Molotov’s Magic Lantern: A Journey in Russian History

Rob Attar on a novel exploration of Russia's past

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Reviewed by: Rob Attar
Author: Rachel Polonsky
Publisher: Faber
Price (RRP): £9.99

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In post-Soviet Moscow, British writer Rachel Polonsky found herself living in a building where Vyacheslav Molotov, one of Stalin’s most loyal henchmen, had once resided.

Given the opportunity to explore his former apartment, Polonsky was fascinated to discover that a number of Molotov’s books still remained in place. These books became the inspiration for this erudite exploration of Russia’s history that begins in Moscow and then radiates out into the country’s vast expanses.

Blending history, literature and travelogue, Molotov’s Magic Lantern is certainly an unconventional work. Rather than following a clear narrative or thematic structure it seems to light on places, characters and episodes almost at random.

Thankfully the stories Polonsky chooses to tell are consistently enticing and her skill as a writer compensates for an occasionally frustrating approach.

This is emphatically not a biography of Molotov and anyone seeking a deeper understanding of that murderous bureaucrat would be better-served elsewhere. Yet for those keen to broaden their appreciation of Russia’s past, Polonsky’s unusual book is well worth consideration.

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Rob Attar is deputy editor of BBC History Magazine