"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.
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.
Molotov himself expressed discomfort about the comfort-loving habits of the Party elite; he could not justify it according to the Marxist theory that he believed should guide his life. He was rather ascetic in his own personal habits, we are told, but his wife, Polina Zhemchuzhina (who was sent to the Gulag in 1949) famously loved the high life. She visited spas, wore furs and fine scent, loved cut flowers and dinner parties and hosting private music recitals. Soviet
society was rigidly hierarchical, and the people at the top soon developed a sense of entitlement.
Q. Did you feel that you came to know Molotov the man as you lived in his building and browsed in his library? What did you feel about him as a person?
I felt that through my contact with the remains of his library (and what I saw was just fragments of a formerly huge collection of books), I was able to approach his life story in a new way, and indeed, to think about books and libraries in a new way. I was able to contemplate him as a reader, as a serious reader, as someone who revered books, for all his fanaticism and the terrible crimes he committed. I learned what I could about him from other sources, from records of wide-ranging conversations he had late in life, from published biographies, including a very thorough and revealing biography by his distinguished grandson, Vyacheslav Nikonov. Molotov put ideas before people, and was able to sentence to death people who had considered him a friend, and to appease his own conscience. He proposed using numbers rather than names on death lists; he wanted to distance himself from the humanity of other people. He loved his wife dearly, but he did not intervene to prevent her arrest, or even speak up against it. Books can be easier to love and cherish than other people for a man like that.
Q. Do you think the Russian national character was altered by Communism – or is it more powerful than any ideology?
I find it hard to talk about "national character" – although, as I think the cultural historian Ernst Gombrich said once, anyone who has traveled is aware that there is such a thing as national character. Soviet Communism lasted for the best part of a century – it was its own kind of civilization and belief system. It formed ways of life, habits of behaviour, social attitudes, which it exported to other nations, and which have lasted. There is nostalgia for that Communist culture too. Restaurants have opened in Moscow that serve Soviet-style food in the Soviet manner, and people love them. At the same time, this particular ideology took root in Russia, in the deep rich soil of that culture, and many aspects of that culture survived, or have been revived, since the demise of Soviet Communism. One only has to visit a Russian Orthodox Church to become aware of those deep cultural roots and their powers of survival.
Q. Many of the scenes that you describe as you travel through Russia felt to me rather desolate and bleak. Am I imagining things – or did Russian life sometimes feel sad to you?
Chekhov wrote about the "excess of space" from which Russians suffer. The landscape itself can be profoundly melancholy; its desolation, its extent, the way in which it can diminish the individual. There are pockets of stupendous wealth in Russia, concentrated in the cities, principally in Moscow. The very wealthy tend to lead double lives; that is, they spend a lot of their time, and keep a lot of their wealth, outside Russia. They all have some kind of "exit strategy," so the urge to improve the lives of the mass of their compatriots is weaker than it should be. Many people in Russia still live in conditions of stark poverty, however, and lead hard lives in a harsh climate and have very few opportunities. That is sad to witness, and sad to contemplate. On the other hand, Russia is full of talent and creativity; of great traditions, tastes, unique pleasures, and people with big hearts. My own children gained so much from Russia's wonderful educational traditions. I have never encountered teachers as serious, committed, and skilled as I have in Moscow. It was all the good things that kept me in Russia for 10 years, and I am enduringly grateful for what Russia gave me and my family. I miss the taste of good Russian food, I miss my childrens' teachers, I miss the Russian steam bath (the banya), I miss the emotional directness of my Russian friends, their sense that life is a serious matter, as well as their earthy humour. I miss many things about Russia that I cannot find anywhere else in the world....
Q. Is there a "new" Russia that is very different from the old?
In history, new forms are always taking shape out of the old. That is what makes it so fascinating. Russia opened itself to the outside world after the end of Communism, and there was a rush to catch up with Western ways of life – now many people in Russia are trying to strengthen a distinctively Russian way of thinking, of doing things, of faith, of politics. Sometimes this takes the form of anti-Westernism, or a more general xenophobia, and this is cultivated by the official media and can be very ugly. In many ways the "new" Russia is about rediscovering the "old" Russian culture that was more or less erased or obscured by Communism. The revived Russian Orthodox faith is very important in the new Russia. Unfortunately, official corruption, which has been a longstanding problem in Russia, is still a disabling factor; it holds back healthy social and political development in the "new" Russia, robs people of opportunities to thrive, and makes them want to leave a homeland that in many ways they still love.
Marjorie Kehe is the Monitor's book editor.