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Molotov's Magic Lantern: A Journey In Russian History

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When the British journalist Rachel Polonsky moves to Moscow, she discovers an apartment on Romanov Street that was once home to the Soviet elite. One of the most infamous neighbors was the ruthless apparatchik Vyacheslav Molotov, a henchman for Stalin who was a participant in the collectivizations and the Great Purge—and also an ardent bibliophile. In what was formerly Mol When the British journalist Rachel Polonsky moves to Moscow, she discovers an apartment on Romanov Street that was once home to the Soviet elite. One of the most infamous neighbors was the ruthless apparatchik Vyacheslav Molotov, a henchman for Stalin who was a participant in the collectivizations and the Great Purge—and also an ardent bibliophile. In what was formerly Molotov’s apartment, Polonsky uncovers an extensive library and an old magic lantern—two things that lead her on an extraordinary journey throughout Russia and ultimately renew her vision of the country and its people. In Molotov’s Magic Lantern, Polonsky visits the haunted cities and vivid landscapes of the books from Molotov’s library: works by Chekhov, Dostoevsky, Pushkin, Akhmatova, and others, some of whom were sent to the Gulag by the very man who collected their books. With exceptional insight and beautiful prose, Polonsky writes about the longings and aspirations of these Russian writers and others in the course of her travels from the Arctic to Siberia and from the forests around Moscow to the vast steppes. A singular homage to Russian history and culture, Molotov’s Magic Lantern evokes the spirit of the great artists and the haunted past of a country ravaged by war, famine, and totalitarianism.


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When the British journalist Rachel Polonsky moves to Moscow, she discovers an apartment on Romanov Street that was once home to the Soviet elite. One of the most infamous neighbors was the ruthless apparatchik Vyacheslav Molotov, a henchman for Stalin who was a participant in the collectivizations and the Great Purge—and also an ardent bibliophile. In what was formerly Mol When the British journalist Rachel Polonsky moves to Moscow, she discovers an apartment on Romanov Street that was once home to the Soviet elite. One of the most infamous neighbors was the ruthless apparatchik Vyacheslav Molotov, a henchman for Stalin who was a participant in the collectivizations and the Great Purge—and also an ardent bibliophile. In what was formerly Molotov’s apartment, Polonsky uncovers an extensive library and an old magic lantern—two things that lead her on an extraordinary journey throughout Russia and ultimately renew her vision of the country and its people. In Molotov’s Magic Lantern, Polonsky visits the haunted cities and vivid landscapes of the books from Molotov’s library: works by Chekhov, Dostoevsky, Pushkin, Akhmatova, and others, some of whom were sent to the Gulag by the very man who collected their books. With exceptional insight and beautiful prose, Polonsky writes about the longings and aspirations of these Russian writers and others in the course of her travels from the Arctic to Siberia and from the forests around Moscow to the vast steppes. A singular homage to Russian history and culture, Molotov’s Magic Lantern evokes the spirit of the great artists and the haunted past of a country ravaged by war, famine, and totalitarianism.

30 review for Molotov's Magic Lantern: A Journey In Russian History

  1. 4 out of 5

    Maciek

    Rachel Polonsky is a British scholar of Slavonic Studies who currently lectures at the University of Cambridge, and Molotov's Magic Lantern is the result of her extended stay in Russia. Polonsky initially meant to spent 18 months in Moscow and study Russian poetry - but these 18 months became 10 years, in which Polonsky discovered significantly more of Russia than she originally intended. The book is not an organized chronicle of her travel, or subjects of study and interest; it comes off as mor Rachel Polonsky is a British scholar of Slavonic Studies who currently lectures at the University of Cambridge, and Molotov's Magic Lantern is the result of her extended stay in Russia. Polonsky initially meant to spent 18 months in Moscow and study Russian poetry - but these 18 months became 10 years, in which Polonsky discovered significantly more of Russia than she originally intended. The book is not an organized chronicle of her travel, or subjects of study and interest; it comes off as more of a love letter to Russia and its people, history and culture, weaving together many stories and facts from different places and times. The eponymous Molotov is of course Vyacheslav Molotov, a former Soviet minister of foreign affairs and the right hand of Josef Stalin. Molotov brokered some of the most important negotiations of the last century - he took part in the post-war conferences in Yalta, Potsdam and Tehran, and represented the Soviet Union in San Francisco during the creation of the United Nations. Molotov was a tough negotiator, whom Churchill described as "a man of outstanding ability and cold-blooded ruthlessness"; he was also a staunch Stalinist, fully supporting the policies of his superior - no matter how bloody. He ruthlessly enforced collectivization of agriculture, which included forced deportation and overseeing seizure of grain from starving Ukraine. He took part in the great purge, and outdid even Stalin in personally sentencing people to be executed. Although he later fell out of favor with Stalin, and under Nikita Khrushchev was practically removed from public and political life, he remained a staunch Stalinist and defender of Stalin and his ideas. To the end of his life, he denied the existence of a Nazi-Soviet non-aggression pact - even though he signed it with his own hand. During her stay in Moscow, Polonsky discovered that the apartment above hers in the elite building at Romanov lane in which she stayed was once occupied by Molotov - and upon inspection she discovers that the man who stood firmly and ruthlessly behind the tragedy of millions was a passionate bibliophile, who possessed not only a magic lantern but also a large library. Molotov read widely, and marked many of his books, writing his own opinions and thoughts in their margins. The same man who personally signed orders condemning people to their deaths spent his evenings reading books, and thinking about them. Polonsky's book is not a biography of Molotov, or even an account of his reading habits - his person and library are a point of reference to the vast number of Russian artists, writers, regions and cultural customs - from Moscow and Rostov-on-Don, through northern Murmansk and Arkhangelsk, to the far eastern Ulan-Ude in Buryatia, each connected by an invisible strand of history with Molotov's library. Readers criticized Polonsky for not writing an organized history of Russia and its culture, choosing instead or switch between various historical vignettes and small biographies; I think that in this case it is a strength, and not a flaw. Her book is not a scholarly work and study of Russian history, but it doesn't aim to be one. Rather it's an account of Polonsky's discovery of Russia, in which she presents a multitude of historical perspectives, writing vividly about the past and the present, threading together the stories and work of different people who helped shape it. Polonsky is a great storyteller, and Molotov's Magic Lantern will delight those with an interest in Russia - both budding and mature, and her skillful account of people, places and events will inspire her readers to research them even further, hopefully leading them onto their own journeys of discovery.

