Molotov's Magic Lantern: Travels in Russian History


When the British journalist Rachel Polonsky moves to Moscow, she discovers an apartment on Romanov Street that was once home to the Soviet elite. One of the most infamous neighbors was the ruthless apparatchik Vyacheslav Molotov, a henchman for Stalin who was a participant in the collectivizations and the Great Purge—and also an ardent bibliophile. In what was formerly Molotov’s apartment, Polonsky uncovers an extensive library and an old magic lantern—two things that lead her on an extraordinary journey ...

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Molotov's Magic Lantern: Travels in Russian History

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When the British journalist Rachel Polonsky moves to Moscow, she discovers an apartment on Romanov Street that was once home to the Soviet elite. One of the most infamous neighbors was the ruthless apparatchik Vyacheslav Molotov, a henchman for Stalin who was a participant in the collectivizations and the Great Purge—and also an ardent bibliophile. In what was formerly Molotov’s apartment, Polonsky uncovers an extensive library and an old magic lantern—two things that lead her on an extraordinary journey throughout Russia and ultimately renew her vision of the country and its people.

In Molotov’s Magic Lantern, Polonsky visits the haunted cities and vivid landscapes of the books from Molotov’s library: works by Chekhov, Dostoevsky, Pushkin, Akhmatova, and others, some of whom were sent to the Gulag by the very man who collected their books. With exceptional insight and beautiful prose, Polonsky writes about the longings and aspirations of these Russian writers and others in the course of her travels from the Arctic to Siberia and from the forests around Moscow to the vast steppes. A singular homage to Russian history and culture, Molotov’s Magic Lantern evokes the spirit of the great artists and the haunted past of a country ravaged by war, famine, and totalitarianism.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
“Perceptive and erudite . . . [Polonsky] has produced a spectacular and enjoyable display of intellectual fireworks for the general reader . . . Ms. Polonsky wears her considerable learning lightly . . . She has a knack for putting herself into other people's shoes with empathy and skill . . . The contempt she feels for the greed, filth and viciousness that she encounters is all the more compelling for being understated. Her sympathy and affection for the finest bits of Russia's past and present shine through . . . The reader catches only fleeting glimpses of Ms. Polonsky herself. That contrasts pleasingly with the self-centeredness that is present in so much other Western writing about Russia. As her book shows, the author has grit, charm and style—and a gift for traveller’s tales.”—The Economist

"Everywhere on this journey, Polonsky shows great curiosity about the web of personality and history, and the connections between power and literature that form Russian history and society today, her erudition is always lightly-worn . . . I was gripped by this book—a delicious celebration of Russia, old and modern, from Pushkin to Putin, not only a guide to obscure places but also a meanderingly whimsical map of the soul and daily life of Russia, a luminous, charming and fascinating master class on literature, power, tragedy and death.”—Simon Sebag Montefiore, Evening Standard

“[An] elegant book . . . This is a many-layered portrait in which the strands of Russia past and present, town and countryside, real and intellectual, are interwoven with skill and . . . erudition.”—Mary Dejevsky, The Independent

“As promising and enticing as a novel . . . An unexpectedly delightful literary travelogue . . . Polonsky is not so much a wanderer as a meanderer of the mind . . . And Molotov’s Magic Lantern is not a piece of history, nor of literary criticism, but a pocket torch shone into the nooks and crannies between the two.”—Wendell Steavenson, The Sunday Times

"Polonsky weaves the events of Molotov's life into a fascinating and broad-ranging analytical reflection of her own odyssey through Russian history culture, and memory, A delightful read."—Barbara Allen, The Philadelphia Inquirer

“The result is an eccentric work, daring in conception, peculiar in construction, that incorporates all Polonsky’s teeming scholarly knowledge of Russia and the Russian people . . . In the course of her travels, Polonsky visits monasteries, dachas, sanatoriums and bath houses. Her chapter on Siberia in particular offers a meticulous reportage tinged with poetry, in which almost every page radiates gem-like images and an impressive literary craft . . . A magnificent achievement, in which Russia emerges as less a nation than a marvelous region of the mind.”—Ian Thomson, The Irish Times

“It’s a gem . . . [Polonsky] has achieved the unimaginable: a serious non-fiction account of Russia, which is as wide-ranging as it is entertaining . . . This is a wonderful account of a changing Russia . . . If you have always wanted to read an accessible, profound and original history of modern Russia, this is the book for you. It’s a challenging and demanding read but one that is hugely rewarding.”—Viv Groskop, Sunday Express

