Book Description (from Amazon.com)
Beginning in the eighteenth century with the building of St. Petersburg-a 'window on the west'-and culminating with the challenges posed to Russian identity by the Soviet Regime, Figes examines how writers, artists, and musicians grappled with the idea of Russia itself-its character, spiritual essence, history, and destiny. What did it mean to be Russian-an illiterte serf or an imperial courtier? And where was the true Russia-in Europe or in Asia? Figes skillfully interweaves the great works-by Dostoevsky and Chekhov, Stravinsky and Chagall-with folk embroidery, peasant songs, religious icons, and all the customs of daily life, from eating, drinking, and bathing habits to beliefs about death and the spirit world. His fascinating characters range high and low: the revered Tolstoy, who left his deathbed to search the wilderness for the Kingdom of God; the serf girl Praskovya, who became Russian opera's first superstar, won the heart of her owner, and shocked society by becoming his wife; the composer Stravinsky, who returned to Russia after fifty years in the West and discovered that the homeland he had left had never left his heart. Like the European-schooled countess Natasha performing an impromptu folk dance in Tolstoy's War and Peace, the spirit of 'Russianness' is revealed by Figes as rich and uplifting, complex and contradictory-a powerful force that unified a vast and riven country and proved more lasting than any Russian ruler or state.