  2. 4 out of 5

    Anastasia Fitzgerald-Beaumont

    I've not long finished Molotov’s Magic Lantern – a Journey in Russian History by Rachel Polonsky. This is one of the books that Orlando Figes, another specialist in Russian history, tried to cheapen by an Amazon review, written supposedly by his wife, while talking up his own work. The whole affair was really quite sad because he is a decent historian, one whose work stands on its own merits, one who did not need to attempt assassination by review. Being a decent historian, sadly, is no guarante I've not long finished Molotov’s Magic Lantern – a Journey in Russian History by Rachel Polonsky. This is one of the books that Orlando Figes, another specialist in Russian history, tried to cheapen by an Amazon review, written supposedly by his wife, while talking up his own work. The whole affair was really quite sad because he is a decent historian, one whose work stands on its own merits, one who did not need to attempt assassination by review. Being a decent historian, sadly, is no guarantee against being a foolish human being. Molotov’s Magic Lantern is a superb piece of work, idiosyncratic, playful and learned. It reminds me in some ways of Rebecca West’s Black Lamb and Grey Falcon in that it is also part travelogue, part history and party intellectual exploration, though Polonsky is far less intense than West. Her quest, yes, it’s also a kind of quest, begins from an apartment block in Romanov Lane in Moscow, centred in an elite district, the home of important officials in both Tsarist and Soviet times. There she found herself staying beneath the apartment once occupied by none other than Vyacheslav Molotov, once Stalin’s foreign minister and collaborator in the great tragedy that overtook Russia in the 1930s. After he had been expelled from the party during the days of de-Stalinisation his wife made a personal appeal to Khrushchev for his readmission. In response he took her to the state archives, there showing her the numerous execution lists her husband had signed. But the paradox, the great paradox of the twentieth century, is that Molotov was no brute, as Polonsky discovered after she was allowed to explore his empty apartment. There she found not just his magic lantern but the remains of his library. She discovered that the monster was a bibliophile with a particular love of Chekhov. A lot of the books in the collection had been annotated by him in person. This is the heart of the paradox- humane, erudite and, yes, even loving people, people like Molotov, can be dehumanised by an almost total failure of the imagination, an inability to empathise with real people, people beyond the pages of books; dehumanised in the name of a human idea. Having thrown a stone into the pond Polonsky follows the rings out across Russia; from Taganrog in the south, where Chekhov was born, through Novgorod the Great in the west, to Murmansk in the north, all the way east to Lake Baikal in Siberia. She moves outwards and inwards at the same time, exploring the history of a people and its culture through places. The book is far from exhaustive and it is by no means a history of Russia in the most complete sense. Still less is it a biography of Molotov, who is at best of incidental importance. It’s her journey, and where she stops, in both place and time, is largely determined by personal reasons. Though she takes nothing for granted it helps, at least I believe so, if one has a little background knowledge. It’s not absolutely necessary; it just makes a reading a little bit richer. Molotov’s Magic Lantern is a clever, bold and imaginative book with just a soupcon of whimsy, a celebration of greatness and a lament for a tragedy, so much a part of the epic that is Russia.

  3. 4 out of 5

    tia

    I don't understand why The Economist would have called this book a "modern classic." It is a disjointed, distracting encyclopedia of Russian history from the perspective of an overly eager graduate student. The promise at the beginning of the book is that Polonsky will analyze Molotov, that "thin-necked" arch-villain of Mandelstam, viz-a-viz his library in No. 3, the "House of the Generals." The premise sounded fascinating. But Polonsky all but forgets this purpose in a chunk of the book and the I don't understand why The Economist would have called this book a "modern classic." It is a disjointed, distracting encyclopedia of Russian history from the perspective of an overly eager graduate student. The promise at the beginning of the book is that Polonsky will analyze Molotov, that "thin-necked" arch-villain of Mandelstam, viz-a-viz his library in No. 3, the "House of the Generals." The premise sounded fascinating. But Polonsky all but forgets this purpose in a chunk of the book and the reader is left wondering "what is this all about and why did I accompany this person?" As a result, the book devolves into a travelogue of a student making her way through Russia while regurgitating Akhmatov and name-dropping all manner of scientists, poets, and bureaucrats, some familiar, others beyond obscure (the paragraph 'devoted' to Timiryazev...really?) and just to demonstrate how annoying Polonsky could be, here's a shining example from her Epilogue: "And another curiosity: a polemic of 1899, re-covered in brown packing paper, by the great zoologist Timiryazev, called 'The Feeble Spite of the Antidarwinist', a polemic (yes, we got that!) against the Slavophile conservative Nikolai Strakhov, author of The Struggle Against the West in Russian Literature, associate of Sands's Apollon Grigoriev, one of Tolstoy's only close friends, and biographer of Dostoevsky, with whom he had a spite-filled friendship." HOLY FUCK. At one point I gave up highlighting and making annotations, it was just too much damn distraction. Or so I thought... giving up my desire to follow every name, every event, every book on magical Google carpet rides to greater knowledge, I found myself concentrating on her prose. It is redundant, disjointed. Polonsky often substitutes quotes for her own thoughts, or lack thereof. I still have no idea what the Epilogue had to do in reference to the rest of the book, especially the last half, by which I mean that her descriptions of a forever changing Moscow was in sharp contrast to the insinuations in the FIRST half of the book - that the more things change, the more they stay the same. Bah! But what REALLY irked me about the book was Polonsky herself, rather than her style of writing or her eagerness to impress. Her impressions of the rural people of Northern Russia pissed me off: she makes copious references to vodka and filth, filth and vodka.. (smirk).. and her remarks about Muscovites denouncing Gorbachev because he brought "democracy to Russia" are unfair. But again, Polonsky is an over-zealous English student, what should I have expected? I guess I expected more because of the Figes hype. Or something more along the polished research and originality of Elif Batuman. But I was disappointed on all fronts.