“Polonsky's detail-studded hybrid of travelogue, biography and political and cultural history is dense and scholarly, and dares to lack a dominant propulsive narrative . . . Rather, it beautifully competes with Russia’s endemic cultural amnesia to refract a terrifying national legacy through a bloodied sequence of endlessly shimmering stories, over which the figure of Putin still resolutely lies.”—Metro

“Fascinating skatulochka—jewelry box—of Russian history . . . Polonsky’s description of the far north of Russia made me long to visit, with its ‘other-worldly landscape. [Polonsky] achieves a more profound understanding of Putin’s Russia than many other foreign observers.”—Charlotte Hobson, The Daily Telegraph

“Polonsky weaves an extraordinary web of connections between people, places and books. Her own work seems to belong to no known genre. It is neither political history, nor literary criticism, nor travelogue reportage; yet it combines some of the best features of all three, illuminating aspects of Russian cultural life . . . What is utterly fresh about this book is the personal engagement with the material, the capturing of place, mood and tone . . . The command of detail is absolutely masterly.”—The Sunday Telegraph

“[Polonsky’s] book is as sensitive to literature and history as it is to the merely exotic, and she combines impressive scholarship, the work of years, with an admirably languid delicacy of touch . . . Polonsky’s imagination is mercurial, and it is for that, not Stalin’s grisly comrade, that the book delights . . . Anyone who loves Russia will be entertained, and some who do not may be tempted to start an adventure of their own . . . It is as delicate and enriching as a Russian poem, and it will certainly make a new generation of visitors to Russia think more colorfully about Europe's closest, endlessly surprising, other.”—Catherine Merridale, Literary Review

“Cogently descriptive, empathic, plucky, and acerbic, Polonsky begins with a tour of Moscow’s grim landmarks of the Stalin era, then ventures out into the countryside, excavating the tragic and heroic stories of writers and scientists who suffered banishment and worse, many the victims of Molotov’s industrious murderousness . . . Polonsky is so steeped in Russian history and literature that everywhere she goes, her inner magic lantern projects the past onto the present, the imagined onto the real, and what we see is an illuminated land of immense brutality and beauty, suffering and spirit.”—Donna Seaman, Booklist

Publishers Weekly
When she moves to Moscow, British journalist Polonsky discovers that the former apartment of Vyacheslav Molotov, Stalin's most loyal henchman, is right above hers. Purely by coincidence, she is conducted into Molotov's apartment and discovers, among other objects, much of the former leader's library, some of it crumbling to dust, and an old magic lantern. Like faded images waiting for the light of this antique slide projector, Russian history and the Russian present reveal themselves in glimpses, like figures rising out of the dark, to Polonsky. In this sometimes entertaining and sometimes dreary book of travels, Polonsky uses the rotting pages of the books in Molotov's library as a guide, sometimes tracing lines that lead to places of exile, quest, or crime. In her travels, Polonsky goes to Lake Ilmen, where Christianity challenged many pagan deities, as well as to the towns where Chekhov and Dostoyevski wrote their most famous works. Part memoir, part travelogue, and part literary history, Polonsky's reminiscences bring to life both the familiar and the obscure in Russian history and literature, and raise indirectly the question of how Molotov, with his deep love and apparent appreciation of literature, could be responsible for his role in the execution of so many writers during the 1930s purges. (Jan.)
Kirkus Reviews

Journalist Polonsky (English Literature and the Russian Aesthetic Renaissance, 1998) steps back into a near-vanished world of Soviet and Russian history.

