It’s not for nothing that Rachel Polonsky mentions Proust and Baudelaire early on in Molotov’s Magic Lantern: Travels in Russian History, because there is an evocative quality in her writing that occurs most often in French prose. Yet one of the many virtues of this marvelous book is that its author writes from what I can only describe as global consciousness.
Polonsky is very British, with a Cambridge degree to prove it. Yet her name suggests a Russian grandfather. She has a French style, a British education, and she gets inside the Russian psyche as very few foreigners — and very few Russians, for that matter — ever do.
The title of the book refers to the fact that she lived for a while in the Moscow apartment of Vyacheslav Molotov (1890-1986), who served as Stalin’s foreign minister, and who was therefore one of the most vicious people in modern history. Molotov’s apartment was at 3 Mokhovaya (Moss Street), in a building close to the Kremlin that housed many members of the Soviet elite over the years. (The location was convenient for the members of the secret police; when Stalin sent them to arrest, torture. and kill his closest associates, they didn’t have far to go.) Polonsky tells us, for example, that when they came to arrest Leon Trotsky in 1927, he wouldn’t go voluntarily. So they had to carry him down the stairs and out the door. This incident, which is one of many in the book, illustrates the way she merges people, places, and history into a single and singular understanding of Russia.
Furthermore, the title, Molotov’s Magic Lantern, comes from the fact that there really was a magic lantern, a kind of stereoscope, in Molotov’s apartment. What matters more is that his library remained in place and that no one had touched it in something like 50 years. Polonsky is as sensitive to books and their fates (always a problematic and emotionally charged issue in Russia) as she is to so much else. So she tells us that she sat down on the floor and went to work. She worked up a catalogue, and tells us what books Molotov had, who sent them to him, how much of them he read, and which passages he underlined. In short, she gets as close to the psyche of one of Stalin’s most vicious henchmen as anybody is ever likely to get.
She does this kind of thing over and over again as she travels to some of the many places that bear the weight of Russian history, such as the vacation community of LIcino, the historic church at Zvenigorod, and Solovki in the far north, which has the dubious distinction of serving as the first Soviet concentration camp. Russians, and those who love Russia, know that people who lived in these places affected Russian history in a variety of ways — often for the worse.
To her immense credit Polonsky does not allow moral outrage at what so many monsters have done to Russia and the Russians to interfere with her understanding of this deeply conflicted country, and her extraordinary ability to evoke the places in which they did it.
In short, this is not just a terrific book; it’s one of the best books ever written about Russia and the Russians.