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Monthly Archives: December 2004

Natasha’s Dance: A Cultural History of Russia by Orlando Figes

I was given this for Christmas and it had a big impact on me. A great present to get. It rekindled my interest in Russian literature.

I also found the ideas of Russia’s cultural identity being split between Europe and Asia very simulating. Maybe this is obvious but I hadn’t really thought about it. I should re-read it.

I am aware that the book can be criticised on a number of grounds, perhaps Rachel Polonsky’s review is a good summary (the review that started the bad feeling between the two authors). But, I might give a holistic argument in favour of Natasha’s Dance, ie what is important is the big-picture overview. Maybe, it has some details incorrect but the overall tenor is what counts. Another criticism is that it tends to ignore cultural achievements in the Soviet time, and yes I remember thinking this at the time, so maybe there is some validity here. But — whatever.

I particularly like the english rendering of two of my favourite poems. First, Osip Mandelstam’s derogatory poem about Stalin (‘The Stalin epigram’, also known as ‘The Kremlin Highlander’).

We live, deaf to the land beneath us,
Ten steps away no one hears our speeches,
All we hear is the Kremlin mountaineer,
The murderer and peasant-slayer.
His fingers are fat as grubs
And the words, final as lead weights, fall from his lips,
His cockroach whiskers leer
And his boots gleam.
Around him a rabble of thin-necked leaders —
Fawning half-men for him to play with.
They whinny, purr or whine
As he prates and points a finger,
One by one forging his laws to be flung
Like horseshoes at the head, the eye or the groin.
And every killing is a treat
For the broad-chested Ossete.

For this (and others) he was sent to the Gulag where he died in 1938.

The other is Courage by Anna Akhmatova.

We know what lies in the balance at this moment,
And what is happening right now.
The hour for courage strikes upon our clocks,
And courage will not desert us.
We’re not frightened by a hail of lead,
We’re not bitter without a roof overhead —
And we will preserve you, Russian speech,
Mighty Russian word!
We will transmit you to our grandchildren
Free and pure and rescued from captivity
Forever!

To me this is a very powerful statement of defiance and hope. Published in February 1942 during very dark days of WW2, it was a temporary period of rehabilitation for Akhmatova. Used by the Soviet state as inspiration against the invading Germans, it can also (maybe) be a claim for cultural freedom against the repressive Stalinist state. Whatever, it is moving.