Posts Tagged ‘Orlando Figes’

Molotov’s Magic Lantern (Rachel Polonsky)

May 23, 2010


The idea of this book is that the author lives in or visits various places in Moscow and Russia as a whole and tells us about their literary and historical associations.  So we visit various locations on Romanov Lane (in the centre of Moscow)–including the flat where Vyacheslav Molotov lived, naturally enough–the Sandunovskaya bathhouse, the Academy of Sciences ‘colony’ at Lutsino, Mozzhinka (a similar place nearby), Novgorod, Staraya Russa (where The Brothers Karamazov is set), Rostov-on-Don, Taganrog, Vologda, Archangel, Murmansk and Barentsburg, Arashan and Irkutsk, Ulan Ude and Kyakhta.  And we learn about lots of interesting people and things, such as the Vavilov brothers and the fate of science under Stalin, Varlam Shalamov, Dostoevsky, Mandelshtam…


So far so enticing.

But I had severe problems with the book.  In spite of reading the beginning portion  twice,  I couldn’t really work out how the conceit of  Molotov”s magic lantern,  showing pictures of bygone times and places, defines the structure of the book:  I don’t think the locales chosen were necessarily either connected with Molotov or displayed by his magic lantern.  There were also many occasions when I had problems with the English:  this started at the very beginning, where Romanov Lane is called simply ‘Romanov’, which we don’t do in English and continued with such things as:

His chiselled gaze, straining over some imagined battlefield, meets the blank side wall of the Kremlin Hospital.  ‘So who is going to take Berlin, we or the Allies?’…(p 17)

‘Straining’ is right…chiselled gaze just doesn’t make sense and we or the Allies isn’t English.

Rachel Polonsky

I have the impression of a frightening number of such examples:  outwardly static but secretly moribund (p 17 again)–moribund implies static; lined with trophy art…brought back after the Soviet victory from the ransacked castles of East Prussia (p 28); in English that’s ‘looted art’, but then you really need to leave one of  ‘ransacked’ and ‘looted’ out since they’re saying the same thing; [human!] honey-makers (p 168); Anti-Semitic pogrom (p 171) [tautology];  bodies of children dead in infancy (p 234) [tautology]; drove past in his armoured car with the windows open (p 247) [presumably ‘bulletproof car’ rather than ‘wheeled tank’];  aquarelle portraits (p 350) [that’s ‘watercolour’ in English] and many many more…

As well as these lexical Russianisms, there are sentences where a non-English level of syntactic complexity leads to confusion (confused me at least), for example:

Of all the European magi of what was known as theory among the gatekeepers to the world of ideas who taught me in Cambridge twenty-five years ago, Benjamin is the only one I have read since with pleasure. (p 53)

This implies to me that Benjamin was in fact one of her teachers….

3 Romanov Lane--home of Molotov and of Rachel Polonsky

I also had problems with the content of the book.  For a start, there are many places where Polonsky describes pictures she has seen, or even herself in the act of photographing things, but there are no illustrations in the book.  How can that be?  Copyright problems (surely not for her own photos)?  Cost? I don’t understand…

For instance:  [Khaldei’s] lens absorbed the strange mineral gleam of the Kola in the shimmering reflections of seven caped and helmeted soldiers trudging past a pool of still water on the rocky shore (p 299).  And here we are:

Now that didn’t hurt, did it?

Again, there is no systematic  referencing.  So I came across many interesting facts and statements, without being able to follow them up.  Irritating, and I don’t think it would  have happened in a book published in the US.

So we are deprived of objective truth.  We are also deprived of subjective truth: Polonsky mentions her husband and children and a [female] companion who travels with her to sketch, and that’s about it.  One thing that we do learn is that she is very uneasy about the subject of prostitution (this is rather to her credit), but the uneasy euphemism of

The slender heels of Moscow’s loveliest demi-mondaines tap the pavenent as they make their way, shining for the evening in diamonds and air-soft sable skins, on a narrow pathway of granite flagstones set with green cat’s eyes, from the luxury health club in the basement of No. 4 to their chauffeur-driven cars (p 24)

doesn’t help anyone (and to me ‘slender heels’ are parts of a woman, not of shoes, while ‘skins’ in place of ‘furs’ causes similar confusion).

The mentions of Kontantin Simonov and Konstantin Rokossovsky only served to remind me of what a brilliant book The Whisperers is…


The page numbers here refer to a hardcover edition from Faber UK published in 2010, ISBN 9780571237807.


Since I posted this entry, Rachel Polonsky has emailed me to say that she doesn’t agree with the points I make above.  She will also be giving a talk based on the book on 31 March 2011 in Pushkin House; details here.