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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.
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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
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on 2 February 2012
Molotov's Magic Lantern

>>>> In the 1990s Rachel Polonsky went to live in Moscow with her family. She found herself staying below the former apartment of Vyacheslav Molotov, one of Stalin's most ruthless henchmen. Here, Polonsky discovered his library, and his books became her starting point on a journey to discover a country she thought she knew.

Travelling from the far south to the high Arctic, she encountered the past of a country ravaged by war, famine, genocide and totalitarianism, but also the legacy of Russia's writers - their humanism, epic responses to war and commitment to spiritual values. <<<< Publisher's statement, back soft cover edition.

Subtitles matter: Is it, as in the amazon ad, Molotov's Magic Lantern: A Journey in Russian History, or, as on the facsimile title page, Molotov's Magic Lantern: Un-covering Russia`s Secret History? Well, from the book, quite obviously the second, so the publisher better correct the misleading parallel. It is also about a journey to infamous historic places.

A book, though interesting with either subtitle, I had difficulty getting into: A few chapters, then, in a later month, another try, this several times. Finally, the whole book in one go, twice in a row. Amazed, fascinated, about approach, style, storylines, literary and historical competence, all without the sensationalism an American academic and/or publisher would have tended to let flow into or out of it. Bad enough still that way, I nearly threw up more that once about so much arrogance and cruelty as the facts, though not new, once again documented.

Molotov, whom I remembered more as long term apparatchick foreign minister under Stalin, obviously also had Beria-like henchman qualities, an Eichmann-like bureaucrat and bibliophile killer in one. That his family, like Marshal Rokossowsky's, to name but two, well beyond the XXth Party Congress, the lost Cold War, and Gorbachov, today still occasionally sell a Persian carpet once obtained from the Shah in person, and otherwise demand continued government recognition for their families' contribution to the building of Soviet Russia, is indeed striking, considering their overall record.

Exploring first Moscow, for which, as all her journeys, Professor Polonsky provides adequate maps and literature, her trip goes to Rostov-on-Don, the Soviet Cossack capital, origin of legendary Cavalry General Budyonny and likewise his eternal memoiralist Babel. As so often in Russian and Soviet history, bad and good, soldiers and poets, are close together and get intertwined in memory. Likewise, Putin and his annual day out with the Secret Service nomenklatura are quite evidently in the best Russian tradition!

obus 3 - 2 February 2012
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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.
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on 28 March 2011
Molotov's lantern is a little like its name: a combination of highly unexpected things. Molotov was one of the most dreary and dull of the Soviet politicians, not absolutely evil like Beria or Vyshinski. And in this book he comes out both as a depply cultured intellectual and as a bloodthirsty executioner who signed most of the death sentences in the politburo. What Polonsky's book is mainly is about the cultural history of Russia described through different fascinating places and houses (the house in which Molotov lived was such a place, where many Soviet dignitaries had lived and from where Trotsky was taken by force to his exile). Although I am quite familiar with Soviet history and its terrible details, what Polonsky tells is mostly new and astonishing. The only complaint I could have is that it is sometimes a little loose in in its structure. An additional point of interest is the fact that the downfall of Orlando Figes came through his envious (and anonymous) review of this book.
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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.
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on 12 November 2013
Heard the writer speaking and found reading the book was a good follow-on.
An interesting insight of a society we usually missed amid all the political bias non Russian writers can't resist.
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on 27 April 2011
This is a beautifully written book, blending personal experience with scholarship. Quite why Orlando Figes, a fine scholar in his own right, gave this writer such a hard time I can't imagine, as they are quite different in style, approach and appeal. By the time I'd read the first 2 chapters I wanted to go to Russia and explore for myself. Unputdownable for anyone interested in Russian history and culture, or highly likely to turn the casual reader into one!
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on 16 October 2017
Full of interesting information
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on 25 October 2017
A fascinating insight into the Russian transition over seventy years
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