Book review: ‘Molotov’s Magic Lantern’ by Rachel Polonsky

Special to the Los Angeles Times

Molotov’s Magic Lantern

Travels in Russian History

Rachel Polonsky

Farrar, Straus & Giroux. 390 pp. $28


To say that Rachel Polonsky is a lifelong Russophile probably still understates the level of her engagement with the country that has so captured her imagination, heart and soul. This British journalist has written about its culture and experienced its realities, first when it was synonymous with the Soviet behemoth and then in the two decades of its more recent transformation. But exactly what has it become in that extraordinary metamorphosis? Foreign observers and analysts of Russia have come away perplexed by its unique nature and the difficulty of governing it.

For Polonsky, who moves to Moscow, Russia is one giant echo chamber of historical and cultural resonances, every corner filled with the ghosts of past glories and terrors. Having thought, studied and written about great literary figures including Tolstoy, Dostoevsky and Chekhov, she is so steeped in their essence that they serve as guides and even more as templates for her as she breathes in the atmosphere of Russia today.

But the important dissident writers of the Soviet era — Mandelstam, Pasternak and Akhmatova — are also very much with Polonsky. So when fate places her in an apartment block once reserved for the Communist elite, with access to no less a treasure trove than the actual library of Stalin’s henchman Vyacheslav Molotov, it is a gift from the gods.

It turns out that Molotov was not only one of the most enduring of the Soviet leader’s enforcers but also a dedicated bibliophile whose reading took him deep into Russian culture and also into the literature of other nations. The doggedness and steady application that made him such a useful Soviet functionary and took him from Hitler’s bunker to Churchill’s war room, Roosevelt’s White House, and the founding of the United Nations were evident in his reading. As Polonsky peruses his wide-ranging library, she cannot forget that this was a man who signed countless death warrants, his hardhearted annotations on actual execution lists a shocking counterpoint to his literary roamings. Polonsky writes:

“A weary impatience with the unknowability of other people is sometimes a characteristic of the bibliophile, who loves with fervor publication dates and catalogue numbers, all the categories of exact knowledge that a book can be made to represent. Just such a weariness emerges when Molotov allows himself to speak of all the killing that history had seemed to demand of him and his comrades, the difficulty of maintaining the ‘harsh unquestioning discipline’ that dictatorship requires.”

In the end, despite the depth of Polonsky’s engagement with Molotov and still more with the eternal verities of Mother Russia, she still seems more bemused than enlightened. The cacophony of today’s Moscow and the ghost whispers of the glorious and tragic are overwhelming as they whirl about her; and the phenomenon of Russia is still, despite all her informed musings, best summed up in Winston Churchill’s famous encapsulation, “a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma.”

Rubin is the author of “Sarah Gertrude Millin: A South African Life.”