Rating: 2.5 out of 5
Reviewed by Scott Stampfli
'Old books are objects of a mysterious and compulsive kind of desire, fed by a stubborn intuition that the past might yield its secrets to the touch,' writes Rachel Polonsky in her exhaustively researched, and sometimes meandering book Molotov's Magic Lantern.
This wandering composition begins with Polonsky (who is an academic from Cambridge) being given the key to Vyacheslav Mikhailovich Molotov’s private library by a neighbour in her building in Moscow. Yes, the Molotov of cocktail fame. This friend had recently bought the flat once occupied by Molotov, complete with shelves of his books acquired over the years, stored away and untouched after his death.
Thus the journey is set in motion as Polonsky digs through printed texts once owned by one of the most feared men in Soviet Russia, Stalin’s accomplice and lackey (Stalin meaning ‘man of steel’, Molotov ‘hammer man’). This was a man who personally signed thousands of death warrants, and sent many more to the Gulags. The author sets the scene, vividly describing Moscow during the early years of the Soviet revolution.
Suddenly, however, Polonsky's book takes a turn into the poetry of Pushkin, the prose of Dostoevsky and short stories penned by Chekhov, as well as mentioning other Russian artists and scientists from the period leading up to and during the Soviet revolution. Her analysis includes side trips on, to name a few, Georgia, the Caucasus, Taganrog and the Vologda River, all in an attempt to understand the homelands of these writers and to give light to the spirit of the Russian heart and subconscious at the time (complete with Cossacks, ladies of the night and polar explorers).
This book is replete with everything Russian, and reads like a thesis paper devoid of a focus. Nevertheless, it is quite interesting in a jumbled way, although somewhat kitchen sink in the reading.
Scott Stampfli is an LP staffer in our Oakland office.
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