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.”