Thursday, January 27, 2005

Natasha's Dance - Orlando Figes

"In Europe we were hangers-on and slaves while in Asia we will be the masters" - Dostoevsky.

It's can be hard to find your soul if you are having a near-permanent out of body experience! The Russians have spent an awful long time up on history's ceiling staring down at the writhing body of European culture. This at least was one of my main take-outs from Natasha's Dance, Orlando Figes' survey of three centuries of Russian creative people and their often complex personal issues - (A book that could easily have been given the alternate title Rationalism on the Edge of a Nervous Breakdown.)

Before setting off for Central America with this as my only book to read, I outlined my early expectations for Figes' tome. These were in fact generally met.

For the Russians Western values have always been like those designer garements that look better in the shop window than when you actually try them on and confront your reflection in the changing room mirror. Of course they went and bought them anyway...they just had to, but they were always going to have trouble internalising the attitude they would need in order to consistently keep it real.

There are so many obvious parallels and contrasts with those other self-consciously displaced cultural backwoodsmen, the Yanks.
  • The Yanks have overcome backwater status by defining themselves as the future of the West. That Dostoevsky quote above indicates how the Russians sought to cross this threshold, but the moment you declare your chips, acknowledging your residence in the hinterland , you're basically done for.
  • For a long time the Russians were as optimistic about the steppe as the Americans were about their prairie. But let's face it, there's no Santa Barbara at the end of the Trans-Siberian Railway. Endless opportunity putrified into endless desolation. We all know what Siberia means now, don't we?
  • "The Russian people is not just a people it is a humanity" proclaimed Aksakov. You just just imagine those Red State Neo-Cons saying something similar, can't you? (Though it seems that where the Russians are nationalistic the Americans are patriotic - an important distinction that I will spare you the details of for now)
  • It's generally bad news for everyone else when the uncouth folk living out in the wide open spaces on the frontiers of civilisation start talking about building a new Rome.

So, the Russians were blessed with the same tradition of chauvinistic exceptionalism that the Americans have recently familiarised the rest of humanity with. It was ultimately just that much harder for them to turn a blind eye to their own coarseness.

There's something about the Russian neuroses about falsehood and insincerity in the eighteenth century that presages the writings of postmodern thinkers like Derrida and Baudrillard. Gogol for instance wrote of wandering down Petersburg's Nevsky Prospekt "when the devil himself is abroad, kindling the street lamps with one purpose only: to show everything in a false light". These are scarily familiar anxieties about lost authenticity, coupled with concerns that the prevaling aspirations of society force people to behave "like actors on a stage", prisoners of ambient symbols. And in Russia being a prisoner almost inevitably meant exile.

As we see around us today, many people choose to embrace artifice and soullessness, celebrate it even. Vanity is fun, greed is good. Yet temperamentally the Russians have always been more inclined to "live in truth". The they appear to have discovered before most of us that the Enlightenment project was ludicrously over-optimistic - hardly surprising in what AA Gill has described as "a nation of chronic masochists". Indeed, miserable old died-again atheist Dostoevsky eventually concluded that he "would prefer to remain with Christ rather than with the Truth."

There were times when Figes' account of this mentality reminded me of my old chums the Argies. There's that same feeling of unrewarded superiority matched with profound melancholy, that hankering after a lost European utopia - in both instances Paris - idealised as a paradise of fine manners and conspicuous consumption.

But you can't really claim that if cross an American with an Argentine you get a Russian, because the Russkies had a regional card up their sleeve - an indigenous culture they could call their own, and even make out that they cared about. (The Americans and the Argies had of course genocided theirs.) Even when they felt most excluded by the West, with this they could remain defiantly, obtusely Scythian.

In the nineteenth century, Russian creative-escapologists eagerly mined their popular cultural heritage for meaning, mythologising their humblest, folkloric fellow-travellers. Believe me, this is where this book made most sense on a ride through Central America. Organised teams of Russian intellectuals dedicated their lives to the mission of figuring out the moral status of the masses and the implications of their all-too-obvious suffering. From the outset indifference wasn't an option. (In contrast Mexico and Guatemala found ways of burying the claims of their indigenous peoples. Perhaps the more bizarre was Mexico's - a revolution in the name of the Mexica that served only to dilute native identity, and then froze it within a monolithic political mythology - a Revolution without intellectuals.)

Russia's narodniki met pretty much the same fate that that other great populist and instigator of trans-national clodhopper culture Che Guevara (another Argie!) would meet exactly 100 years later - their host peasants dobbed them in to the authorities. It seems the Russian intelligentsia were perpetually sandwiched between two premonitions of resurgent barbarism - peasant ignorance and urban banality.

Figes's narrative constantly returns to the profound sensitivity of the Russian artist. This is a story about possibility experienced on the grand scale, and about the emotional response of a whole culture to a life lived in "interesting times".

When Trotsky considered the possibilities arising from the notion that human beings are "semi-manufactured", he could really have been referring specifically to his own countrymen. It is this flexible, unfinished quality of the Russians, these associate members of the Western country club, that gives them the opportunity to achieve something that the rest of us corrupt and cynical old-worlders might never even imagine - the "hyperbolic attitude to life" . (There was a time when the same could have been said about the Yanks.)

Yet some of the worst abuses of the last century arose from this Russian inclination to re-position the human soul. Within this extended tale of mass tragedy and the more acute voiding of the Soviet avant-garde, there was one individual tale that will stick with me - that of Prokofiev's Spanish wife Lina who followed him back to Stalin's house of horrors and paid for her misguided loyalty with twenty years in a labour camp.

Blockbuster probably thought they could slow down my currently frenetic rate of DVD viewing by sending me Eisenstein's Ivan the Terrible Parts 1 and 2 - titles they found quite low down my online list. After reading Natasha's Dance however, I'm very much up for it!

Another film I'd like to watch again now is Russian Ark, which I reviewed midway through last year's blog.

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