Scratch a Russian

In an early chapter of Tolstoy’s War and Peace, Natasha, the young Countess Rostov, goes on a visit to “Uncle,” an old family friend, once an army officer, who has “gone native” and lives in a wooden cottage in the forest with his mistress, a comely serf from the local estate. After Natasha and her brother Nikolai have been regaled with rye-cakes, pickled mushrooms, and vodka, they hear the sounds of a balalaika, played by the local hunt servants. Uncle jumps up, seizes a guitar, and himself begins to play the accelerating rhythm of a Russian peasant dance. Natasha has never heard the folk song he is playing, but it arouses some instinct in her heart; and Uncle eggs her on to join in the dancing. Automatically she puts her arms akimbo and begins to execute the steps of the dance correctly, encouraged by the applause and laughter of Uncle and the hunt serfs.

Tolstoy obviously attaches great significance to this scene—the young countess, brought up to speak French in the cosmopolitan Russian upper class, nonetheless possesses an instinctive grasp, or folk memory, of true Russian peasant culture. Orlando Figes, very adroitly, takes the dance and its peasant setting as an emblem of the split in Russian cultural history, which turns out not to be such a big split after all. Although she is unaware of it, Natasha, the young countess, really lives in two worlds, culturally speaking, and, if the circumstances combine to reveal it, she is as much, or even more, at home among the peasants as she is in a Moscow drawing room.

Indeed the author of Natasha’s Dance might well have drawn a contrast with another scene in War and Peace in which Natasha is taken, for the first time, to a fashionable European-style ballet. Male and female performers “waving their legs about” (a good instance of Tolstoy’s trick of “making strange” something that most people take for granted) seem to Natasha merely silly and ridiculous, but when her fashionable friends extravagantly praise the star performer she joins in their conventional compliments because it is obviously the right thing to do. A Russian, in fact, or at least a Russian girl, must be taught the artificial culture of the West, no matter what level of society she comes from; but for Tolstoy her real and spontaneous instinct is to respond to and show herself part of the cultural tradition of the peasantry.

Like so much of War and Peace, indeed like so much Russian fiction generally, this is propaganda, propaganda on behalf of an ideal that Tolstoy wishes to be true, and with which he became more and more obsessed toward the end of his long life. But Tolstoy was no pioneer in this matter, and indeed his great novel (which he always refused to call a novel, or to hear described as one) is singularly true to what was happening in Russia in the time of its setting, in 1812, the year of Napoleon’s invasion…

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