Stalin’s violent henchman and his library may have inspired a modern classic
Mar 4th 2010 | From The Economist print edition
Molotov’s Magic Lantern: A Journey in Russian History. By Rachel Polonsky. Faber and Faber; 388 pages; £20.
EXPATRIATE spouses living pampered lives in Moscow often think it would be nice to write a book about their time there. The material is irresistible: vastness, extremes, depths and delights. But the trite, coy and overly personal jottings that result often prove quite resistible. Rachel Polonsky moved to Moscow with her lawyer husband and stayed for a decade. Her perceptive and erudite book is the exception and sets a standard to freeze the ink in others’ pens.
Ms Polonsky was a fellow at Cambridge University who initially planned to spend her time in Moscow working on a follow-up to her previous book, a heavyweight study of Russian orientalism. Instead she has produced a spectacular and enjoyable display of intellectual fireworks for the general reader.
The book’s core is other books: the fragments of a library that Ms Polonsky discovers in her neighbour’s flat, which once belonged to one of Russia’s greatest monsters, Vyacheslav Molotov. Stalin’s most devoted henchman in the blood-drenched years of the Great Terror, Molotov signed a record 373 death warrants for senior officials, including his close colleagues. He also co-signed, with Hitler’s foreign minister, Joachim von Ribbentrop, another death warrant—the deal that dismembered the countries of central Europe and the Baltic states. Toasted by Molotov and Hitler at a banquet in Berlin, the Nazi-Soviet pact consigned millions to death, slavery and destitution.
The butcher was a bibliophile. His books, sometimes annotated, or even with his moustache hairs left, repellently, as page markers, are much in Ms Polonsky’s thoughts during her journeys to Russia’s bleak north, lush south and distant east. Her finely drawn literary travelogues on Taganrog, Murmansk, Vologda, Irkutsk and other places depict squalor, pomp, misery, exhilaration, heroism and brutishness, each cameo framed in its historical, cultural and physical context.
Some of the material comes from Molotov’s books, others from Ms Polonsky’s well-stocked mind. Few readers will have her encyclopedic knowledge of the works of Anna Akhmatova, Isaak Babel, Anton Chekhov, Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Alexander Herzen, Varlam Shalamov and Marina Tsvetaeva, to name but a few. But while reading the book they will feel that they do. Ms Polonsky wears her considerable learning lightly.
She has a knack for putting herself into other people’s shoes with empathy and skill. During a visit to Moscow’s luxurious Sandunovsky bathhouse she spots a fellow-bather reading Oswald Spengler’s “Decline of the West”; another is applying a home-made unguent consisting of cream and coffee grounds. Spengler, a German historian, thought that cities were ulcers on the body of Russia. What, she asks, would he have made of this scene? That prompts a captivating excursion into the mystical significance of the steam bath, from its rural pagan roots to modern urban body worship.
Ms Polonsky’s interest in the spiritual comes across strongly. She highlights the significance of Aleksandr Men, an inspirational Orthodox priest murdered as the Soviet Union died. Her description of the Bolsheviks’ desecration of the Savvino-Storozhevsky monastery in the midst of the last monks’ final liturgy is memorable. So is her icy account of the creepy religiosity, bordering on paganism, that is to be found in the upper reaches of the current Russian regime.
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—whether for the civic traditions of ancient Novgorod, for the aristocratic rebels of the Decembrists or for more modern martyrs such as the Mandelstams or Anna Politkovskaya, a journalist murdered in 2006. The reader catches only fleeting glimpses of Ms Polonsky herself. That contrasts pleasingly with the self-centredness 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.