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Molotov's Magic Lantern: A Journey in…
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Molotov's Magic Lantern: A Journey in Russian History (2010)

by Rachel Polonsky

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How can any true “history and travel buff” fail to enjoy a book traveling into and through the history of Russia? Easily if it as so turgid as this one, full of very extensive quotations from those Russian ‘famous’ writers with their tortured, free-flow of supposedly intellectual heights, never achieved or exceeded it is claimed by their champions, by non-Russian authors. I have never been convinced that they had that much to say in the first place and after manfully struggling through Polonsky’s work, remain deaf and unconvinced.

The premise, reflected in the title, is fascinating. Polonsky has access to Moltov’s library, complete with all the furnishings, books and an antique projector. Apparently able to overcome any revulsion at the man’s murderous crimes against his fellow Russians, the author is allowed to wander through the parts of his life a library reveals, reads his notations and browse through his slides.

When I think what Jan Morris or even Bill Bryson could have done with such material my disappointment in this book grows heavier with regret at such a lost opportunity.
  John_Vaughan | Jan 26, 2013 |
Rachel Polonsky is a British journalist who enjoys a dream trip to Russia to explore Moscow and the city, and even stay in a historic apartment building. She's there to research another topic, but is intrigued by how much history actually lived in the building she temporarily resides in. Most notably, one floor was home to Soviet bad guy and Stalin pal Vyacheslav Molotov (and yes, sadly, every time I say his name I think of that Don Henley song: "Molotov cocktail, the local drink, and all she wants to do is dance"). The opulence of the street in the past, as well in the present, speaks to the contrast between impoverished Russia and luxurious excess.

As she settles into the apartment, she begins sleuthing around to discover that other important Soviet residents had lived in the building or nearby. Trotsky, who fell from favor in his later years, lived in No.3. As he was to be exiled, she notes the events surrounding his departure. The apartment life, while plush, was tense.

"...'prominent Soviet workers' would learn to keep the doors closed, not to look out when they heard the heavy tread of boots on the common staircase at night, the commotion of arrest in a neighboring apartment" (63).

Polonsky's travels spread into the streets and outside the city. I most enjoyed the chapter "Staraya Russa" that described a spa town that promised restorative health benefits, and that was eventually a summer home to Dostoevsky where he wrote extensively. Tracing the history of the town through other writings, and visiting significant locations, she reveals a place where the wealthy went with great hope, enthusiastically applying the mud deemed curative for a wide variety of ailments.

Later in the book she explores modern Russia under the realm of Putin. One tidbit: "the latest fashion in chic Moscow eating places is to order numerous elegant dishes and leave them on the table hardly touched. Almost everything on the menu costs a week's pension" (366). She notes that the Russian upper-class is heavily focused on appearances and status, something she connects as a common thread throughout the previous two centuries. "Putin's courtiers are more interested in their jackets, their watches and their coiffures than in any God-bearing mission of the Russian people, whatever they may say to 'the people' each night on the TV" (367).

Covering a vast amount of subject matter such as contained in the book makes it overwhelming. Even with a better-than-average (but by no means scholarly) grasp of Russian history, the vast amount of names and places and events are hard to put into the context she gives. For example, to look at a random paragraph and see a dozen or more personal names, street names, neighborhood names and previous nicknames of the same place confuse the story she's attempting to tell. It's as if there is simply too much information given, with little distinction between a significant detail and a minor one, as both are given equal weight. The effect is jarring, in that it's difficult to fall into the spell of the events without feeling like you need to Google a few dozen names to make sense of it all.

