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Molotov's Magic Lantern: Travels in Russian History

3.51 of 5 stars 3.51  ·  rating details  ·  206 ratings  ·  50 reviews
When the British journalist Rachel Polonsky moves to Moscow, she discovers an apartment on Romanov Street that was once home to the Soviet elite. One of the most infamous neighbors was the ruthless apparatchik Vyacheslav Molotov, a henchman for Stalin who was a participant in the collectivizations and the Great Purge—and also an ardent bibliophile. In what was formerly Mol ...more
Paperback, 416 pages
Published January 3rd 2012 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux (first published March 18th 2010)
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Anastasia Fitzgerald-Beaumont
I've not long finished Molotov’s Magic Lantern – a Journey in Russian History by Rachel Polonsky. This is one of the books that Orlando Figes, another specialist in Russian history, tried to cheapen by an Amazon review, written supposedly by his wife, while talking up his own work. The whole affair was really quite sad because he is a decent historian, one whose work stands on its own merits, one who did not need to attempt assassination by review. Being a decent historian, sadly, is no guarante ...more
I don't understand why The Economist would have called this book a "modern classic." It is a disjointed, distracting encyclopedia of Russian history from the perspective of an overly eager graduate student. The promise at the beginning of the book is that Polonsky will analyze Molotov, that "thin-necked" arch-villain of Mandelstam, viz-a-viz his library in No. 3, the "House of the Generals." The premise sounded fascinating. But Polonsky all but forgets this purpose in a chunk of the book and the ...more
I found this a grueling subject but an intriguing one very well written about. The author, a Russian scholar from Oxford, living in Moscow in the 1990s, found that the appartment above hers had belonged to Stalin's number two Molotov and the banker who now lived there gave her a key to study Molotov's library that was still there. So she was able to see all his books and also read his annotations. She uses this as the basis for her travels throughout rapidly changing Russia to follow up on autho ...more
Rachel Polonsky a eu cette chance incroyable, celle d’habiter un des anciens appartements de l’intelligentsia soviétique au centre de Moscou, à trois pas & demi de la Place Rouge & du Kremlin. Par un de ces délicieux hasards du destin, elle s’est même retrouvée devant une partie de la bibliothèque personnelle de Viatcheslav Molotov, ministre des affaires étrangères sous Staline -- tsé comme dans Pacte Molotov-Ribbentrop, tsé comme dans cocktail Molotov? & c’est en fouillant dans tous ...more
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 wa ...more
Originally published in the UK, I waited for Amazon to get the US edition. Not sure what I expected but I definitely enjoyed the thought of tracing someone's life with the books they collected (maybe read?) and actually doing the traveling necessary in relationship to Molotov. A travel book with benefits...
It did not hurt that she started with a quote from Bob Dylan: "I can't feel you anymore, I can't even touch the books you've read," before moving on to Nikolai Fedorov, a "museum keeper." "He
This is a dense book.

It has so much in it that you find yourself following several trails at once. Beginning in a flat full of books that once belonged to Molotov, Polonsky uses their discovery to deliver a history lesson, discussions of Russian literature and poets, a travelogue of a Russia that disappeared in the Revolution and one that is emerging under Putin. She offers insights into the modern country that is increasingly looming large in our consciousness and into the kind of people who r
Kathy Larason
Enlightening & well written history of all things Russian. I learned a lot about the Soviet era. I'm buying a copy of this to take with me to Russia.
David Edmonds
Perfectly combines a bibliographical theme with literature and travel, leading to new authors and barely heard of Russian regions.
Stephen Cunliffe
I think some of the unfavorable reviews are due to unmet expectations. This book is really a long, serialized personal essay, which touches on points of Russian history relevant to particular places, whether they be rooms, buildings or towns. It is not in any way a chronological history. The title alone should be enough to indicate a somewhat unconventional book.
I got a lot of pleasure from it, but if the reader doesn't already have a good grounding in Russian history it is not going to much fun
Dara Salley
This novel is what I would call “a charming little book.” There are many series discussions about the history of Russia; this book is more like a pleasant stroll along the path of the past. Polonsky lingers over the interesting and poignant moments that interest her, and then skips lightly to the next subject. Reading this book was like reading the diary of a very knowledgeable and articulate friend.

