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In the Dialectical Fairyland

Judith Devlin

Molotov’s Magic Lantern: a Journey in Russian History, by Rachel Polonsky, Faber and Faber, 416 pp, £20, ISBN: 978-0571237807

Molotov’s Magic Lantern promises to be an engaging and informative read. The author, an erstwhile Cambridge research fellow resident in post-Soviet Moscow for nearly a decade, brings to the task enviable erudition and a gossipy, intimate knowledge of Russia past and present. She is the ideal cultured flâneur and perhaps her book is inspired by Walter Benjamin, whose Moscow Diary of 1927 she discusses and whose unfinished work on Second Empire Paris she characterises as an attempt to capture the city by eschewing conventional history in favour of a “collage of suggestive quotation and fragments of insight”, a search for ever-changing perspectives, correspondences and random traces juxtaposed to paint the “dialectical fairyland” of the city. Something of this approach informs her own work.

Polonsky’s point of departure, as the title suggests, is the chance discovery of Molotov’s library. The author, who renounced (or postponed) her academic career to live with her family in Moscow, found herself living in what was under the ancien régime the most exclusive block of flats in Moscow: reserved for the elite of the revolutionary and Soviet state, it housed such luminaries as not only Molotov but also Marshals Budyonny, Konev, Voroshilov and the latter’s predecessor as head of the Red Army, Trotsky. Polonsky describes Trotsky’s dramatic arrest in January 1928, when Stalin had him deported to Central Asia. As she notes, people were not yet afraid to peep out of their doors to observe the former tribune of the revolution being carried down the stairs shouting and struggling on his way to what he himself had once designated as the “dustbin of history”.

One of Polonsky’s neighbours (a foreign banker), who rented what had been Molotov’s flat, revealed that his library appeared to have been left there and offered her the chance to explore it. This seemed to offer a fascinating glimpse of the man who had been Stalin’s second-in-command (insofar as anyone was) for most of his time in power and who had occupied key roles in the Soviet state, especially in the 1930s and during the war, when he was chairman of the council of commissars (effectively prime minister) and later foreign minister. Ultimately, Molotov fell out of favour with Stalin, who never liked anyone to outshine him, or even grow too confident about his indispensability. Jealousy and suspicion, as Khrushchev attested, would set in and the colleague would feel Stalin’s displeasure. For most of his old henchmen who survived the Terror (including his private secretary, Poskrebyshev, the head of state Kalinin, the general purpose fixer Lazar Kaganovich) this usually meant that wives or other family members were arrested and dispatched to the gulag. Stalin’s colleagues then suffered at a remove the fate they had applied to thousands of others and, as a portent of things possibly to come, it kept them on their toes. Even Anastas Mikoyan, the great survivor (of whom the joke ran that he refused an umbrella on leaving the Kremlin one rainy day, remarking: “I’ll dodge between the raindrops”) found his young teenage son arrested, charged with a capital political crime and only as a reprieve sent into internal political exile.

Molotov, the cold staid apparatchik of whom Churchill said: “I have never seen a human being who more perfectly represented the modern conception of a robot”, was passionately devoted to his wife, Polina Zhemchuzhina. A shop assistant before the revolution, Zhemchuzhina became one of the grandes dames of Soviet high society. Naturally, this entailed her being given a managerial position running part of the Soviet economy (not anything that mattered though – that was the preserve of the men): light industry was deemed appropriate and Polina ran various enterprises, including the cosmetics industry (incidentally arranging for Western fashion houses to open branches in Moscow). Denis Healey once quipped of Shirley Williams that she needn’t think herself an intellectual just because she had a bad hairdo: Zhemchuzhina would have agreed. Unlike the dishevelled and independent-minded feminists of the Old Bolshevik milieu, by the mid-1930s women in the upper echelons of Stalinist society subscribed to the quasi-bourgeois style that became de rigueur: servants, nail varnish and lipstick (produced by Polina), good works (patronising factory workers, teaching them good manners and instilling, inter alia, a love of art and the vozhd [leader]). Polonsky tells us that Polina was famous for her salon, her lavish receptions and the luxurious appointments of her various residences. The flat that Polonsky got to know was not on the scale of the politburo dacha but nonetheless the nineteenth century sentimental genre paintings in their heavy gilt frames, the Persian rug and the chandeliers she describes fit well with what we know of Stalinist high style, if less easily with Molotov’s occasional declarations about his appreciation of Bolshevik austerity.

