‘Molotov’s Magic Lantern: A Journey in Russian History’ by Rachel Polonsky

Rachel Polonsky Molotov’s Magic Lantern: A Journey in Russian History, London, Faber and Faber, 2010, 369 p.

One of my fellow students is writing a thesis about the status of family history and genealogy  within historiography more generally.  Is the  distinction always clearcut? I wonder.  After all, there are historians who write books that,  while not academic histories as such, combine elements of family history and broader history (Henry Reynolds’ Why Weren’t We Told? and Anne Summers The Lost Mother spring to mind).  In fact, just today I read a fascinating study by Cassandra Pybus of the negro ‘Commodore’ of Port Jackson (see citation below) where Pybus pursues, and  then interrogates, all those archival minutiae that are the family historian’s quest.  Richard Holmes’ Footsteps of a Romantic Biographer, which I enjoyed so much and have cited so often,  is a long reflection on methodology, arranged through the device of a journey.  Then  there are those popular historians/journalists who write books that combine history and travel (Simon Winchester Outposts, Bill Bryson even?).

So when I read a  glowing review of Rachel Polonsky’s  recent book Molotov’s Magic Lantern: A Journey in Russian History, I snapped it up.  Rachel Polonsky, Rachel Polonsky- where have I heard that name?  Then I remembered: she was involved in the recent academic brouhaha over Orlando Figes and Amazon reviews- see her perspective here.

Two personal libraries are the pillars of this book.  One of them was the library owned by Molotov, kept intact and largely untouched  (more through inertia than intent) in his apartment at the Romotov Lane building,  where Rachel Polonsky herself lived in while she was in Moscow many years later.

‘Have at it,’ the banker had said in his charming smoky drawl, dangling from one finger the keys to his apartment.  He had rung our doorbell early as he passed on his way down the stairs. ‘You’re the scholar, you’ll know what to make of it all.’

We had met the evening before at his welcome-to-Moscow party in one of the other Romotov apartments.  Over my champagne and his Jack Daniel’s, I told him, in my fumbling way, that I was some kind of fugitive academic, not really a journalist, working on a novel.. (p. 1)

…Our conversation picked up animation when he told me about Molotov’s library.  I already knew that the apartment he had moved into (immediately above our won) had been the Moscow home, in the last years of his long life, of Stalin’s most loyal surviving henchman. I did not know that some of Molotov’s possessions had remained in place- left there by the granddaughter who now let the apartment to international financiers- including hundreds of books, some inscribed to him or annotated in his hand, now apparently forgotten, in the lower shelves of closed bookcases in a back corridor. (p. 2)

And there it was- Molotov’s wood-paneled library- with a magic lantern in the corner that, when you cranked the handle, showed a succession of slide images; a carpet from the Shah of Iran on the floor, and books, books- some with the pages left uncut;  some inscribed to him; others underlined and annotated.

The second library was that of the Russian scholar, Edward Sands, who died a few weeks before the author took up her Cambridge fellowship.  He had died intestate, and not knowing what to do with the chaos of books and papers piled in his room among old shoes and half-empty medicine bottles, the bursar asked her to sort through them, working out which should go to the university library, and which should be given or thrown away. (p. 6)  Three years later, her husband called her from Moscow, encouraging her to join him.  She told herself and the fellowship that she would be back after a spell of 18 months working in the great libraries of Moscow and studying orientalism in Russian poetry.  Her eighteen months became ten years.  (p. 10)

These two libraries, then, are the foundations on which the book rests.  In her travels throughout the streets of Moscow,  down around the sea of Azov, up to the Finland border and across to Siberia and the Mongolian border, she reflects back on the  books and authors represented on the shelves of these two libraries.  There are many of them, but some are repeated again and again: Mandelstam, Akhmatova, Chekov, Dostoevsky, Pushkin, Shalamov, Marina Tsvetaeva.   Events and historical figures appear and re-appear as well: Molotov himself, Stalin, Lenin, Napoleon Bonaparte, Peter the Great, Tsar Alexander I, Catherine the Great- and with a burst of currency, Putin, Medvedev and the assassinated journalist Anna Politskovskaya.  Underpinning all this, like a ghastly merry-go-round tune is the repetition of repression, exile, and cruelty, repeated by the Cossacks, the Tsars, the Bolsheviks, Stalin- and she suggests, Putin too.  The reference of the rotating magic lantern in the title is apt- people and events flash before our eyes, disappear, only to reappear again later.

There are many, many names of people and places and Polonsky has supported her readers as much as she could with clear maps and a generous index. Ah- but there are so many names and I felt as if I needed to be taken up to the linchpin ones,  formally introduced to them and told “Remember this person- she’s going to be important”.   Unlike  more journalistic travel books (e.g. the Winchesters and Brysons), Polonsky did not give a rationale for the journeys she undertook, and so there was a sort of aimlessness to the book.  It could have been three chapters longer: it could have been three chapters less- the end came because she chose to end it there, but the journey itself did not demand it.

Her final chapter, however, does bring it all together.  By the end of the book, I realised that names and stories had become familiar, almost without my being aware of it.  I’m not particularly well-versed in Russian literature: I find myself becoming anxious over the profusion of characters and the similarity and length of the names, and this same concern that perhaps I’m not ‘getting it’ did steal over me at times with this book. But I closed it with a feeling that the deficit lay more in me than my guide, and I was sorry to leave my perceptive, erudite travelling companion.

References:

Cassandra Pybus ‘ The Old Commodore: A Transnational Life’   in Desley Deacon, Penny Russell and Angela Woollacott (eds) Transnational Ties: Australian Lives in the World, ANU e-press, 2008 available online at the publisher’s website [It has nothing at all to do with Russia, but it’s a fascinating read!]

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3 responses to “‘Molotov’s Magic Lantern: A Journey in Russian History’ by Rachel Polonsky

  1. I read the Mail article and felt sick. Every nation has academic scandals, of course, but they usually involve students, relationships with university councils, money, sex and the validity of overseas degrees. In my experience, academics do not savage each other’s research and writing in public AND anonymously.

    So Rachel Polonsky is definitely a gutsy woman. And, according to your reading, an interesting writer as well. Of course there is always an element of luck in academic finds. Polonsky had to have the great luck of finding the two libraries on which her book rests, and the brilliance to make something special of it.

    I would feel just as excited if, in 2010 I was the first person to discover a lost cache of old master paintings, hidden away in a salt mine by the Nazis in 1939. What a find! What to do with it all? Will it change long held historical beliefs?

    • Yes- she certainly takes her reader along with the excitement of finding the library, and at the end of the book, when it has been renovated away, you share her sense of loss. I often feel that part of the skill of a historian is sweeping others up in your own enthusiasm for a topic, so that they want to learn more almost as much as you do!

  2. Pingback: Behaving badly | The Resident Judge of Port Phillip

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