Having moved to Moscow from England, the author and her family lived on Romanov Lane, in the apartment just below where Stalin's henchman Vyacheslav Molotov resided during the last years of his life (d. 1986). Polonsky was invited by the current resident to poke around the flat, and through his library she was able to illuminate "discrete moments" from Russian history as through a magic lantern: "Russian history and the Russian present have revealed themselves to me in glimpses," she writes, "through a narrow lens, like the faded images waiting for light in this antique slide projector." She was spurred in her scholarly pursuits by her own intensive reading. Throughout the narrative, she returns to her favorite works, including Walter Benjamin'sMoscow Diary, Dostoevsky's novels and the poetry of Osip Mandelstam. Romanav Lane was the rarefied address, successively, of the Russian aristocracy of "old Moscow," intriguers during the Revolution, the Soviet nomenklatura and today's wealthy financiers. Polonsky ventured on expeditions to far-flung cities such as Lutsino, a dacha colony above the hills of Moscow where distinguished scientists loyal to the Soviet state were offered summer homes; Mozzhinka, where Stalin's reluctant president of the Academy of Sciences, Sergei Vavilov, wrote his private memoirs; and some of the sites sacred to Chekhov, a favorite writer of Molotov as well as the author. She also visited Vologda, where "any individual who ever opposed the power of the state is likely to have passed through"; the northern cities of Archangel and Murmansk; and several Siberian towns—all in search of swiftly disappearing traces of these complicated, tragic lives.

A meandering, reflective, satisfying, intimate discovery of Russian history—though it may be too academic for many general readers.

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780374533205
  • Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
  • Publication date: 1/3/2012
  • Edition description: First Edition
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 416
  • Sales rank: 649,498
  • Product dimensions: 5.40 (w) x 8.20 (h) x 1.20 (d)

Meet the Author

Rachel Polonsky has written for Prospect, The Guardian, The Times Literary Supplement, and The Spectator, among other publications. She is the author of English Literature and the Russian Aesthetic Renaissance and lives in Cambridge, England, with her family.

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Sort by: Showing all of 2 Customer Reviews
  • Posted June 7, 2011

    more from this reviewer

    Too many small details overwhelm the more important ones

    Rachel Polonsky is a British journalist who enjoys a dream trip to Russia to explore Moscow and the city, and even stay in a historic apartment building. She's there to research another topic, but is intrigued by how much history actually lived in the building she temporarily resides in. Most notably, one floor was home to Soviet bad guy and Stalin pal Vyacheslav Molotov (and yes, sadly, every time I say his name I think of that Don Henley song: "Molotov cocktail, the local drink, and all she wants to do is dance"). The opulence of the street in the past, as well in the present, speaks to the contrast between impoverished Russia and luxurious excess.

    As she settles into the apartment, she begins sleuthing around to discover that other important Soviet residents had lived in the building or nearby. Trotsky, who fell from favor in his later years, lived in No.3. As he was to be exiled, she notes the events surrounding his departure. The apartment life, while plush, was tense.

    "...'prominent Soviet workers' would learn to keep the doors closed, not to look out when they heard the heavy tread of boots on the common staircase at night, the commotion of arrest in a neighboring apartment" (63).

    Polonsky's travels spread into the streets and outside the city. I most enjoyed the chapter "Staraya Russa" that described a spa town that promised restorative health benefits, and that was eventually a summer home to Dostoevsky where he wrote extensively. Tracing the history of the town through other writings, and visiting significant locations, she reveals a place where the wealthy went with great hope, enthusiastically applying the mud deemed curative for a wide variety of ailments.

    Later in the book she explores modern Russia under the realm of Putin. One tidbit: "the latest fashion in chic Moscow eating places is to order numerous elegant dishes and leave them on the table hardly touched. Almost everything on the menu costs a week's pension" (366). She notes that the Russian upper-class is heavily focused on appearances and status, something she connects as a common thread throughout the previous two centuries. "Putin's courtiers are more interested in their jackets, their watches and their coiffures than in any God-bearing mission of the Russian people, whatever they may say to 'the people' each night on the TV" (367).

    Covering a vast amount of subject matter such as contained in the book makes it overwhelming. Even with a better-than-average (but by no means scholarly) grasp of Russian history, the vast amount of names and places and events are hard to put into the context she gives. For example, to look at a random paragraph and see a dozen or more personal names, street names, neighborhood names and previous nicknames of the same place confuse the story she's attempting to tell. It's as if there is simply too much information given, with little distinction between a significant detail and a minor one, as both are given equal weight. The effect is jarring, in that it's difficult to fall into the spell of the events without feeling like you need to Google a few dozen names to make sense of it all.

    I think her extensive knowledge of Russian history gets in the way of clearly enjoying the book. When she's making an important point about bourgeois attitudes, she gets sidetracked into a tangent that meanders awhile and sometimes doesn't

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  • Anonymous

    Posted January 31, 2012

    No text was provided for this review.

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