In a passage in Tolstoy’s War and Peace the Countess Natasha Rostova performs an impromptu dance to a folk melody, in which her movements display an ‘inimitable and unteachable’ Russian spirit. This telling episode provides a starting point for a thrilling, occasionally dizzying exploration of the ‘Russian-nes’ of Russian culture, in which Orlando Figes guides the reader along a meandering route past both monuments of high art and the ‘mental bric-a-brac’ of Russian everyday life, those balalaikas, dachas, kaftans, matrioshki, muzhiks, samovars and troikas that the glossary so tantalisingly lists. Here are major works of Russian literature, thought, music, architecture and painting. Equally, the reader can enjoy a rummage through the wardrobe of Count N P Sheremetev (in 1806 it included 54 frock coats and 119 pairs of trousers), sample the post-1812 neoclassical ‘peasant look’ in women’s fashion, or feel grateful to have been spared the bear paws and cuckoos roasted in honey that appeared on one nineteenth-century menu, and the experience of living in a comunal flat in the 1930s.
War and Peace and its author form a point of departure for various discussions throughout the book, which introduce the reader to real-life people and events: for example, various members of the Sheremetev clan, Russia’s wealthiest by the mid eighteenth century. Not just people but also places take star turns