on 1 April 2010
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.
on 17 April 2010
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 [...], smoking through several packets of cigarettes, asking himself whether to accept the post of president of the Academy [of Sciences], or to allow the appointment of Stalin's favourite Trofim Lysenko and the further devastation of Soviet science and agriculture.'
Polonsky is at once a travel writer, a supremely well-read literary historian and a brilliant anthologist. In the course of Molotov's Magic Lantern we read about her encounters, both in their books and in towns where they lived, with a large number of both well-known and little-known writers, priests, scientists and politicians. Time and again she presents us with memorable quotations from and about these figures. Here, for example, is one of her heroes, the scholar Dmitry Likhachev, writing about Dostoevsky, `He would catch hold of a fact, a place, a chance meeting or a newspaper report, and give it a continuation. He would populate the streets, open the doors into apartments, go down into cellars, make up biographies for the people he passed in the streets.' Dostoevsky's genius, according to Likhachev, was not `to structure a reality, but to structure his novels around reality.' Polonsky's concern is with real, rather than fictional, lives, but she too has a gift for catching hold of unexpected facts, going down into cellars, opening doors we would otherwise never notice ...
One chapter is devoted to Novgorod the Great - once the most important of Russia's several mediaeval city-states. Polonsky writes that it is `the genius of Novgorod's geography to accommodate wilderness in well-populated space.' Molotov's Magic Lantern is a complex and subtle work, but its variety of historical perspectives and its many layers of literary allusion do not prevent it too from accommodating both brutality and wildness - on the contrary, they enable the reader to imagine both Soviet brutality and Russian wildness more vividly.
on 7 June 2011
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 seem to reconnect with the original point. When I put down the book and later returned to it, I often felt as if nothing was familiar, and that I needed to go back several pages to recapture the narrative. A devoted Russophile would likely be delighted with her experiences as relayed in this book, but for most of us, it's simply too much "who, what, and where" without enough 'how' and 'why'.
British writer Rachel Polonsky lived in Moscow with her husband and four children for many years in the 1990's and later. As a Cambridge-educated journalist, she brought her writer's eye to the both the Russian capital and the outlying areas she visited during her years in Russia.
The Polonsky's main residence in Moscow was a large apartment building, #3 Romanov Street, near the center of the city. Many famous Russians had lived in the building, including Vyacheslav Molotov, close ally of Josef Stalin, and a man who had signed many death warrants as Stalin's aide. He also, of course, was a diplomat who concluded a pact with Germany's Joachim Ribbentrop in 1939, essentially keeping the USSR out of WW2 until the German invasion in June, 1941.
Among the other notables who had lived in the building were Leon Trotsky and several noted artists, politicians, and scientists. Now the building seemed occupied by wealthy Russian capitalists and foreigners posted to Moscow after the fall of Communism in 1989.
Polonsky takes the reader on a rather idiosyncratic look at both modern Russian society and that of the past, particularly in the later years of the Tsar and the Stalinist years. Most of what she writes about, most of whom she writes about, and most of where she writes about, have a connection to the past. In Russia today its not hard to be faced with echos of the past everywhere you go. Polonsky writes about places - Murmansk, Novgorad, Irkutsk, and many others - she visited. She's very good at tying loose pieces of history and society together. Many of these relate back to Molotov, who's tentacles seemed to have reached out over the years to touch many things. One of her pleasures is reading through Molotov's still untouched library, left in place since his death in 1980.
I wouldn't say Polonsky's book would appeal to the average reader. As it is, I was constantly referring to Wiki articles to learn more about the people and places she was writing about, and I have a pretty basic knowledge of Russian/Soviet history. But, actually, it's good to be "challenged" by a book, as I was. My only complaint about the book is the lack of photos. She did provide two maps - one of Russia and one of central Moscow - on which she noted some of the places she referred to in her text. But, it would have been wonderful to have photographs which went along with the text, too. I have no idea the cost to a publisher to include photos in a book, but this is a book that could have used them. In any case, it is a very good read for the right reader.
on 12 April 2010
This is a superb book. It clothes its deep and wide-ranging scholarship in the most agreeable garb -- panoramic and intimate views of Russia's vast landscapes, remarkable capital city, greatest poets, novelists and other writers, wicked rulers, obsessive librarians, its streets, apartments, monasteries... For those who know little or nothing of Russia, and for those who know Russia well, this is a great read and a completely fresh take on its history, its geography, its literature, its place in our world and its self-understanding and -misunderstanding. The author has seen Russia, not from a chauffeured car (except on occasions when having a driver maximises the gain both to the visitor and the local economy), but from the ground, close-up, by a kind of immersion, over almost a decade. And has done so with astonishing powers of observation, memory, historical research, imagination and re-imagination, and first-hand love of this book-loving nation's books. As for Molotov himself, his psychology is penetratingly revealed, his grim career as Stalin's most faithful killer is detailed, his love of books is laid before us without varnishing or evasion, and the psychpathologies of Marxism itself and of its Bolshevist embodiment are pinned down with an apparently effortless precision that political philosophers and political historians may envy. No footnotes, but rich, throughout, in telling quotations. There is a helpful bibliographical note tucked away at the end, a very fine index too, and the whole book seems more reliably informative than most works armoured with citations. A great tour, and, as I said, a great read.
on 7 November 2011
There's no doubting the author's passion for and knowledge of the subject matter. This is both the book's strength and weakness.