The overall structure of the book has two inspirations, the cities that Polonsky visits and the b
this book traces history through the various moscow buildings of significance...talking about those who lived there and what they did, both within and without the walls. it has moments of great poetry and deep thoughts (mostly in the form of quotes by others), but trudging through a slew of names caused me to abandon it before i finished. tho' written by a brit who happened to end up living in one of the apartments at no. 3 romanov lane, she is a Russian namedropper of unprecedented namedropping ...more
Although we often review books, we rarely review readers. This should perhaps be a review of me rather than Molotov's Magic Lantern, as I feel many of the reasons why I didn't enjoy the book are my fault, not the author's. It just wasn't what I was expecting. I had read a couple of reviews, which had praised the book highly, and had followed the Orlando Figes controversy, so I thought I was aware of what the book was about. I was hoping to learn more about Russia today, the USSR, and Molotov. I ...more
Rachel Polonsky, auteur van het eerder uitgekomen English Literature and the Russian Aesthetic Renaissance, heeft met Molotovs toverlantaarn een moeilijk te plaatsen boek geschreven. Het is geen reisboek, het is geen boek over Russische schrijvers, het is geen geschiedenisboek. Het is een beetje van alles wat, maar - en dat is natuurlijk het belangrijkste - het is een fijn boek.

De achterflap lezend, is het niet raar om te veronderstellen dat het boek net zo is opgezet als bijvoorbeeld Hitler's p
Rachel Polonsky, a journalist, moves to Moscow from England to work on research. While there, she discovers that the apartment directly above hers (ironically, on Romanov Lane) once belonged to notorious Stalin henchman Vyacheslav Molotov. Polonsky befriends the current resident of Molotov's apartment, who gives her a key and tells her to look around as much as she likes, since Molotov's possessions are all still there. What she discovers is surprising - Molotov, the man responsible for sending ...more
This book is rather all over the place, geographically and thematically, but not too bad for that. It's not a complete journey through Russian history - and rightly the subtitle is 'A Journey IN Russian History' - but more of a selective and slightly confusing journey through Russian intellectual history, or something like that. Anyway it's packed with interesting stuff, engagingly but also a bit confusingly, and mostly about 20th century Russia... and in the last chapters, it drifts into what s ...more
I was disappointed in this book. Not necessarily because it was bad, just because it was very different from what I was expecting. It was dense and focused very heavily on Tsarist-era and early Soviet period intellectual history. It was rambling and difficult to follow, at times incredibly minute in detail, but at other times very abstract. I can see the point of many of Polonsky's efforts in this text, but it was an awful lot of work to extract the relevance to modern-day Russia. I was hoping f ...more
I'm not sure how to review this book. Firstly, I want to mention that I studied Russian and Soviet literature and history somewhat extensively in college. I have a decent enough background to "keep up" with this loooonnnnnggggg survey of literary and political figures. I like the author's concept of interweaving her experience of being given access to Molotov's apartment and her travels as a student in Russia within a greater scheme of Russian history. However, I felt lost reading the book. It's ...more
Nice to read a Russia book written for Russian experts, whether the autodidact or Ozford educated, or both, her style is spare, tight. Descriptive, small tidbits of trivias about Russia or the hundreds of personalities that make up her book, of course the largest most complex personality is Russia herself. I thought I knew nearly everything and came away even more complex. A romp. I wont use any Russian metaphors. The book isnt a "troika journey" or something like that. Its very good, erudite bu ...more
Jan 14, 2011 oriana marked it as to-read  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: to-read-soon
from The New Republic via Powell's:

Molotov's Magic Lantern is an unusual book, one that might be about the history of collective farming on one page and about the poet Anna Akhmatova's Italian honeymoon on the next. It is, at heart, a book about books -- and, more specifically, about the Russian books that Polonsky so obviously loves and knows so much about, and the fecund Russian soil that the authors of those books mostly loved but sometimes loathed, and, lastly, the blood that has been spill
I approached this book expecting a kind of Russian 'The Hare With the Amber Eyes'. What I got instead is a rambling farrago of quite often irrelevant minutiae. Although some parts are certainly illuminating, the whole doesn't really hang together all that well, episodes often being tenuous and tangential to the Molotov theme.
It would undoubtedly bewilder anyone with little knowledge of the cultural and historical background.
On a positive note, I found the chapters dealing with Russian institut
Margaret Sankey
Another of my favorite themes--what do your books say about you? Meaning to use her husband's employment in Moscow to write a novel, the author is sidetracked by learning that their apartment is down the hall from Vladimir Molotov's--his vaguely embarrassed grandchildren have left it intact, including his 10,000 volume library and collection of eccentric kitsch, and they are happy to give an American academic the keys. Molotov's access to even purged Soviet material, his marginalia and input fro ...more
The Book : An Online Review at The New Republic
There is a rule—unspoken but self-apparent—about opening the review of a book by mentioning another review of the same book, but Molotov’s Magic Lantern demands that the rule be broken. Shortly after Rachel Polonsky’s book appeared in her native England, a vicious review was posted on by “Historian,” who gave Polonsky’s effort a blistering assessment: “This is the sort of book that makes you wonder why it was ever written ... Polonsky, it turns out, is not an academic, as claimed in t ...more
Excellent book, but not one I would recommend to someone with no Russian history background. The book is framed around Molotov and the library left behind in his apartment, which the author, a Russian scholar, is lucky enough to peruse. Throughout her travels and stories in Russian history, she uses the library as a touchstone. The stories of Russian history are interesting, well-researched, and most are out of the norm of what one encounters in the general Russian texts. You also get insight an ...more
Paul Heidebrecht
Always interested in understanding post-Communist Russia. This book is unique. Rachel Polonsky, a British writer and expert in Russian literature, describes living in Moscow and exploring apartment of Stalin henchman, Vyacheslav Molotov, that still had remnants of his book collection. She explores where some of these authors lived and died, especially those who sent to their deaths by Molotov. Many of the Bolsheviks were bibliophiles as is Polonsky. Very strange but great way to peer into Russia ...more
I couldn't finish the book, not because of lack of interest but because it is a challenging read. This is a book to read solely, not in the midst of other titles and it requires dedication. The hardest part for me was keeping track of all the Russian surnames (and sometimes first names). I will return to this book, perhaps next summer, when I have the focus and will to dedicate to it. And perhaps I'll make a key for myself of all the names and times that they lived at No. 3.
Miss Bell
The word "journey" in the subtitle is misleading. This book goes nowhere. I'm trying so hard to read nonfiction and learn something about history. Instead of helping with that goal, this book rattles pretentiously on and on about a duke's dressing room in 1837 with absolutely no context to help those of us who are new to Russian history.
It skips around chronologically and focuses WAY too much on buildings instead of people. DULL - and I like history.
Robert Randell
This is probably the book that I will most enjoy having read this year. I enjoy some of the patterns of her writing. The sentences are longer and she is more descriptive in her writing than most current writers. Personally I did not find the number of people she refers to excessive possibly because most of the names were familar. A beutiful pictire of contemporary Russia and well worth your time if this is an area of interest.
I had mixed feelings about this book. On the one hand, this is a rambling account, not very well-written. On the other hand, it does give a lot of information about Russian history and culture from the point of view of someone who obviously has a deep passion for Russia and has spent a long time learning about it. I definitely learned things, but it was a plodding read, and there seemed to be no cohesive message.
Lisa Hayden Espenschade
Molotov's Magic Lantern is now officially in Limbo after languishing there for many moons... though there's some interesting material about Russian cultural history here, the book was too scattered (and too personal) to hold my attention for very long. I may yet return, though, since some of the chapters ahead are about favorite places, including Arkhangel'sk.
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