- Hardcover: 416 pages
- Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux; 1st edition (January 4, 2011)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 0374211973
- ISBN-13: 978-0374211974
- Product Dimensions: 6.4 x 1.3 x 9.3 inches
- Shipping Weight: 1.4 pounds
- Average Customer Review: 3.6 out of 5 stars See all reviews (21 customer reviews)
- Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,863,913 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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Molotov's Magic Lantern: Travels in Russian History Hardcover – January 4, 2011
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*Starred Review* British writer Polonsky moved to Moscow and took up residence in a once-opulent old building that had been a favorite of the Soviet elite, including the monstrous Vyacheslav Molotov, Stalin’s second in command. Invited into Molotov’s apartment, still owned by his granddaughter, Polonsky is morbidly fascinated by Molotov’s belongings, including a magic lantern and a stash of books from his formerly enormous library. And so begins Polonsky’s book-steered journey through modern Russian history. Cogently descriptive, empathic, plucky, and acerbic, Polonsky begins with a tour of Moscow’s grim landmarks of the Stalin era, then ventures out into the countryside, excavating the tragic and heroic stories of writers and scientists who suffered banishment and worse, many the victims of Molotov’s industrious murderousness. She visits the site of Dostoyevsky’s dacha and Rostov-on-Don, the world of the Cossacks, which Isaac Babel so bravely infiltrated. She travels north to the formidable Kola Peninsula, then to Siberia, the realm of shamans, exiles, and prisoners; a Buddhist enclave along the Mongolian border; and imperiled Lake Baikal. Polonsky is so steeped in Russian history and literature that everywhere she goes, her inner magic lantern projects the past onto the present, the imagined onto the real, and what we see is an illuminated land of immense brutality and beauty, suffering and spirit. --Donna Seaman
Praise for Molotov's Magic Lantern
“The result is an eccentric work, daring in conception, peculiar in construction, that incorporates all Polonsky’s teeming scholarly knowledge of Russia and the Russian people . . . In the course of her travels, Polonsky visits monasteries, dachas, sanatoriums and bath houses. Her chapter on Siberia in particular offers a meticulous reportage tinged with poetry, in which almost every page radiates gem-like images and an impressive literary craft . . . A magnificent achievement, in which Russia emerges as less a nation than a marvellous region of the mind.” —Ian Thomson, The Irish Times
“It’s a gem . . . [Polonsky] has achieved the unimaginable: a serious non-fiction account of Russia, which is as wide-ranging as it is entertaining . . . This is a wonderful account of a changing Russia . . . If you have always wanted to read an accessible, profound and original history of modern Russia, this is the book for you. It’s a challenging and demanding read but one that is hugely rewarding.” —Viv Groskop, Sunday Express
“As promising and enticing as a novel . . . An unexpectedly delightful literary travelogue . . . Polonsky is not so much a wanderer as a meanderer of the mind . . . And Molotov’s Magic Lantern is not a piece of history, nor of literary criticism, but a pocket torch shone into the nooks and crannies between the two.” —Wendell Steavenson, The Sunday Times
“Polonsky's detail-studded hybrid of travelogue, biography and political and cultural history is dense and scholarly, and dares to lack a dominant propulsive narrative . . . Rather, it beautifully competes with Russia’s endemic cultural amnesia to refract a terrifying national legacy through a bloodied sequence of endlessly shimmering stories, over which the figure of Putin still resolutely lies.” —Metro
“As promising and enticing as a novel . . . An unexpectedly delightful literary travelogue . . . Polonsky is not so much a wanderer as a meanderer of the mind. And Molotov’s Magic Lantern is not a piece of history, nor of literary criticism, but a pocket torch shone into the nooks and crannies between the two.” —The Sunday Times
“Polonsky's detail-studded hybrid of travelogue, biography and political and cultural history is dense and scholarly, and dares to lack a dominant propulsive narrative. Rather, it beautifully competes with Russia’s endemic cultural amnesia to refract a terrifying national legacy through a bloodied sequence of endlessly shimmering stories, over which the figure of Putin still resolutely lies.” — Metro