Each page is brimming with facts and allusions - in my view too much so. I found that Polonsky has a habit of wandering off on tangents and getting so caught up in demonstrating her expertise and providing incidental information that I frequently lost track of precisely what it was she was trying to say (and I fear that even she had the same experience).
Perhaps it was just my own wavering concentration, but the fact that my concentration was wavering in the first place means that something about the text was consistently losing me. Some more aggressive editing could have made the book a considerably more coherent and less dry experience. On this basis the reader needs to have a lot more than a passing interest in Russia to get the most out of this book, and there is a huge amount of assumed knowledge.
Moreover, there is no real narrative thread and no system of any kind to her travels. Of itself this is not a problem, and I think the motif of Molotov's lantern was introduced in an attempt to counter this, but I do think it could have been structured in a way to put the reader on notice that what you're really getting is a series of chapters that in most cases stand completely independently of one another.
One thing that did annoy me was the fact that Polonsky's travel companions are airbrushed out of the text entirely, but there is no way of knowing whether this was the choice of the writer, editor, publisher, or companions themselves. But a little bit of information here would have made the text more human and/or less egocentric for me.
So what is this book? It probably doesn't fit into any specific genre. Part travel book, part scholarly work, part history book, with a hint of personal journey thrown in. When it works it's very good, but when it doesn't work it's, well, distinctly hard work.
on 28 July 2013
This is not in any way a comprehensive history of Russia or the Soviet Union. Instead it is a record of Dr Polonsky's journeys around Russia pursuing things that interest her such as Dostoevsky, Chekhov, railway lines, provincial towns and their museums, and the history of a banya (a sauna) in Moscow, as well of course as the evil perpetrated by Stalin and his henchmen such as Molotov.
People are at the heart of the stories she tells us - some known to us in the West, others just ordinary people she met. She has obviously done a massive amount of research in preparing the book, but she wears her learning very lightly, and writing this has clearly been a labour of love.
Thank you, Rachel - I really do not know when I have enjoyed reading a non-fiction book more.
on 20 January 2016
Rachel Polonsky had the good fortune to arrive in Russia at the right time and place. The place was an apartment in Romanov Lane in central Moscow, not far from the Kremlin, and the time was during the first years of this century – or to be more precise, before the apartment above hers was sold and underwent a complete remodeling that left nothing behind from its one-time owner, Vyacheslav Molotov. Not even his magic lantern and his books.
When Polonsky moved in, though, part of Molotov’s private library was still stored there, and the Texas banker who rented the apartment from Molotov’s heirs allowed her free access to look through it. And what she found there, along with what she found out about the building itself, provided the twin inspirations for this book. When she opened the books from Molotov’s collection, she – like the recent investigator of Hitler’s library – discovered strands of the former owner’s hair. Her initial focus, naturally, was on what books were in the collection, whether their owner had read them or not (many uncut pages), and if he had, what underlining and marginalia did he leave behind?
At the same time, she studied the plaques honoring the dignitaries who had once lived in the buildings on her street, then went and talked with the current residents. In the nearby Lenin State Library she consulted books by and about them, including the last tsarist-era telephone book, which listed, for example, all the titles and memberships of Count Sergei Sheremetyev, whose remodeled palace is also located on the Romanov Lane.
Her excursions in Moscow take her to a storied banya (steam bath), where elegant young women could be seen conspicuously reading the latest best-seller, a new Russian translation of Spengler’s Decline of the West. In this one chapter, she provides perhaps a little more history than one cares to know, if you are not already a fan of the institution of the banya and its rituals. She details not only what people read there, but what they eat and drink; what Pushkin said about the banya; where the oldest one in Moscow is located, how Georgian ones differ from their Russian counterparts, what classes of people go there, what kind of folk work there, and the proper use of a loofah. She talks about banya poetry and Chekov’s story set in one – not to mention the architecture and furnishings. Others might think that suffering intense heat and being beaten with birch twigs is perhaps not the most enjoyable way to spend your time, especially when the chief payoff seems to be your feeling of relief when the ordeal is over. But this is an unfashionable opinion, not to be expressed in polite Moscow society.