I think her extensive knowledge of Russian history gets in the way of clearly enjoying the book. When she's making an important point about bourgeois attitudes, she gets sidetracked into a tangent that meanders awhile and sometimes doesn't seem to reconnect with the original point. When I put down the book and later returned to it, I often felt as if nothing was familiar, and that I needed to go back several pages to recapture the narrative. A devoted Russophile would likely be delighted with her experiences as relayed in this book, but for most of us, it's simply too much "who, what, and where" without enough 'how' and 'why'. ( )
  BlackSheepDances | Jun 7, 2011 |
I'm loving the book so far but I too am bothered by the fact that there are no illustrations. I have been looking up photos in Stalin, the Court of the Red Tsar, which helps. I'll write more when I finish the book.
  lycia | Feb 9, 2011 |
The idea of this book is that the author lives in or visits various places in Moscow and Russia as a whole and tells us about their literary and historical associations. So we visit various locations on Romanov Lane (in the centre of Moscow)–including the flat where Vyacheslav Molotov lived, naturally enough–the Sandunovskaya bathhouse, the Academy of Sciences ‘colony’ at Lutsino, Mozzhinka (a similar place nearby), Novgorod, Staraya Russa (where The Brothers Karamazov is set), Rostov-on-Don, Taganrog, Vologda, Archangel, Murmansk and Barentsburg, Arashan and Irkutsk, Ulan Ude and Kyakhta. And we learn about lots of interesting people and things, such as the Vavilov brothers and the fate of science under Stalin, Varlam Shalamov, Dostoevsky, Mandelshtam…

So far so enticing. But I had severe problems with the book. For a start, it was hardly written in English: this starts at the very beginning, where Romanov Lane is called simply ‘Romanov’, which we don’t do in English and continues with such things as:

--His chiselled gaze, straining over some imagined battlefield, meets the blank side wall of the Kremlin Hospital. ‘So who is going to take Berlin, we or the Allies?’…(p 17)

‘Straining’ is right…chiselled gaze just doesn’t make sense and we or the Allies isn’t English.

There are a frightening number of such examples, and as well as these lexical Russianisms, there are sentences where a non-English level of syntactic complexity leads to confusion (confuses me at least), for example:

--Of all the European magi of what was known as theory among the gatekeepers to the world of ideas who taught me in Cambridge twenty-five years ago, Benjamin is the only one I have read since with pleasure. (p53)

This implies to me that Benjamin was in fact one of her teachers….

I also had problems with the content of the book. For a start, there are many places where Polonsky describes pictures she has seen, or even herself in the act of photographing things, but there are no illustrations in the book.

Again, there is no systematic referencing. So I came across many interesting facts and statements, without being able to follow them up. So we are deprived of objective truth. We are also deprived of subjective truth: Polonsky mentions her husband and children and a [female] companion who travels with her to sketch, and that’s about it.

The mentions of Kontantin Simonov and Konstantin Rokossovsky only served to remind me of what a brilliant book 'The Whisperers' is…

Full version with many more examples at http://wp.me/pBfTB-mG . ( )
  priamel | May 23, 2010 |
I was not prepared for the first chapter. It traced Polonsky's Moscow apartment building's story in every direction. This building has seen a seemingly unending flow of celebrities and historical figures live and visit. It seemed as though every door and brick had a story. No lead was too insignificant to follow up. The stories branch in every conceivable direction. It is either astonishing passion, or obsessive-compulsive condition that has forced her to find out absolutely everything there is to know about the building and anyone who has lived or visited there. It becomes a microcosm of Russian history.

She then takes her show on the road, applying not just her detective talents, but her descriptive abilities on a tour of Russia that you and I could never take. Along the way, she crosses paths with the figures who haunt her apartment building, and we piece together their lives and their roles in Russian history. From the Baltic Arctic to the Siberian steppe, we see Russia and Russians today, choosing what they want to be proud of, ignoring (or ignorant of) the rest.

I thought it was going to be about Molotov, but in fact, it is about books and writers. Books tie everything and everyone together, and Polonsky buys books at every stop along the way. Russians' appreciation of their books, their libraries, their need for intellectual stimulation and diversion all work together to give us insight into Russia itself.

I thought the book slowed down the farther away we got from Moscow, and I liked the historical allusions better than the present observations, but overall, this is a fascinating journey.

I've never read anything quite like it.
, ( )
  DavidWineberg | Mar 31, 2010 |
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When Rachel Polonsky went to live in Moscow, she found an apartment block in Romanov Street, once a residence of the Soviet elite. One of those ghostly neighbours was Stalin's henchman Vyacheslav Molotov. In Molotov's former apartment, Rachel Polonsky discovered his library and an old magic lantern.… (more)

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