The title of Orlando Figes's impressively wide-ranging book refers to a scene in War and Peace in which Natasha Rostov, the finest product of the European education favoured by the Russian aristocracy for more than a century, visits the far from luxurious home of a distant relative. He is a nobleman living in the country with his serf 'wife', Anisya; he has, it seems, abandoned that superior attitude to the Russian 'people', the narod, that generally characterises his class. He strikes up a folk-song on his guitar, and challenges Natasha, who has never danced to such music before, to do so now. Suddenly she finds herself performing the native steps with perfect rhythm and grace. 'Where, when and how,' the narrator asks, 'had this young countess, educated by an émigrée French governess, imbibed from the Russian air she breathed that spirit, and obtained that manner which the pas de châle, one would have supposed, had long ago effaced?' Anisya and the other peasants in the room are deeply moved: 'this slim, graceful countess reared in silks and velvets . . . was able to understand all that was in Anisya . . . and in every Russian man and woman.' The moment fits with Tolstoy's aim to compose a great patriotic epic portraying the unity of the Russian people in the face of foreign invasion. But here, as with all the other creative work he uses, Figes interprets the scene as expressing a fundamental historical truth about Russian culture.
LRB 28 November 2002 | PDF Download