After the banya, what could the next chapter be about except the dacha? Here in a district outside Moscow, she rescues the Balandins, a family of distinguished scientists who first prospered, then suffered under Stalin, from undeserved obscurity. She also resurrects Academician Olga Lepeshinskaya, a biologist and follower of the infamous Lysenko. Because she made the right political decisions, the career of this “Old Bolshevichka” was untroubled. She was so “shrewish, mean and untrusting… that she would poke through the garbage to check that her servant had not stolen any leftovers for her animals” (page 128). That’s the kind of person who was able to not only survive but prosper in those times.
Polonsky does not confine herself to Moscow and environs. She ventures into the hinterlands, going west to Novgorod (World War II buffs are treated to a rare glimpse of what the city looked like in 1944, after the Nazis had been pushed out); south to the region around the Sea of Azov; north to the Arctic (during the war, Molotov tried to claim Spitzbergen for the USSR, after the Soviets had occupied a few miles of northernmost Norway); and finally out to the far east, to Lake Baikal and beyond. It’s a shame she did not go to St. Petersburg.
The motto to chapter seven, taken from Dostoevsky’s “Winter Notes on Summer Impressions,” could serve as a motto for the entire work: “After all, an entire nation consists only of certain isolated incidents, does it not?” Polonsky’s book is a meandering stroll through Russian history and across the Russian landscape, following no definite path, heading in no particular direction. We are just meant to enjoy the journey for its own sake. The result is not as radical as Tristram Shandy but it has something of the same flavor. When she says near the end that she is tempted to “digress and delay,” (page 343), the reader is tempted to cry out, “What else have we been doing all this time?” It is only when we arrive at a destination that we find out what the goal was. When she goes to Staraya Russa on Lake Ilmen, where Dostoevsky wrote much of “The Demons,” my best guess is that she wanted to visit what was once the author’s house, since converted to a museum. But it turned out to be closed for renovation. When she travels to Irkutsk, her destination may have been the house of Maria Volkonskaya, the princess who heroically followed her husband, a Decembrist conspirator, into exile. Or was it the sanatorium that advertises itself as being able to cure the exhaustion one incurs in reaching the sanatorium itself? (Chekov said that every traveler arrives in Irkutsk exhausted.)
The effect of concealing the destination is that we seem to be drifting on a wide river, stopping here and there, chatting with this person and that. This has its attraction. The downside is that we do not share any sense of achievement at having completed an arduous task. One does not get the feeling that she has climbed a mountain so much as that she has wandered almost accidentally onto its peak.
This is for the most part an outstanding book, but it could have been even better. We are treated to so many descriptions of buildings, paintings, and photographs that a few pictures of them would have been welcome. Or does this run counter to the publishing philosophy of Farrar, Straus and Giroux? At least they allowed two maps, one of Moscow and one of Russia, though these are no more than adequate at best. The one of Moscow is spread over two pages, but since almost everything of interest is right in the center, that part is bisected, so you end up bending back the cover to make sure you haven’t missed anything in the fold. (Another reviewer on this site felt the need to supplement the maps by consulting Google Earth.)
Historical quibbles: Stalin may well have asked Marshalls Zhukov and Konev (page 17) who would take Berlin, the Soviets or the Western Allies? But in fact this question had already been decided at Yalta. Any competition for territory among the Allies would have been self-injurious, and so it was agreed that Berlin would be left to the Red Army. The only race was between the Zhukov and Konev themselves, and when Stalin posed his question, all three of them understood perfectly well what he really meant.
Final quibble: Admiral Pavel Nakhimov (1802-1855) commanded the Russian fleet at the battle of Sinope, where he annihilated the Ottoman fleet during the Crimean War. As an admiral, he does not belong on a list of “three great generals of Russian imperial history” (page 113). It’s a bit like calling the three great generals of British history Marlborough, Wellington – and Nelson.
All in all, this is history of a good kind – a series of human dramas. These are the people who once lived in this apartment or dacha or city, Polonsky tells us, and this is what they did. Or, since we are talking about Russia, perhaps it is better to say: and this is what happened to them. There will not be many people who, after finishing this book, will be able to say, “Well, nothing I didn’t already know.”
on 18 April 2013
Makes me want to go to Russia immediately and see the country through the eyes of this magnificent author, have a bath in Moscow bath house, travel the steps by train, visit the churches and the cities and immerse myself in the history of this country
on 28 September 2010
This is not a history of a Russia chronologically recorded, but an impressionistic account by an author deeply immerged in Russian literature. She bases her account on travels to historic places, quoting from books of and about prominent representatives of Russian culture who are connected to these places. And she does so in a very readable manner, though it is not always easy to follow her for one like me who is not a specialist on Russian history, and who is not always able to place the persons accounted for in their proper historical context.
However, Rachel Polonsky gives a vivid impression of a society rich in human and material resources, but also glimpses of Russia's brutal and turbulent history. The Gulag seems to play a dominant role in her history of many of the countries eminent citizens. Suffering is a keyword, but also enormous courage and moral integrity. For us living in the more levelled West: Russia will continue to fascinate.