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"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.

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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.

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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.


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