"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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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?Skip to next paragraph
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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.