  4. 4 out of 5

    Paul

    Moscow is a city with layers and layers of secrets and history. Along with other cities in Russia, there has been a level of impenetrability and this mystic has made them a source of fascination for all outsiders. Rachel Polonsky, a British journalist, was fortunate to live in Moscow for a number of years, and where she lived had previously been home to some the elite of the Soviet era. One of those was Vyacheslav Molotov, a man responsible for condemning hundreds to exile to Gulags and almost c Moscow is a city with layers and layers of secrets and history. Along with other cities in Russia, there has been a level of impenetrability and this mystic has made them a source of fascination for all outsiders. Rachel Polonsky, a British journalist, was fortunate to live in Moscow for a number of years, and where she lived had previously been home to some the elite of the Soviet era. One of those was Vyacheslav Molotov, a man responsible for condemning hundreds to exile to Gulags and almost certain death. Polonsky discovers that his apartment in the block contains a substantial library full of books, some of which were written by those that he despatched to Siberia and an old magic lantern. This discovery that Molotov was a bibliophile was quite startling inspired Polonsky to voyage find the stories hidden in Siberia, to venture into the Arctic Circle, travel across the steppes and into the forests surrounding Moscow. This is a book that is full of detail of the people and the events that made the Russia revolution and the grip that the totalitarian state had on the people of Russia. Whilst she ventures far into the past of the country and writes about the complex relationships that had developed from the iron grip that Stalin had on the country, there is not as much on her travels around Russia that I would have liked, though it does give a flavour of contemporary Russia. Her prose is incredibly dense, but this is as much from the subject matter, as it is her style. Definitely a book for those that have a fascination with Russia and its history rather than being a travel book for a wider readership. 2.5 stars.

  5. 4 out of 5

    Ed

    I found this a grueling subject but an intriguing one very well written about. The author, a Russian scholar from Oxford, living in Moscow in the 1990s, found that the appartment above hers had belonged to Stalin's number two Molotov and the banker who now lived there gave her a key to study Molotov's library that was still there. So she was able to see all his books and also read his annotations. She uses this as the basis for her travels throughout rapidly changing Russia to follow up on autho I found this a grueling subject but an intriguing one very well written about. The author, a Russian scholar from Oxford, living in Moscow in the 1990s, found that the appartment above hers had belonged to Stalin's number two Molotov and the banker who now lived there gave her a key to study Molotov's library that was still there. So she was able to see all his books and also read his annotations. She uses this as the basis for her travels throughout rapidly changing Russia to follow up on authors and topics suggested by Molotov's library. In doing so she drills down into the Gulags, Chekhov, Siberia, and many aspects of Stalin's Soviet Union and into the head of Molotov too. I strongly recommend this for reading on days when you are feeling strong or need diversion from hard times in your own life. It puts it all in perspective.

  6. 5 out of 5

    Miss Bell

    The word "journey" in the subtitle is misleading. This book goes nowhere. I'm trying so hard to read nonfiction and learn something about history. Instead of helping with that goal, this book rattles pretentiously on and on about a duke's dressing room in 1837 with absolutely no context to help those of us who are new to Russian history. It skips around chronologically and focuses WAY too much on buildings instead of people. DULL - and I like history. The word "journey" in the subtitle is misleading. This book goes nowhere. I'm trying so hard to read nonfiction and learn something about history. Instead of helping with that goal, this book rattles pretentiously on and on about a duke's dressing room in 1837 with absolutely no context to help those of us who are new to Russian history. It skips around chronologically and focuses WAY too much on buildings instead of people. DULL - and I like history.

  7. 4 out of 5

    Amy

    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 wa 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'.

  8. 4 out of 5

    Mjstevens1

    Although we often review books, we rarely review readers. This should perhaps be a review of me rather than Molotov's Magic Lantern, as I feel many of the reasons why I didn't enjoy the book are my fault, not the author's. It just wasn't what I was expecting. I had read a couple of reviews, which had praised the book highly, and had followed the Orlando Figes controversy, so I thought I was aware of what the book was about. I was hoping to learn more about Russia today, the USSR, and Molotov. I Although we often review books, we rarely review readers. This should perhaps be a review of me rather than Molotov's Magic Lantern, as I feel many of the reasons why I didn't enjoy the book are my fault, not the author's. It just wasn't what I was expecting. I had read a couple of reviews, which had praised the book highly, and had followed the Orlando Figes controversy, so I thought I was aware of what the book was about. I was hoping to learn more about Russia today, the USSR, and Molotov. I was excited about the innovative idea of using Molotov's wide collection of books, discovered in the apartment above Polonsky's rented Russian home during her time in Moscow, as a way into these themes. But really I thought this interesting idea was abandoned as any form of structuring the book early on. Instead, chapters are loosely arranged by location. There is no real clue as to why the locations come in the order they do, or if the author had a wider aim in visiting them than just 'seeing some of Russia'. I learned a little more about Molotov, but with many black holes still. I learned a little about life in the USSR, a bit more about Russia today. There is also lots in the book about Pushkin and his era, and other points of 19th century Russia, which I must admit I was less interested in. But the overwhelming lack of any sort of coherent structure made this a very difficult read for me. The book is poetic and digressive, and while I can see how this might be charming if you are in the mood, I hungered for a more organised approach to clarify the author's thoughts/conclusions. But then this isn't really a book of thoughts or conclusions, but more like flicking through a large and disorganised collection of photographs or sketches - many passages of writing are beautiful, some are wonderfully illuminating, some offer charming vignettes of Russia. But equally I found many annoying, wasteful, muddled - and was constantly having to flick back and forth around the book to remind myself of names/locations/times. As I say, I am happy to accept much of the fault on myself - it is a rather beautifully written travelogue, if you are prepared to devote quite a high level of attention, and if you have a decent prior knowledge of Russian history/culture.

