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Molotov's Magic Lantern: A Journey in Russian History Hardcover – 11 Mar 2010

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Product details

  • Hardcover: 416 pages
  • Publisher: Faber and Faber; First Edition 3rd Impression edition (11 Mar 2010)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0571237800
  • ISBN-13: 978-0571237807
  • Product Dimensions: 16.1 x 3.5 x 24 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 4.2 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (20 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 346,871 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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'I'm not a Russianist, but one doesn't need to be a Russianist, or even to have any pre-existing strong interest in Russia, to recognise this book as a quite brilliant work - or to be compelled by it. Part of my great admiration for it comes from Rachel's style, which is continuously and unarchly elegant. I don't think I found a single sentence out of the tens of thousands I read that I wanted written any differently ... Its erudition would be alarming, were it not so gracefully and wittily worn ... A huge intellectual and stylistic achievement ... It's been a privilege to read the book.' --Robert Macfarlane<br /><br />'Beautifully written, finely-balanced and rich in exactly the kinds of detail that make Russia's culture come alive. It incorporates a formidable amount of scholarship in the lightest and most appealing way. Wonderful, sparkling stuff.' --Catherine Merridale<br /><br />'Everywhere on this journey, Polonsky shows great curiosity about the web of personality and history, 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.' --Simon Sebag Montefiore

'Polonsky weaves an extraordinary web of connections between people, places and books ... what is utterly fresh about this book is the personal engagement with the material, the capturing of place, mood and tone ... Although it would be hard to formulate all the truths that lie latent in this book, the command of detail is absolutely masterly.' --Sunday Telegraph

'It's a gem as she 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.' --Sunday Express

Book Description

A luminous, original and unforgettable exploration of a country and its literature, viewed through the eyes of Vyacheslav Molotov, one of Stalin's fiercest henchmen.

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Customer Reviews

4.2 out of 5 stars

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

51 of 54 people found the following review helpful By David Wineberg TOP 1000 REVIEWER on 1 April 2010
Format: Hardcover
I was not prepared for the first chapter. It traced Polonsky's Moscow apartment building's story in every direction. This building has seen a seemingly unending flow of celebrities and historical figures live and visit. It seemed as though every door and brick had a story. No lead was too insignificant to follow up. The stories branch in every conceivable direction. It is either astonishing passion, or obsessive-compulsive condition that has forced her to find out absolutely everything there is to know about the building and anyone who has lived or visited there. It becomes a microcosm of Russian history.

She then takes her show on the road, applying not just her detective talents, but her descriptive abilities on a tour of Russia that you and I could never take. Along the way, she crosses paths with the figures who haunt her apartment building, and we piece together their lives and their roles in Russian history. From the Baltic Arctic to the Siberian steppe, we see Russia and Russians today, choosing what they want to be proud of, ignoring (or ignorant of) the rest.

I thought it was going to be about Molotov, but in fact, it is about books and writers. Books tie everything and everyone together, and Polonsky buys books at every stop along the way. Russians' appreciation of their books, their libraries, their need for intellectual stimulation and diversion all work together to give us insight into Russia itself.

I thought the book slowed down the farther away we got from Moscow, and I liked the historical allusions better than the present observations, but overall, this is a fascinating journey.

I've never read anything quite like it.
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33 of 36 people found the following review helpful By R. H. Chandler on 17 April 2010
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
This is an unusual book. Rachel Polonsky weaves together many different stories, from many different times. She writes sharply about the present day, as in these lines about the Manege, a huge exhibition hall close to the Kremlin: `A few years ago, on the March night of Putin's second election to the presidency, the Manege caught fire. (No one thought the catastrophe was accidental. The Mayor, Yuri Luzhkov, produced plans for a renovation - complete with three floors of underground parking - the very next morning.) The wind blew pieces of flaming roofbeams [...] into Romanov [the street where the Polonsky family was then living], where they dropped, burning, on the asphalt, and smouldered into ash beneath our windows.' She writes movingly about the Soviet past, about Varlam Shalamov (the Primo Levi of the Gulag) and his admiration for the poet Osip Mandelstam. I was still more struck by her account of the lives of two important scientists. Sergei Vavilov, a physicist, became President of the Academy of Sciences. His more talented and more idealistic brother Nikolai, a biologist, was arrested in 1940. Polonsky quotes a fellow-prisoner's description of how, in a narrow, overcrowded basement prison cell, Nikolai `tried to cheer up his companions... he arranged a series of lectures on history, biology and the timber industry. Each of them delivered a lecture in turn. They had to speak in a very low voice.' Sergei, meanwhile, petitioned unsuccessfully for his brother's release. The story of the painful compromises he made with the Soviet authorities is as moving as the story of his brother's heroism: `Two years later, Sergei Vavilov sat up all night [...Read more ›
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11 of 12 people found the following review helpful By Amy Henry on 7 Jun 2011
Format: Hardcover
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.
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