A little while ago I read my first travel book and was hooked. Reading about far-flung places, especially when the author has spent considerable time in a country getting to know the culture, is a real treat for me. So when I heard that Rachel Polonsky’s book Molotov’s Magic Lantern had won the Dolman Travel Book of the Year in 2011 it became the obvious contender for the first book to read about Russia.
During the 1990s, Rachel Polonsky lived just a stone’s throw from Moscow’s Kremlin walls above an apartment that had once been occupied by Vyacheslav Molotov, one of Stalin’s “most ruthless henchmen”. At the time, a number of Molotov’s possessions, including the magic lantern that gives the book its name, were still in the apartment and Polonsky was given permission to look through his library. This opportunity sparked something in Polonsky driving her to look more closely into Russian history, and to travel across this vast country to visit some of the places she had been reading about.
Some of her travels take her on literary journeys, for example to Staraya Russa, where Dostoevsky had a home and where his book The Brothers Karamazov is set, or south to Taganrog where Chekov was born. Some journeys illuminate aspects of Russian culture and history – like Rostov-on-Don where she writes about Cossack history or to Lake Baikal where she visits the local shaman.
Charlotte Hobson, reviewing the book for the Daily Telegraph, called the book “a fascinating jewellery box of Russian history” and that seems to be a good way of describing it. There is no link between the necklace in my jewellery box bought by my husband and the ring that belonged to my gran, but they are both beautiful and have interesting, personal stories behind them. And that is very much how Polonsky’s book is. There is no obvious connection between the chapter on Novgorod and the chapter on Lutsino but each contain genuine gems of stories that illuminate aspects of Russian history, literature and culture.
The lack of apparent links between each chapter, and often between sections, can make it a frustrating read – sometimes the link eventually becomes clear and sometimes it doesn’t. Once I accepted that fact, and just read each section on its own merits I found I enjoyed the book far more. Polonsky packs in lots of fascinating and interesting bits of information often using extracts from letters, poems and first-hand accounts to illustrate the point.
Just as spending time in Molotov’s former apartment was the starting point for Polonsky’s research, so I found that spending time in Polonsky’s company has prompted a desire in me to read more about Russian history and culture. Her love of Russian literature has also made me think that it is about time I actually read some of the Russian greats (although trying to read War and Peace when you have two small children may be a challenge!).
I would advise that you don’t do as I did and make this the first book you read about Russia. Polonsky assumes her readers possess a basic grasp of Russian history and I spent the first few chapters with a copy of the Times Concise History of the World next to me to help fill in the gaps. But if you have already done a bit of reading about this incredible country and want to delve a little deeper then this might well be the book for you.