  9. 4 out of 5

    Dara Salley

    This novel is what I would call “a charming little book.” There are many series discussions about the history of Russia; this book is more like a pleasant stroll along the path of the past. Polonsky lingers over the interesting and poignant moments that interest her, and then skips lightly to the next subject. Reading this book was like reading the diary of a very knowledgeable and articulate friend. The overall structure of the book has two inspirations, the cities that Polonsky visits and the b This novel is what I would call “a charming little book.” There are many series discussions about the history of Russia; this book is more like a pleasant stroll along the path of the past. Polonsky lingers over the interesting and poignant moments that interest her, and then skips lightly to the next subject. Reading this book was like reading the diary of a very knowledgeable and articulate friend. The overall structure of the book has two inspirations, the cities that Polonsky visits and the books contained in Vyacheslav Molotov’s library. Polonsky dives into the psyche of Russia through the mind of one of its most terrifying communist leaders. She also visits sights of historical significance, taking note of which parts of the past are remembered, and which are buried and forgotten. Despite the fact that the book is an introspective, first person account, Polonsky doesn’t discuss her personal life much. However, she must have some impressive connections and a lot of cash to gain access to the places she visits. The inspiration for the book comes from the preserved library of Molotov in a historic Moscow building. She gains access to this private area and combs through his books and notes, ruminating on his motivations and desires. From this starting point she weaves together a story of the lives of different people throughout Russian history, always coming back to the connection with Molotov and the communist state. It’s hard to view Russia impartially from a Western perspective. Polonsky’s attitude combines open-eyed criticism with an unabashed Russophile love. She discusses the atrocities of the Soviet state, as well as the ongoing repression of the Putin era while also give the nation its due for creating many passionate and brilliant artists, scientist and statesmen. Her book is case study in how to immerse yourself in the culture, history and politics of a country without necessarily agreeing with the choices it has made. That’s something that Americans and Russians can both appreciate.

  10. 4 out of 5

    Jaci

    Originally published in the UK, I waited for Amazon to get the US edition. Not sure what I expected but I definitely enjoyed the thought of tracing someone's life with the books they collected (maybe read?) and actually doing the traveling necessary in relationship to Molotov. A travel book with benefits... It did not hurt that she started with a quote from Bob Dylan: "I can't feel you anymore, I can't even touch the books you've read," before moving on to Nikolai Fedorov, a "museum keeper." "He Originally published in the UK, I waited for Amazon to get the US edition. Not sure what I expected but I definitely enjoyed the thought of tracing someone's life with the books they collected (maybe read?) and actually doing the traveling necessary in relationship to Molotov. A travel book with benefits... It did not hurt that she started with a quote from Bob Dylan: "I can't feel you anymore, I can't even touch the books you've read," before moving on to Nikolai Fedorov, a "museum keeper." "He believed that the keeping of books was sacred work. A library catalogue, he thought, should be arranged by the authors' dates of death, like a calendar of saints' days. The book, he believed, is the most exalted among remains of the past, for it represents that past at its most human, the past as thought. For him, only the struggle against the common enemy death, the task of resurrecting the 'fathers,' would unify mankind." p.11 Polonsky goes on: "Yanin talked of the vital importance of the archaeologists' research, of the ongoing flow of cultural self-discovery, their movement forward into the past, about which there is always more to say, repeating and lingering on the word raskrytie, which means opening, unfolding, detection, exposure, revelation." p.170 "I discovered that even now a mystique of Staraya Russa is being cultivated to serve Russia's new era of Orthodoxy, Autocracy and Nationality. This quiet place has become the symbolic heartland of a mythology of soil and tribe that has seeped from the works of nineteenth-century Russian writers into the sanctuaries of Putin's secret police." -- p.184 Polonsky references Pavlov (yes, the dogs) and Chekhov and Shalamov and Boris Akunin! How happy am I. Akunin (Grigory Chkhvartishvili) is a favorite. OK, this is an historical current book review historical gloss...very nice. Lots more quotes but I'd be copying the entire book.

  11. 5 out of 5

    Lisa Hayden Espenschade

    Molotov's Magic Lantern is now officially in Limbo after languishing there for many moons... though there's some interesting material about Russian cultural history here, the book was too scattered (and too personal) to hold my attention for very long. I may yet return, though, since some of the chapters ahead are about favorite places, including Arkhangel'sk. Molotov's Magic Lantern is now officially in Limbo after languishing there for many moons... though there's some interesting material about Russian cultural history here, the book was too scattered (and too personal) to hold my attention for very long. I may yet return, though, since some of the chapters ahead are about favorite places, including Arkhangel'sk.

  12. 5 out of 5

    David Edmonds

    Perfectly combines a bibliographical theme with literature and travel, leading to new authors and barely heard of Russian regions.

  13. 4 out of 5

    Kathy Larason

    Enlightening & well written history of all things Russian. I learned a lot about the Soviet era. I'm buying a copy of this to take with me to Russia. Enlightening & well written history of all things Russian. I learned a lot about the Soviet era. I'm buying a copy of this to take with me to Russia.

  14. 4 out of 5

    Bettie

    Mentioned in dispatches: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/bo... Mentioned in dispatches: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/bo...

