Rachel Polonsky, Molotov’s Magic Lantern (2011)

Me starting Rachel Polonsky’s book was, make no mistake, a big step for me. Finishing it was even more daunting. I am deadly afraid of Russian literature, and it took all my good resolutions to tackle a big book with lots of big names.

Molotov’s Magic Lantern has A Journey in Russian History as a subtitle, but I’d say it’s a lot more than that. Polonsky was an expat in Moscow, living above the flat that Molotov once had, and she had the chance to sneak in and browse through his library (before the flat was remodeled). Molotov, of the cocktail’s fame, was one of the cruelest, heartless bastard friend of Stalin, but apparently a book lover too (how these two can coincide is anybody’s guess, I’d always thought book-lovers were mostly peaceful people… guess I was wrong).

Finding favorite books from Chekhov, Dostoevsky, Pushkin, Akhmatova on his bookshelves is rather a pretext for talking about Russian civilization, geography, history and a lot more, including a kind of travelogue or memoir for Polonsky’s time in Russia. The common thread (a loose one) is the story of scientists, intellectuals, novelists, most of them bullied by Molotov (i.e. condemned to secret execution or decades in the Gulag) but whose books he kept (I told you he was a mean, treacherous bastard friend of Stalin). It makes for a leisurely, rather melancholy book, but with a weak direction. The result is that she lost me on some chapters, while I was happy to learn lots of stuff on others.

The downside of the book is also that it can’t be read as a primer for Russian lit or history, you must already know the basics before starting it (un/fortunately for me, I’d sweated many hours on Russian history during my curriculum, but even so it took me a while to piece it all together).

I learnt a great deal reading this book and it made me want to try Isaac Babel or Akhmatova at some point, but Dostoevsky still intimidates me too much.


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