This text provides a richly evocative exploration of Russia, its culture and people. Vast in scale and woven though with extraordinary stories and characters, it ranges from the splendour of 18th-century St Petersburg to the power of Stalinist propaganda, from folk art to the magic rituals of Asiatic shamans, from the poetry of Pushkin to the music of Mussorgsky and the films of Eisenstein, bringing to life an extraordinary cast of serf artists and aristocrats, revolutionaries and exiles, priests and libertines. Figes's book takes its title from a famous scene in "War and Peace", where the young and beautiful Countess Natasha hears a popular melody and, instinctively aware of the peasant rhythm and steps, begins to dance to it. Tolstoy shows that, however grand and foreign-educated they might be, at heart the Russians are Russians. Here, Orlando Figes explores the meaning of Natasha's dance: the often contradictory impulses and shared sensibilities that have given rise to one of the world's most dazzling cultures.
He shows how, perhaps more than any other country, Russia's sense of identity is embodied in its culture: not only its great poetry, music, books and paintings, but also in its common ideas, customs, habits and beliefs. Despite Russia's immense size and diversity it is this unique temperament that has held together a people scattered from Europe to Asia and enabled them to survive in the face of their own fearful history.
Orlando Figes is Professor of History at Birkbeck College, University of London. His last book, A PEOPLE'S TRAGEDY (Cape 1996), won the NCR Book Award, the Wolfson History Prize, the Longman/History Today Book of the Year Award and the WH Smith Literary Award. He lives in Cambridge.