Capitalism's laboratory

Natasha's Dance - Russia
February 7, 2003

Dominic Lieven learns how modern Russians handled seismic change

These two books on Russia share three features: first, they are written by political historians of Russia who are spreading their wings and moving beyond their own patch; second, though based on years of research and decades of experience in Russian history, both books are aimed at the intelligent public rather than fellow academics; third, both Robert Service and Orlando Figes write splendid, jargon-free English.

The subject of Russia: Experiment with a People is post-Soviet Russia. Service concentrates on politics and power, on ideas and identities, and on the impact of "transition" on Russian society and culture. Though deeply knowledgeable about the 1990s, this is very much a historian's book and all the better for being so.

The book's first section, almost 100 pages long, is about the imperial and Soviet past, and the shadows they throw on post-Soviet Russia. Service is very far from being a determinist: if anything, I suspect he may even be too sanguine about the possibilities open to the new regime in 1991. But his historian's knowledge and instinct help enormously to explain why events took the course they did in the 1990s, as well as to spot what is and what is not truly new beneath the surface of contemporary Russian politics and life.

Two main themes run through this book - a detailed study of the traumatic impact of the 1990s on Russia, and a belief that much of the trauma might have been avoided. It is very hard to disagree with the first point.

Impoverishment, psychological disorientation and the collapse of medical services resulted in a loss of Russian life equivalent to a major war.

Meanwhile, a tiny elite unscrewed anything moveable in Russia and transferred the resources that used to sustain a superpower into their private bank accounts in the West. All this occurred amid shouts of democracy and liberty among the regime's supporters both in Russia and in the West, the whole process being hugely helped by the free flow of capital in today's globalised economy.

The second point is more contentious. Service is not an economist, and this book does not attempt to offer alternative viable economic strategies for post-Soviet Russia. But he does have a great sense of the potential of late Soviet society, a developed country with a big and quite well-educated middle class, a splendid cultural tradition, and a very large number of people with a strong sense of community and ethics.

There is certainly much more to this view than was ever conceded by "reformers", who viewed post-Soviet society as a tabula rasa to which the first principles of liberal economics must be applied. The extremely moderate response of Russian society to the vicious punishment it took in the 1990s was in one sense a mark of its maturity and modernity.

Take anti-Semitism, for instance. As Service points out, this has been far less of a problem in the 1990s than Russian history or the foreign press might have led one to expect, despite the fact that much that happened in that decade seemed tailor-made to arouse fury against the Jews. The first wave of liberal economic globalisation between 1850 and 1929 was a key source of anti-Semitism in Russia as elsewhere. Suddenly, in the 1990s Russians were exposed to a devastating second wave, this time with very few compensating material benefits for all but a small elite: many of the most prominent new ultra-rich were Jewish, and some held Israeli passports. A century ago the results would have been predictable. But Soviet-style modernity took much of the sting out of traditional anti-Semitism, and contemporary Russians are far more likely to dislike people from the Caucasus or even Central Asia than Jews.

As regards not just anti-Semitism but also the whole history of post-Soviet Russia, my own feeling is that things could easily have been a great deal worse. That does to some extent mitigate the deep sense of gloom that one rightly draws from Service's book. Contemplate all the problems of political and economic transition in the largest country in the world and the heartland of communism; then add the consequences of an unplanned and almost overnight collapse of a highly integrated centuries-old empire. One could have imagined apocalyptic scenarios. Of course, we are far from being out of the woods yet: the consequences of empire's collapse are not measured by one decade. As Service suggests towards the end of this sensitive, thoughtful and rewarding book, huge potential for resentment at personal and national trauma remains. This could boil over if the Russian or global economy nosedives.

If Service's book is ambitious, Natasha's Dance is even more so. Figes' topic is Russian cultural history in all its aspects, from literature to cooking, and from Peter I's era of westernisation through 1917 to the present day, with chapters not only on Soviet Russia but also on the Russian emigration. To construct a flowing narrative on such a vast subject at a high level of scholarship is a great achievement.

Inevitably, any scholar attempting such a task is going to make mistakes and express ideas that will annoy experts in the field, particularly if a book on cultural history is written by a scholar who, for all his cultural sensitivity, is bound to look on Russian culture with some of the interests and perspectives of a political historian. In typical academic fashion, I too spotted little mistakes in my field (imperial political history) and grumbled a bit at some of Figes' assertions - for example, some of the generalisations about Russian perceptions of "the West" (which West? Was Prussia the West?). No doubt it was not just my own previous academic research but also my wicked class origins that aroused me to indignation as I read that an aristocrat had to reject his class identity and become a paid-up intelligent if he was to shine in the higher realms of Russian culture. Across generations, from Pushkin to Mirsky in literature and their equivalents in the musical world, I can think of many counter-examples from the 19th and 20th centuries where this is far from being true.

But all these are at most minor grumbles amid a strong sense of admiration for the book's range, intelligence and style. I suspect that groundlings as regards Russian cultural history will enjoy this book tremendously and learn a great deal from it, as I did.

The core of the book and Figes' central theme is a great cliche, in fact the greatest of all the cliches about Russian imperial and even to some extent Soviet history: namely Russian identity and the way that this has been defined and elaborated both against and with the "western Other". The "great cliché" is reinforced by others: the title drawn from the famous scene in War and Peace is one; the book's first chapter, which locates the story of Russo-European identity in quintessentially Russo-European St Petersburg, is another.

The point about this great cliche of Russian identity and history, like most others in history, is that it is largely true. Russia has indeed been torn between native and European identities; Russian intellectuals have spent a very great deal of time agonising over this issue; and the West has almost always been the all-important Other. Even Eurasianism, so influential among the White emigration and now again in post-Soviet Russia, is very often much more rooted in a sense of humiliation and resentment vis-a-vis the West than in deep empathy with or even knowledge of the Asia to which Russia was supposed to half belong. Figes tells the story of this great and crucial cliché extremely well and on a very broad canvas.

In one sense, of course, "the West" looms large in the imagination of all non-western societies, for the very good reason that its power impinges on them in crucial ways and has forced them radically to alter their own institutions and value systems to survive. The fact that they impinge so very much less on the imagination of western society is one factor that explains resentment at "Orientalism". Nevertheless, the Japanese, Chinese and even Indians - however much they may love, loathe and have to cope with the West - seem much less obsessed by its place within their own sense of national identity.

Figes gives many hints and provides much evidence as to the peculiarly strong Russian obsession with the western Other, though it is not his task to see this issue in comparative perspective. But perhaps one aspect of this problem was that even 17th-century Russia was something of a frontier society and one that was culturally a little too close and too open to Latin Christian Europe for its own benefit. The millennium-deep roots and very fundamental cultural and ideological distance from Europe of Confucian and Hindu cultures were perhaps a source of relatively greater defence and self-confidence. On the other hand, it was precisely Russia's openness to Europe that not only produced its glorious Russo-European culture but also allowed its government to absorb western technology and cadres, thereby becoming a great power rather than a colony of Europe.

Probably fortunately, Figes did not pursue such ideas in his book. Had he done so, he might not have been just murdered by academic historians of Russian culture but also hanged and disembowelled before final execution.

Dominic Lieven is professor of Russian government and history, London School of Economics.

Natasha's Dance: A Cultural History of Russia

Author - Orlando Figes
ISBN - 0 713 99517 3
Publisher - The Penguin Press
Price - £25.00
Pages - 729

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