"Molotov's Magic Lantern: Travels in Russian History": an interview with author Rachel Polonsky
Journalist Rachel Polonsky explores some of the troubled fault lines in modern Russian history.
When British journalist Rachel Polonsky moved to Moscow in the late 1990s, she found herself living at No. 3 Romanov Lane – a grand Czarist-era apartment building that later became home to the Soviet elite. One day Polonsky's upstairs neighbor let her into his apartment – formerly the home of Stalin's ruthless henchman Vyacheslav Molotov. Her exploration of the remnants of Molotov's magnificent library became the motif around which she built her book Molotov's Magic Lantern: Travels in Russian History. I recently had the chance to ask Polonsky about her life at No. 3 Romanov Lane, her travels in Russia, and her feelings about the country that both saddens and delights her.Skip to next paragraph
End to an era at legendary Paris bookshop Shakespeare and Company
'Daughter of Smoke and Bone' film rights acquired by Universal
Better World Books' bestseller list: more classics than new titles
More books, more choices: why America needs its indies
Is Slate's Amazon-defending blogger really a 'moron'?
Subscribe Today to the Monitor
Q. No. 3 Romanov Lane was full of so many memories, some rather tragic in nature. Did you feel haunted by the past when you lived there or has a new spirit now taken over?
I always felt the presence of the past very powerfully in No.3, even before I stepped inside the house. I think that everyone who visited the building was moved to think about its strange history; I cannot remember anyone who came into it who did not comment on both its grandeur and its tragedy. Some Russian friends said they could not have lived in it because of the historical evil they associate with it; because it was a refuge for their persecutors in the Soviet regime. Delving into the building's past, finding out names and stories, and writing about it was my way of inhabiting the building, a way of sharing it with those former occupants whose presence was still so vivid. It was also a way of bringing back the good people who had lived in it, and its original purpose, which was to be a home to civilized families. I am still haunted by the many stories I did not uncover, the stories I did not have the space to tell in "Molotov's Magic Lantern," the secrets the building still keeps.
Q. The hypocrisy of Communist elites living in a luxurious old-world building as a reward for helping to create a new classless society seems overwhelming. How do you think that Molotov and his colleagues justified this to themselves?
When No.3 was first expropriated by the Party, the apartments were communalized. It was during the Civil War between the Reds and the Whites. There were terrible food shortages; living conditions were rough and precarious for most people in Moscow. At that time, the lifestyles of the Bolshevik revolutionaries would not have been luxurious at all. That changed quickly as the new regime established itself after victory in the Civil War, when the Party's pragmatic New Economic Policy was introduced to try to end the shortages, and a free market in consumer goods was reintroduced, though living conditions were still turbulent, and not at all "bourgeois" for anyone. Later in the 1920s, the Bolshevik elite became more openly comfort-loving. Stalin's great enemy, the revolutionary Trotsky, who was dragged out of the building by the secret police to be sent into exile at the end of the 1920s, railed against the Stalinist elite, ridiculing them as a new bourgeoisie. He despised the way in which they had quickly been seduced by what he called the "automobile and harem" culture of privilege, at how they drank wine and attended the ballet and gossiped when they should have been working night and day for world revolution.