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Home Uncategorized In the Dialectical Fairyland

In the Dialectical Fairyland

Judith Devlin
Molotov’s Magic Lantern: a Journey in Russian History, by Rachel Polonsky, Faber and Faber, 416 pp, £20, ISBN: 978-0571237807 Molotov’s Magic Lantern promises to be an engaging and informative read. The author, an erstwhile Cambridge research fellow resident in post-Soviet Moscow for nearly a decade, brings to the task enviable erudition and a gossipy, intimate knowledge of Russia past and present. She is the ideal cultured flâneur and perhaps her book is inspired by Walter Benjamin, whose Moscow Diary of 1927 she discusses and whose unfinished work on Second Empire Paris she characterises as an attempt to capture the city by eschewing conventional history in favour of a “collage of suggestive quotation and fragments of insight”, a search for ever-changing perspectives, correspondences and random traces juxtaposed to paint the “dialectical fairyland” of the city. Something of this approach informs her own work. Polonsky’s point of departure, as the title suggests, is the chance discovery of Molotov’s library. The author, who renounced (or postponed) her academic career to live with her family in Moscow, found herself living in what was under the ancien régime the most exclusive block of flats in Moscow: reserved for the elite of the revolutionary and Soviet state, it housed such luminaries as not only Molotov but also Marshals Budyonny, Konev, Voroshilov and the latter’s predecessor as head of the Red Army, Trotsky. Polonsky describes Trotsky’s dramatic arrest in January 1928, when Stalin had him deported to Central Asia. As she notes, people were not yet afraid to peep out of their doors to observe the former tribune of the revolution being carried down the stairs shouting and struggling on his way to what he himself had once designated as the “dustbin of history”. One of Polonsky’s neighbours (a foreign banker), who rented what had been Molotov’s flat, revealed that his library appeared to have been left there and offered her the chance to explore it. This seemed to offer a fascinating glimpse of the man who had been Stalin’s second-in-command (insofar as anyone was) for most of his time in power and who had occupied key roles in the Soviet state, especially in the 1930s and during the war, when he was chairman of the council of commissars (effectively prime minister) and later foreign minister. Ultimately, Molotov fell out of favour with Stalin, who never liked anyone to outshine him, or even grow too confident about his indispensability. Jealousy and suspicion, as Khrushchev attested,…

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