  15. 4 out of 5

    Chris Reid

    British writer in Moscow discovers the apartment building she lives in on Romanov Street was once the home to Molotov - and Kruschev and several other members of the Soviet elite. The magic lantern is discovered in the library of Molotov’s apartment and becomes a metaphor for the magical thinking that was so endemic among that group, as well as, I think the belief system that kept many of the poets and writers functioning until the day so many of them met their fate in the Lubyanka or some other British writer in Moscow discovers the apartment building she lives in on Romanov Street was once the home to Molotov - and Kruschev and several other members of the Soviet elite. The magic lantern is discovered in the library of Molotov’s apartment and becomes a metaphor for the magical thinking that was so endemic among that group, as well as, I think the belief system that kept many of the poets and writers functioning until the day so many of them met their fate in the Lubyanka or some other dark cellar used by the regime to terminate those who it found lacking the appropriate enthusiasm for the the new age they were creating. From Moscow it becomes a journal of travels across much of the country with important stops in Novogorad and Volga. I found the first chapters set in Moscow and then in a dacha colony close by slow and not easily followed, perhaps because I read the first part intermittently over several months and interspersed with my reading other books. Once in Novogorad the pace picked up - and Polonsky seemed more engaged herself in the currents of the ancient histories of the Rus and how they moved through the city as a sense of faith and mission in the city and the people. Once there I could see one of the points of genesis for Russia’s sublime sense of its own purpose and role. I am often accused by beloved members of my family of having an unrealistic sense of American Exceptionalism as an explanation for USA’s role in the world of the the 19th and 20th Centuries. That is nothing when compared to Russia’s belief in its proper destiny in the world. And then quite suddenly, Polonsky will describe the work of a writer who was sent to the Gulag to die, or the chilling scene from the period during the time of the Great Patriotic War (Russia’s name for WWII) when Caterpillar tractors sent to the USSR under the Lend Lease program were used to bulldoze the dead from the gulags into mass graves. I had the good fortune to be in Moscow several times during the years Polonsky was living in Moscow; it was during the first Putin Administration. The strange combination of optimism and cynicism, of glitz and old grandeur, of corruption and direct honesty fascinated me each day. Two examples: much of the structure of Russian bank accounting is implicitly created to be quite precise and accurate in terms of cash accounting, while at the same time providing ready identification for the authorities across any number of accounts and any number of banking institutions and the requirement to ensure FSB’s (the KGB’s successor) easy access to otherwise massively secure banking networks. The book took me too long to read; that would be the single biggest complaint I have; I think the British, discursive travel writing at times had my eye glaze over. And yet, I ended both very glad a made it past the Moscow scenes and out to Novogard and on to the end.

  16. 4 out of 5

    Jaclyn

    Rachel Polonsky, a journalist, moves to Moscow from England to work on research. While there, she discovers that the apartment directly above hers (ironically, on Romanov Lane) once belonged to notorious Stalin henchman Vyacheslav Molotov. Polonsky befriends the current resident of Molotov's apartment, who gives her a key and tells her to look around as much as she likes, since Molotov's possessions are all still there. What she discovers is surprising - Molotov, the man responsible for sending Rachel Polonsky, a journalist, moves to Moscow from England to work on research. While there, she discovers that the apartment directly above hers (ironically, on Romanov Lane) once belonged to notorious Stalin henchman Vyacheslav Molotov. Polonsky befriends the current resident of Molotov's apartment, who gives her a key and tells her to look around as much as she likes, since Molotov's possessions are all still there. What she discovers is surprising - Molotov, the man responsible for sending myriad Russian writers and intellectuals to the Gulag or to their deaths, whose signature was on lists of hundreds of names marked "to be shot," was also an "ardent bibliophile" who collected the works of the very intellectuals he had sent into exile or to state-authorized murder. Polonsky's perusal of Molotov's library sends her on a journey to towns and cities all across Russia, from Archangel in the north near the White Sea, to Rostov-on-Don in the south, from Moscow to Siberia. Everywhere she travels, Polonsky details the scenery of present day, interspersed with descriptions of the various Russian writers and scientists who had called those regions home and, where applicable, the cities' connections to Molotov. I really enjoyed reading about Polonsky's obvious love of Russia and the Russian people. While I might not have a great desire to visit Archangel in the winter (brrrrr!) I'm glad that someone does. And she made me realize that for someone who loves Russian literature as much as I do, I've barely scratched the surface of it. I might be familiar with Tolstoy and acquainted with Bulgakov, Gogol, Chekhov and Pushkin, but I've never read anything by Mandelstam, Akhmatova, or Tsvetsaeva. I need to rectify that, clearly. Molotov's Magic Lantern wasn't perfect. It lacked a clear narrative and there were entire chapters that went by without a mention of Molotov, who I took to be the unifying point in the cities and towns Polonsky chose to visit. There were times when I bogged down in too many Russian names that I didn't recognize, and chapters that were just dismal, where I wondered if it would have killed Polonsky to travel during the summer months instead. But in general this was a fun read, if a bit dense at times. And it did make me want to visit Moscow (and St. Petersburg, where Polonsky doesn't really go), although it cured me of any desire to ride on the Trans-Siberian Railroad to Irkutsk. So I have to thank Polonsky for saving me from that.