The cultivation of bon ton was well and good insofar as it suited Stalin’s purposes, but it seems that though he allowed his acolytes to indulge in social pretension he himself could not abide it. (Pretence was, by contrast, second nature to him and to the regime.) Polina was also too well-informed about past scandals: she had been close to Stalin’s second wife, Nadezhda Allilueva, and had gone for a walk with her around the Kremlin after Nadezhda’s quarrel with Stalin on the night in November 1932 when she committed suicide. This event, the true circumstances of which were concealed from the public, traumatised Stalin and was long the subject of quasi-subversive gossip. In addition, Polina was Jewish, which, in the postwar period when Israel was founded as in Soviet eyes a Western client state, made her even more suspect. She was arrested in January 1949, accused of treason and imprisoned until Stalin’s death in 1953. Molotov abstained on the Politburo vote on this, a response often cited as evidence of his pusillanimity and heartlessness but perhaps better ascribed to his assessment of Stalin’s likely reaction.

The library Polonsky explored was, in the end, something of a disappointment. It should have been enormous as well as fascinating, as Molotov – like other politburo members – was entitled to a copy of every book published in the Soviet Union and it thus included copies of works otherwise unobtainable or even pulped in the purges. Instead, it contained only routine works published after Molotov’s fall from grace in 1957 (when he had attempted to roll back Khrushchev’s de-Stalinisation). The vast library he had acquired when he was in the leadership was confiscated and may have perished and one has little sense that what remained revealed much that was new or interesting about him or his personality. An exception is perhaps the enthusiastically underlined copy of Our Ladies (1891): Molotov’s attention was drawn to passages warning about women’s powers of seduction, their love of luxury and amusement, their desire to enslave men. He was thus not wholly inured to clichés, despite his protests about the horrors of bourgeois philistinism. Is this unfair? Polonsky makes a case for his having been a cultivated lover of literature: she found editions of most of the Russian classics, available only by subscription (and thus part of the economy of deficit) in the later Soviet period. Many Russians, one might observe, seemed to endorse the adage that books do furnish a room, that is to say they were status symbols. In general, however, it seems that Molotov concentrated on a predictable diet of diplomacy, economics and current affairs.

After the early chapters, Molotov makes only occasional, if sometimes unlikely, appearances as a part player in the spectacle of Russia Polonsky draws for us. Her book is part travelogue, part serendipitous reflection on Russia’s past and present. Starting with her flat and the street she lived on in central Moscow, she moves on to the dacha zone outside Moscow where she and her family sought refuge from the noise of the brash capital and then to the cities of European Russia (from Murmansk and Archangel in the north to Rostov-on-Don and Taganrog in the south) and finally to Siberia. Her encounter with these places offers glimpses of the present and reflections on those associated with them in the past. There are poignant and sometimes amusing vignettes, as when, in the latter instance, the young Molotov appears (while in political exile in Vologda before the revolution) dressed as a minstrel playing the violin in the station restaurant for a rouble a night. The scene is juxtaposed with that of the writer Varlam Shalamov, reading a short story he dedicated to the “repressed” poet Osip Mandelstam at the first public meeting held in his memory in 1965. Mandelstam had been denounced for a coruscating poem he had written about Stalin: he had died in a transit camp in Vladivostok, half-crazed with the horror of what he had endured. Shalamov, the agnostic son of an Orthodox priest, who was arrested in 1929 for attempting to circulate copies of Lenin’s Testament (famous for its devastating criticism of Stalin), had survived twenty years in the gulag, many of them in the ferocious camps of Kolyma for which Mandelstam had been destined. Shalamov became famous for his shocking stories of Kolyma and the piece on Mandelstam, which Polonsky quotes, gives a graphic account of death by starvation. Shalamov read it out at the meeting (despite receiving a note asking him to stop): even during the Thaw, few had any real appetite for the truth about the camps, which remained and remains largely unspeakable or unspoken.