“[An] elegant book . . . This is a many-layered portrait in which the strands of Russia past and present, town and countryside, real and intellectual, are interwoven with skill and . . . erudition.” —Mary Dejevsky, The Independent
“Fascinating skatulochka—jewellery box—of Russian history . . . Polonsky’s description of the far north of Russia made me long to visit, with its ‘other-wordly’ landscape. [Polonsky] achieves a more profound understanding of Putin’s Russia than many other foreign observers.” —Charlotte Hobson, The Daily Telegraph
“Polonsky weaves an extraordinary web of connections between people, places and books. Her own work seems to belong to no known genre. It is neither political history, nor literary criticism, nor travelogue reportage; yet it combines some of the best features of all three, illuminating aspects of Russian cultural life . . . What is utterly fresh about this book is the personal engagement with the material, the capturing of place, mood and tone . . . The command of detail is absolutely masterly.” —The Sunday Telegraph
“Perceptive and erudite . . . [Polonsky] has produced a spectacular and enjoyable display of intellectual fireworks for the general reader . . . Ms Polonsky wears her considerable learning lightly . . . She has a knack for putting herself into other people's shoes with empathy and skill . . . The contempt she feels for the greed, filth and viciousness that she encounters is all the more compelling for being understated. Her sympathy and affection for the finest bits of Russia's past and present shine through . . . The reader catches only fleeting glimpses of Ms Polonsky herself. That contrasts pleasingly with the self-centredness that is present in so much other Western writing about Russia. As her book shows, the author has grit, charm and style—and a gift for traveller’s tales.” —The Economist
“Everywhere on this journey, Polonsky shows great curiosity about the web of personality and history, and the connections between power and literature that form Russian history and society today, her erudition is always lightly-worn . . . I was gripped by this book—a delicious celebration of Russia, old and modern, from Pushkin to Putin, not only a guide to obscure places but also a meanderingly whimsical map of the soul and daily life of Russia, a luminous, charming and fascinating masterclass on literature, power, tragedy and death.” —Simon Sebag Montefiore, Evening Standard
“[Polonsky’s] book is as sensitive to literature and history as it is to the merely exotic, and she combines impressive scholarship, the work of years, with an admirably languid delicacy of touch . . . Polonsky’s imagination is mercurial, and it is for that, not Stalin’s grisly comrade, that the book delights . . . Anyone who loves Russia will be entertained, and some who do not may be tempted to start an adventure of their own . . . It is as delicate and enriching as a Russian poem, and it will certainly make a new generation of visitors to Russia think more colourfully about Europe's closest, endlessly surprising, other.” —Catherine Merridale, Literary Review
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Top Customer Reviews
It took me a while to read the book, this is not something you can usefully skim through and expect to retain anything of value. But every moment spent was worth it as I gained new insights into those with whom I am familiar, and the scores of Russian historical figures with whom I am not.
For those whose eyes are open, there are many lessons to be learned that are applicable in our own countries. Polonsky has written a masterpiece that should be read and treasured by anyone fascinated with Russia.
The author, Rachel Polonsky, spent time in Moscow with her husband, a banker. They found an apartment within a building that had previously housed so many of the Soviet Union's elite; in particular, Vyacheslav Molotov, Stalin's ever loyal subordinate. However, the building had also previously housed Trotsky and, later, Kosygin and Khrushchev amongst others.
Polonksy spends time pouring over Molotov's extensive library. The man was certainly well read. She then proceeds to use the library as a lens for her subsequent travels through Russia. And these travels inevitably touch upon the tragedy that was the Soviet Union. Few nations have been scarred by the traumas that faced Russia and the Soviet Union in the twentieth century.
Yet, for all the prospects that this book offered, I found it hard going. The theme was often lost and, as the reader, I was easily distracted. This is a pity. The book could have delivered so much more.