  17. 4 out of 5

    julie

    this book traces history through the various moscow buildings of significance...talking about those who lived there and what they did, both within and without the walls. it has moments of great poetry and deep thoughts (mostly in the form of quotes by others), but trudging through a slew of names caused me to abandon it before i finished. tho' written by a brit who happened to end up living in one of the apartments at no. 3 romanov lane, she is a Russian namedropper of unprecedented namedropping this book traces history through the various moscow buildings of significance...talking about those who lived there and what they did, both within and without the walls. it has moments of great poetry and deep thoughts (mostly in the form of quotes by others), but trudging through a slew of names caused me to abandon it before i finished. tho' written by a brit who happened to end up living in one of the apartments at no. 3 romanov lane, she is a Russian namedropper of unprecedented namedropping, and as such, a bit of a bore. she did, however, make me want to read Walter Benjamin's Moscow Diary and Oswald Spengler's The Decline of the West however, before i abandoned it at the dacha in Lutsino, i found these gems: "Fyodorov believed, quite literally that books were animate beings, because they expressed the thought, the souls, of their authors." "IS there a set of secret maps to be found among a perosn's books, a way through the fortifications of the self?" "Man's task on earth was the material resurrection of the dead ('not as crazy as it sounds' remarked Lev Tolstoy), who were present, unconstituted in the library dust, souls waiting in books for the systematic returning of past generations to life." "A recollection is a lightning flash of the past, which shines and lights up the path we have travelled." (said by Pushkin's friend, Prince Pyotr Vyazemsky. "The nomadism of seething Moscow, the refusal of settled bourgeois life, was part of the lure of the Russian Revolution for foreign sympathisers. Walter Benjamin perceived something unsettled, provisional and wild about Moscow itself. It seemed an 'improvised metropolis that had fallen into place overnight'." "He told his editor Martin Buber that he would write a 'physiognomy' of Moscow for the journal The Creature an essay which would allow 'the creatural (sic) to speak for itself', seizing and rendering the 'very new and disorienting language that echoes loudly through the resounding mask of an environment'." (The "he" being referred to her is Walter Benjamin. "Intelligence is the replacement of unconscious living by the exercise of thought, masterly, but bloodless and jejune." (quoting Spengler)

  18. 4 out of 5

    TomF

    Drawn not just from ten years' residence but a lifelong entanglement with all things Russian, this travelogue through time delves into forgotten books, steps back to trace the stories etched on buildings, and generally jumps from invigorating banyas to frozen political wastelands, via 'grey haired' rivers, with fluidity and skill. Dostoevsky, Chekov and their ilk act as cultural waypoints in a landscape thick with political intrigue. Stalin doodles wolves on the margins of history, mystics dress Drawn not just from ten years' residence but a lifelong entanglement with all things Russian, this travelogue through time delves into forgotten books, steps back to trace the stories etched on buildings, and generally jumps from invigorating banyas to frozen political wastelands, via 'grey haired' rivers, with fluidity and skill. Dostoevsky, Chekov and their ilk act as cultural waypoints in a landscape thick with political intrigue. Stalin doodles wolves on the margins of history, mystics dress in plain clothes, and geography churns Tsars and 'salt of the earth' alike. Sometimes she takes on so much you feel she's like an Arctic painter she mentions, spreading himself desperately over a small iceberg in the hope that it will not fragment. Miraculously, she does manage to blend all the elements together, and create a distinctive impression of these varied and sweeping lands. On the downside, any book that opens with an untranslated French quote is off to bad start with me, & Polonsky's 'journey in Russian history' meanders dangerously close to being too stuffy, bookish, and self involved at times. She's a bibliophile tracing the marks left in the collections of other obsessive readers, as much as a stranger absorbing the cultures and politics of a diverse foreign land. Her writing is 'opulent and spare' in the style of the Lef journos she mentions, documenting facts, but also decorated by poetic observations of contemporary Russia. You do sometimes wonder if we really need to know that the neat businessman was splashed by the bus, or what local dish she had for dinner, but often it does help demonstrate the emotional prism through which she's viewing these environs, recognising that this is a personalised journey as well as an analysis of convoluted times. And hey, when the person in question is interested in everything from spy stories, to seditious poetry transferred via pencil and fire, to rumours of Putin believing in a hallowed hollow earth, she's alright by me ;) 4--

  19. 4 out of 5

    Richard

    I really enjoyed this read. It led me to my world atlas and a close scanning of Russia, following Ms Polonsky's travels. Her travels began with matriculation at Cambridge for a fellowship with Edward Sands who had died intestate shortly before her arrival. Sands had served with the English fleet on the Murmansk-Archangel runs in the early '40s, leading to his study and teaching of Russian literature. The author is given the run of his digs to sort out his library and papers, allowed to keep what I really enjoyed this read. It led me to my world atlas and a close scanning of Russia, following Ms Polonsky's travels. Her travels began with matriculation at Cambridge for a fellowship with Edward Sands who had died intestate shortly before her arrival. Sands had served with the English fleet on the Murmansk-Archangel runs in the early '40s, leading to his study and teaching of Russian literature. The author is given the run of his digs to sort out his library and papers, allowed to keep what was not of value to the university libraries. On her arrival in Moscow, she moved into a history-laden apartment which had been occupied by Molotov. Her curiosity about Sands and Molotov's libraries and her pursuit of the connections leads her from Moscow across the Russian compass from Irkutsk and Ulan Ude, just above Mongolia, to Murmansk and Archangel at the Barents Sea, cities about Moscow to the north. In the process, besides giving a guided tour of Tsarist and Soviet places of exile, lists of the victims of Stalin and Molotov's murderous repression, and marvelous descriptions of place whether buildings, towns, forget, and rivers, she reveals the mythic and real sources of the Russian people and their literature, from the first Russian vernacular work in the mid-seventeenth century through the great nineteenth-century writers into the broken yet resilient poets and authors of the twentieth. Save for Putin, time has erased all but traces of the Soviet Union as its leaders had done to so many of their contemporaries. I can say that I am very glad to have read this book, learning page by page, enjoying the clear and sharp prose style. It is perhaps no accident that Ms Polonsky devotes significant space to Chekov from whom she has learned a great deal in understatement, irony, and compassion. A lovely book.

  20. 5 out of 5

    Tito Quiling, Jr.