A chapter on Staraya Russa (a location which Polonsky’s account inspires little desire to visit) is devoted largely to Dostoevsky, who finished The Demons there and wrote his Pushkin speech and The Brothers Karamazov (despite – or because of as Nabokov might suggest – the uncongenial squalor of the place). Polonsky discovers that it is also the focus of new “official nationality” theorising, of which she gives an amusingly absurd example, The Formation of the Russian Character on the Example of the Historical Fate of the Staraya Russa Region (2003). An official and luxurious publication of the FSB (the secret police), it informs the reader (with shameless lack of irony) of a chapel newly built (with the patriarch’s blessing) in the grounds of the Moscow Institute of Border Guards of the FSB to house a miracle-working icon. It extols President Putin’s modesty and humility (qualities also ascribed to Stalin in his day) and notes that his name is “euphonious with a good energetika”! Indeed it appears, according to this work, that “the majority of Russian surnames with the root ‘Puti’ are formed from the most ancient Slavic name Putislav”. (Although this sounds like a satirical spoof, it is in fact characteristic of a certain vein of officious political literature.) Putin’s name turns out, as Polonsky informs us, to be a root for “a dozen more good words pregnant with national import”, while in Church Slavonic, the word put is “associated with Christ himself”.

Polonsky has little time for the tortuous, cynical and corrupt politicised of contemporary Russia, preferring to concentrate on the country’s great writers and historic figures, of whom a vast gallery is presented: from the great magnates, the Sheremetevs, near whose Moscow palace she lived, to the Decembrists, the aristocratic rebels who tried to force reform on the monarchy in 1825 and were banished to Siberia for the rest of their lives, to the tragic Vavilov brothers, one of whom – the ardent socialist and pioneering geneticist – died in prison while the other, a virtual hostage, acted as president of the Academy of Sciences and wrote paeans of praise to Stalin. The contemporaries she presents to us are, on the whole, neither famous not glamorous. Provincials are found plunged in eccentric projects (like the curator of the history of the diplomatic service in Vologda) or slumped over the wreck of festive tables, singing the Pioneer songs of their youth and toasting the past with much vodka, stranded in a present which offers neither security nor opportunity for advancement.

For many in the poor provinces, Moscow represents, as for Chekhov’s three sisters, an unattainable dream of fame and fortune, a place which offers the only hope of escape from a life of isolation and deprivation. In Ulan Ude, near the Mongolian border, which Polonsky visits, the sand dunes blow into the entrances of apartment blocks, a vast head of Lenin adorns the Stalinist baroque of the main square but there is no stable or well-paid employment, there are no guarantees, no rules according to which to build a life, only shifting sands. The later Soviet system, however ‑ and even Stalinism – did offer many the chance to advance up the social scale, to get an education, find employment in managerial positions and as white collar workers. Those who managed to avoid the camps or death in the many terrible forms which the Stalinist system supplied in abundance surprise us by looking back with what seems like perverse nostalgia. In the national library (latterly the Leninka – “in a city dizzy with fashion, the library is a carnival of anti-fashion”, Polonsky comments), where she spends much time, she is confronted by many such types, who find refuge there from the harsh and uncongenial present. Polonsky too seems inclined to retreat from the tumult. She leaves us with a final and telling vignette of Molotov. Asked if he ever dreamt of Stalin, the elderly and unrepentant survivor admitted that he did: “I’m in some kind of destroyed city and I can’t find any way out.” Polonsky observes: “The dream seems to be the closest he ever came to a real insight into his part in history.”

This book, an unpredictable, pullulating compendium of matters Russian, at times fascinating and occasionally exasperating, is best read on one of the long train rides Polonsky celebrates or relaxing after the banya. There are a couple of typographical errors: (the Russo-Japanese war is dated here to 1903, rather than 1904-5). It is disappointing that the note on further reading covers material which the least enterprising soul might easily locate (editions of Mandelstam, Akhmatova and Chekhov, for example) but not the more interesting and unusual works she cites (for example, the travels of Claire Clairmont, VS Zhukovsky’s memoirs). We do not know, for instance, where she gets her eloquent information on the fate of the relics of St Savva Starozhevsky (desecrated by the Bolsheviks, saved by a local intellectual and finally restored to their renovated monastery at the end of the Soviet era). However, Rachel Polonsky, hitherto famous as the nemesis of Orlando Figes in one of the most notorious academic scandals of recent years, has shown with this book that she deserves to be known also as a vastly knowledgeable and thoughtful guide to Russia and Russian culture.


Judith Devlin teaches in the Department of History at University College Dublin. While her first research interests lay in nineteenth century France, she now concentrates on Russia. She has worked on contemporary history (political culture) and most recently on the Stalin era. Her current research focuses on the Stalin cult.

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