Russia’s ongoing identity crisis

Living on islands, the British find it very difficult to understand the permanent identity crisis experienced by the Russians. For Russia’s ill-defined boundaries, open spaces and indeterminate, mid-continental geography are the source of much confusion. Is Russia part of Europe or of Asia? Is the “real” Russian capital westward-looking St Petersburg or inward-facing Moscow? Are the “real” Russians the peasant inhabitants of the northern forests, the settlers of the Siberian open spaces, or the cosmopolitan aristocrats who created Russian literature, music and painting?
Politics has confused the issue further. The Russian empire tried to impose a Russian identity on others, pushing her borders deep into Poland in the West, into Chechnya in the South, into Mongolia in the East. The Soviet government, in its turn, tried to impose an internationalist identity on the Russians, forcing them into an uneasy melting pot with Caucasians, Kazakhs, Estonians and others. When the Soviet Union fell apart, the Russians found themselves “alone” for the first time in centuries – and once again wondering “who we are”.
This predicament has already inspired several Western historians to write new political histories of Russia. Now Orlando Figes, the author of an acclaimed study of the Russian Revolution, has been inspired to write a cultural history as well. He wants, he says, to explore the set of myths that the Russians invented about themselves and “to explain the extraordinary power these myths had in shaping the Russian national consciousness”.
He has succeeded. In fact, Figes’s description of the evolution of the Russian national identity is so successful and so much fun to read that I hesitate to write too much about it, for fear of spoiling the pleasures and surprises of the book for its potential audience.
Natasha’s Dance, is not, as it so easily could have been, a dry catalogue of artistic movements and famous poets. Instead, Figes identifies the major themes of Russian literature, art and music, and shows how they intertwined with one another and with the habits of everyday life – with Russian “culture” in a broader sense – to create the Russian identity.
The themes are in some sense obvious: the national obsession with the “Russian soul”; the split between the Europeanised culture of the aristocrats and the native culture of the peasants; the influence of (and the reaction against) the West – yet Figes has written about them in fresh and unusual ways.
To illustrate the persistence of pagan rituals and pagan influences on Russian Christianity, for example, Figes points to the interiors of the onion domes of Russian churches, which often depict the Holy Trinity at the centre of a sun. He notes that the mother and child images in Russian icons were part of the Church’s “conscious plan” to incorporate the pagan cult of the fertility goddess. He recalls the refusal of the writer Gogol to use the word “death” in his letters, for fear it might bring about his own.
Figes includes Gorky’s description of a peasant who believed in God but claimed he couldn’t understand Christ at all – “God isn’t dead, not that I know of.” He also quotes Pushkin’s lines, from his poem Eugene Onegin, on the superstitious habits of the upper classes, which also echoed old pagan rituals: “Amid this peaceful life they cherished/ They held all ancient customs dear;/ At Shrovetide feasts their tables flourished/ With Russian pancakes, Russian cheer;/ Twice yearly too they did their fasting/ Were fond of songs for fortune casting . . .”
The author also follows the fortunes of particular families, and of particular buildings, across history. In his opening chapter, for example, he describes the construction of the Fountain House, one of the most splendid St Petersburg palaces, in the early 18th century. By contrast, he ends his chapter on the Soviet period with a description of the funeral of Anna Akhmatova, the poetess who belonged, culturally, to the 19th century but survived, somehow, until 1966. By a quirk of fate, Akhmatova lived for much of her life in a communal apartment in the Fountain House, divided up under the Communists, sharing her makeshift kitchen with factory workers, communing with the ghosts of Pushkin and others who had spent their evenings in the palace’s once-grand rooms. She understood the significance of the place – and so did the thousands of people who followed her coffin to the cemetery and paused before the Fountain House – “so that she could say farewell”.
Figes’s task is made easier by what is in fact a very brief time-frame: in truth, this is a book about the 19th century. Before that, Russia produced little that was original, and the country was too weak and thinly populated to worry about its place in the world. After the Revolution, the Soviet regime’s imposition of a rigidly Marxist (and stupendously boring) official culture destroyed pretty much everything, and everyone, that had previously flourished. Aside from a brief moment of post-revolutionary inspiration in the 1920s – the era of Russian constructivism, Eisenstein’s films, Meyerhold’s experimental theatre – the story of 20th-century Russia is one of exile, decay and decline – epitomised by Akhmatova’s funeral cortege.
Oddly enough, as Figes himself hints, the current period of confusion and corruption provides more hope. In the past, Russian culture thrived on imperial Russia’s strange position, halfway between Europe and Asia; perhaps it will soon come to thrive on contemporary Russia’s strange position, halfway between capitalism and chaos, as well.