    I have to admit that I was sold when the back cover stated that it would a good read for the Russophile and those who have an inkling of an interest in Soviet history. The first few chapters were strong, as it laid the background of the author's point of view and her starting point--living as a transient in No. 3 on Romanov Lane. There were snippets of history from the tsarist period to Gorbachev's era and this was effectively carried out because of the secondary references to literary figures s I have to admit that I was sold when the back cover stated that it would a good read for the Russophile and those who have an inkling of an interest in Soviet history. The first few chapters were strong, as it laid the background of the author's point of view and her starting point--living as a transient in No. 3 on Romanov Lane. There were snippets of history from the tsarist period to Gorbachev's era and this was effectively carried out because of the secondary references to literary figures such as Fyodor Dostoevsky, poetess Marina Tsvetaeva, to name a few. What I liked about the progression is that she incorporated railway travel as it was such as an integral part of the development of Russian cities and towns, from St. Petersburg to Vladisvostok (although I would preferred that there was more of the description of the places she mapped out in the beginning). However, there were instances when the historical facts overpowered the chapters in providing her own insight to the historical past and the calendrical present. By the time I got to the last four chapters and the epilogue, I was trying to find the author in it because the voice was lost in all the barrage of information. Nevertheless, this is a decent, ancillary piece to looking at Russian history from the view of a non-Russo.

  21. 5 out of 5

    Lizixer

    This is a dense book. It has so much in it that you find yourself following several trails at once. Beginning in a flat full of books that once belonged to Molotov, Polonsky uses their discovery to deliver a history lesson, discussions of Russian literature and poets, a travelogue of a Russia that disappeared in the Revolution and one that is emerging under Putin. She offers insights into the modern country that is increasingly looming large in our consciousness and into the kind of people who r This is a dense book. It has so much in it that you find yourself following several trails at once. Beginning in a flat full of books that once belonged to Molotov, Polonsky uses their discovery to deliver a history lesson, discussions of Russian literature and poets, a travelogue of a Russia that disappeared in the Revolution and one that is emerging under Putin. She offers insights into the modern country that is increasingly looming large in our consciousness and into the kind of people who run it with their private security and their nationalist, religious mysticism. Putin believes in Shangri-la (Shambala) and wants to find the way in. This man is running one of the most powerful nations on Earth. Worried? Me? Time and again, Molotov appears in the narrative a figure in the monstrous terrifying Stalinist regime that saw the brightest and the best exiled and murdered. Starting at his apartment where the author has a flat in the same block, all the most familiar 20thC figures from the Revolution onwards make an appearance as their connection with number 3 is traced and then followed out to the Mongolian borders where Russia becomes myth, legend, a spiritual landscape place full of madmen and shamen. This is an extraordinary book full of treasure. Read it.

  22. 5 out of 5

    Sarah

    This book is rather all over the place, geographically and thematically, but not too bad for that. It's not a complete journey through Russian history - and rightly the subtitle is 'A Journey IN Russian History' - but more of a selective and slightly confusing journey through Russian intellectual history, or something like that. Anyway it's packed with interesting stuff, engagingly but also a bit confusingly, and mostly about 20th century Russia... and in the last chapters, it drifts into what s This book is rather all over the place, geographically and thematically, but not too bad for that. It's not a complete journey through Russian history - and rightly the subtitle is 'A Journey IN Russian History' - but more of a selective and slightly confusing journey through Russian intellectual history, or something like that. Anyway it's packed with interesting stuff, engagingly but also a bit confusingly, and mostly about 20th century Russia... and in the last chapters, it drifts into what seems to be a fairly indiscriminate packing in of sentences, some of which, sorry to say, are waffle. I'm thinking that it would have been more readable as a book of two parts: travel through Russia with a good bit of history (and this stuff is very good: Vologda, Arkhangelsk, Rostov, Irkutsk etc), and then a piece on the writers of this century, their work, their relationship to Russia and their fates. The index is very thorough (and kindle-ised), which is good.

  23. 5 out of 5

    Katie

    I'm not sure how to review this book. Firstly, I want to mention that I studied Russian and Soviet literature and history somewhat extensively in college. I have a decent enough background to "keep up" with this loooonnnnnggggg survey of literary and political figures. I like the author's concept of interweaving her experience of being given access to Molotov's apartment and her travels as a student in Russia within a greater scheme of Russian history. However, I felt lost reading the book. It's I'm not sure how to review this book. Firstly, I want to mention that I studied Russian and Soviet literature and history somewhat extensively in college. I have a decent enough background to "keep up" with this loooonnnnnggggg survey of literary and political figures. I like the author's concept of interweaving her experience of being given access to Molotov's apartment and her travels as a student in Russia within a greater scheme of Russian history. However, I felt lost reading the book. It's extremely dense, which isn't necessarily bad, but I had trouble identifying a narrative. It often seems random and tangential. I admit that I ended up skimming toward the end, and I gave up on a couple chapters and moved on to the next one. I should have loved this book. I can't say I disliked it, but I don't think I "got" it.

  24. 4 out of 5

    Danielle

    I was disappointed in this book. Not necessarily because it was bad, just because it was very different from what I was expecting. It was dense and focused very heavily on Tsarist-era and early Soviet period intellectual history. It was rambling and difficult to follow, at times incredibly minute in detail, but at other times very abstract. I can see the point of many of Polonsky's efforts in this text, but it was an awful lot of work to extract the relevance to modern-day Russia. I was hoping f I was disappointed in this book. Not necessarily because it was bad, just because it was very different from what I was expecting. It was dense and focused very heavily on Tsarist-era and early Soviet period intellectual history. It was rambling and difficult to follow, at times incredibly minute in detail, but at other times very abstract. I can see the point of many of Polonsky's efforts in this text, but it was an awful lot of work to extract the relevance to modern-day Russia. I was hoping for a bit more of her travel experiences and stories, using the books in Molotov's library as a starting point. I'm giving it three stars for sheer erudition, but I can't honestly say I consistently enjoyed this book or learned a great deal that will stick with me. I do think I like the book a bit more when I reflect on it and get some distance from it.

