To say that Vyacheslav Molotov had a fraught relationship with the world of literature would be putting it mildly. One of the more notorious servicemen of Stalin's government — he personally approved the massacre of Poland's military elite in Katyn, signed the 1939 German-Soviet nonaggression pact and confined thousands of citizens to the Gulag or to mass graves — Molotov was also a collector and great lover of books. The much diminished library he left behind at his death, in 1986, was filled with titles by writers he sent into exile or to their deaths, including some he considered friends.
English scholar Rachel Polonsky came to Moscow years after Molotov's passing in order to write a work of scholarship. However, what she discovered in her apartment building derailed her plans and, instead, yielded the creatively conceived and executed Molotov's Magic Lantern: Travels in Russian History.
Directly above Polonsky's living quarters was Molotov's final residence, still filled with his belongings. During the Khrushchev administration, Molotov had been stripped of the opulence that once came with being a close associate of Josef Stalin: his home, most of his possessions and the bulk of his personal library. The few hundred titles that remained — books by Osip Mandelstam, Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Anton Chekhov, Anna Akhmatova —created for Polonsky a framework for exploring the Soviet Union's rich but tangled cultural past.
In Molotov's Magic Lantern, Polonsky blends travel writing, journalism, political theory and discourses on philosophy to tell, in an appealing and approachable way, the personal history of this fearsome man and his tortured nation.
At a dacha in the small village of Lutsino, she talks with a caretaker about arrests and disappearances into the Gulag, while also explaining, through the lens of the science writers on Molotov's shelves, how Soviet favoritism allowed for the kind of selective scientific research that resulted in the starvation of millions.
Back in Moscow, she relates the story of the arrest of Alexander Arosev, the writer and chairman of the Soviet association promoting culture ties with foreign countries, whom Molotov referred to as "a very close friend of mine." When Arosev reached out for help, Polonsky writes, "hearing his voice on the line, Molotov twice put down the receiver [without speaking]." Arosev called a third and last time. "I can hear you breathing," he told the still-silent Molotov. Molotov never intervened on his friend's behalf, and Arosev was executed by Stalin's regime.
As a writer, Polonsky may have the disposition of a scholar, but she has the language of a Russian poet. She deftly navigates an enormous tangle of fact, myth and fiction, allowing the reader to delve deeply into the narrative without ever getting lost. It's a remarkable and unique look at an abstruse and occasionally terrifying nation, and it deserves its own place on a library shelf of indispensable historical texts.