Ghosts From the Soviet Past

  • Molotov's Magic Lantern
    By Rachel Polonsky
    Faber, 416 pp.

Above all, it is the inhuman scale of things which impresses the visitor to Moscow: the vastness of Red Square, the width of the uncrossable streets, the implacability of the traffic. The city’s history seems equally inhuman, haunted as it is by centuries of tyrants, millions of political prisoners, countless wars. Impossible to navigate and impossible to know, Moscow doesn’t exactly embrace the casual tourist.

But Rachel Polonsky was not a casual tourist. A scholar of Russian literature who lived in Moscow for a decade, she knew better than to start looking for the essence of the city in Red Square. Instead, she began on a single street, inside a single flat.

The street was her own: Romanov Lane. The flat was inhabited by her upstairs neighbour, an expat banker with a Texas drawl. But in a previous era it had belonged to Vyacheslav Molotov, Stalin’s greyest and most loyal henchman. Molotov’s daughter had rented it to the Texan banker and — no doubt certain that he would never touch them — she left her father’s carpets, books and magic lantern inside. ‘You’re the scholar, you’ll know what to make of it all,’ said the banker, and handed Polonsky the key.

Instinctively keeping silent, Polonsky crept up the stairs (the concièrge had recently told the nannies tending foreign children in the courtyard that ‘This house is listened to. It always has been, and always will be’). Once inside, she found Dante, Edgar Allan Poe, Pushkin and The Theory of Historical Materialism. Also a special Russian edition of Churchill’s History of the Second World War — translated solely for the benefit of the party elite — with the passages on Molotov underlined by Molotov himself. He was, Churchill had written,

fitted to be the agent and instrument of the policy of an incalculable machine … I have never seen a human being who more perfectly represented the modern conception of a robot.

From the flat, Polonsky branched out further: to Romanov Lane, with its roots in 19th-century Russia; to Lutsino, one of the dacha enclaves near Moscow; to the Siberian city of Irkutsk, a traditional place of political exile. And everywhere she went, she brought a metaphorical rucksack filled with books. Dostoevsky accompanies her to Staraya Russa, a once-fashionable spa town. The writings of Likhachev, a Russian literary scholar and political prisoner, echo in her head when she visits Arkhangelsk in the far north.

Though it doesn’t call itself that, Molotov’s Magic Lantern is a travel book, and it shares the flaws and virtues of that genre. As this is neither history nor journalism, Polonsky can switch from historical anecdote to literary analysis to description. Her deep knowledge and enthusiasm are evident, but the result is sometimes hard to follow, and things get left out. At one point Polonsky writes entertainingly about Molotov’s wife, Polina Zhemchuzina, who allegedly reacted to the news of Hitler’s invasion of Russia by calling for her hairdresser. Some 40 pages later, Polonsky mentions Zhemchuzina’s 1948 arrest, almost as an aside. This struck me as odd. Molotov’s wife spent several years in the Gulag while her husband, then the second most important person in the country, could do nothing to help her. Doesn’t that tell us rather a lot about his character, and the nature of his political system?

I would have liked a clearer narrative and some footnotes too, but perhaps that is pedantic of me. After all, this book is not designed to describe the Soviet political system or Molotov’s character. The purpose is to investigate the relationship between books and places, between history and the present. Even if Polonsky sometimes moves too rapidly for my taste between Soviet poets, 19th-century architecture and the experience of a Russian steambath, I do see why she is doing so. Her intention is to describe the strange way in which so many aspects of the Soviet past still hang over modern Russia — to explain why certain Moscow street corners make one’s spine tingle — and this requires many different kinds of information.

Knowing the history of a place always makes it look and feel different, and it is this knowledge Polonsky wants to convey. In her epilogue, she revisits Molotov’s apartment after the banker has moved out and the flat has been sold to a wealthy Russian. The books are gone, the magic lantern has been removed, and the window ledge of Molotov’s study — the room where he might once have read letters from his wife in a labour camp, or accounts of the political executions he had ordered — is now covered with photographs in wood and silver frames. Polonsky dutifully admires the new furniture, and her hostess is pleased:

“My neighbour caught me looking at a picture of her, captured in a shining moment of absolute glamour, arm in arm at a party with the Italian designer Miuccia Prada. ‘Shoes!’ she said, breaking into English. ”

For those who know what Polonsky knows about that place and its history, nothing more needs to be said.