  25. 4 out of 5

    Oriana

    from The New Republic via Powell's: Molotov's Magic Lantern is an unusual book, one that might be about the history of collective farming on one page and about the poet Anna Akhmatova's Italian honeymoon on the next. It is, at heart, a book about books -- and, more specifically, about the Russian books that Polonsky so obviously loves and knows so much about, and the fecund Russian soil that the authors of those books mostly loved but sometimes loathed, and, lastly, the blood that has been spill from The New Republic via Powell's: Molotov's Magic Lantern is an unusual book, one that might be about the history of collective farming on one page and about the poet Anna Akhmatova's Italian honeymoon on the next. It is, at heart, a book about books -- and, more specifically, about the Russian books that Polonsky so obviously loves and knows so much about, and the fecund Russian soil that the authors of those books mostly loved but sometimes loathed, and, lastly, the blood that has been spilled on that earth by men for whom the power of ideas triumphed over the impermanent domain of flesh. oh my yes.

  26. 5 out of 5

    Richard

    Nice to read a Russia book written for Russian experts, whether the autodidact or Ozford educated, or both, her style is spare, tight. Descriptive, small tidbits of trivias about Russia or the hundreds of personalities that make up her book, of course the largest most complex personality is Russia herself. I thought I knew nearly everything and came away even more complex. A romp. I wont use any Russian metaphors. The book isnt a "troika journey" or something like that. Its very good, erudite bu Nice to read a Russia book written for Russian experts, whether the autodidact or Ozford educated, or both, her style is spare, tight. Descriptive, small tidbits of trivias about Russia or the hundreds of personalities that make up her book, of course the largest most complex personality is Russia herself. I thought I knew nearly everything and came away even more complex. A romp. I wont use any Russian metaphors. The book isnt a "troika journey" or something like that. Its very good, erudite but not the creative nonfiction way. Accessible, I think, but if one knows little about Russia, meaning you haven't read her history, aren't knowledgeable about her history, especially the last century, prepare to use Wikipedia alot.But, thats good.

  27. 5 out of 5

    Jennifer

    Excellent book, but not one I would recommend to someone with no Russian history background. The book is framed around Molotov and the library left behind in his apartment, which the author, a Russian scholar, is lucky enough to peruse. Throughout her travels and stories in Russian history, she uses the library as a touchstone. The stories of Russian history are interesting, well-researched, and most are out of the norm of what one encounters in the general Russian texts. You also get insight an Excellent book, but not one I would recommend to someone with no Russian history background. The book is framed around Molotov and the library left behind in his apartment, which the author, a Russian scholar, is lucky enough to peruse. Throughout her travels and stories in Russian history, she uses the library as a touchstone. The stories of Russian history are interesting, well-researched, and most are out of the norm of what one encounters in the general Russian texts. You also get insight and opinion from the author on the current state of the Russian state, based on her years in residence in the country.

  28. 4 out of 5

    Margaret Sankey

    Another of my favorite themes--what do your books say about you? Meaning to use her husband's employment in Moscow to write a novel, the author is sidetracked by learning that their apartment is down the hall from Vladimir Molotov's--his vaguely embarrassed grandchildren have left it intact, including his 10,000 volume library and collection of eccentric kitsch, and they are happy to give an American academic the keys. Molotov's access to even purged Soviet material, his marginalia and input fro Another of my favorite themes--what do your books say about you? Meaning to use her husband's employment in Moscow to write a novel, the author is sidetracked by learning that their apartment is down the hall from Vladimir Molotov's--his vaguely embarrassed grandchildren have left it intact, including his 10,000 volume library and collection of eccentric kitsch, and they are happy to give an American academic the keys. Molotov's access to even purged Soviet material, his marginalia and input from surviving neighbors and their relatives intersects with modern Russia, the resurgent Orthodox Church, gulag survivors and or course, Putin.

  29. 5 out of 5

    The Book : An Online Review at The New Republic

    There is a rule—unspoken but self-apparent—about opening the review of a book by mentioning another review of the same book, but Molotov’s Magic Lantern demands that the rule be broken. Shortly after Rachel Polonsky’s book appeared in her native England, a vicious review was posted on Amazon.com by “Historian,” who gave Polonsky’s effort a blistering assessment: “This is the sort of book that makes you wonder why it was ever written ... Polonsky, it turns out, is not an academic, as claimed in t There is a rule—unspoken but self-apparent—about opening the review of a book by mentioning another review of the same book, but Molotov’s Magic Lantern demands that the rule be broken. Shortly after Rachel Polonsky’s book appeared in her native England, a vicious review was posted on Amazon.com by “Historian,” who gave Polonsky’s effort a blistering assessment: “This is the sort of book that makes you wonder why it was ever written ... Polonsky, it turns out, is not an academic, as claimed in the blurb, but the wife of a foreign lawyer. Read more...

  30. 4 out of 5

    Keith

    I approached this book expecting a kind of Russian 'The Hare With the Amber Eyes'. What I got instead is a rambling farrago of quite often irrelevant minutiae. Although some parts are certainly illuminating, the whole doesn't really hang together all that well, episodes often being tenuous and tangential to the Molotov theme. It would undoubtedly bewilder anyone with little knowledge of the cultural and historical background. On a positive note, I found the chapters dealing with Russian institut I approached this book expecting a kind of Russian 'The Hare With the Amber Eyes'. What I got instead is a rambling farrago of quite often irrelevant minutiae. Although some parts are certainly illuminating, the whole doesn't really hang together all that well, episodes often being tenuous and tangential to the Molotov theme. It would undoubtedly bewilder anyone with little knowledge of the cultural and historical background. On a positive note, I found the chapters dealing with Russian institutions like the banya and the dacha informative. The writing is often beautifully descriptive, especially when dealing with the Russian landscape.

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