Classic editions, which I began to collect. I liked the realism, another type of social history I suppose. And then, at about fourteen, I fell in love with Russian literature: Tolstoy’s Childhood; Boyhood; Youth shaped my own idea of growing up.
Is there a particular book or author that has had a significant influence on you as a writer?As a writer, no. I have fashioned my own style and I wouldn’t say that I have been influenced by anyone in particular. But there are lots of writers I admire. Even historians. I think Simon Schama is a wonderful writer, although I wouldn’t recommend anyone to try and write like him. I suppose my own ideal is simple and lucid. I tell my students to read Orwell and Chekhov.