For many of us, Russian history remains locked behind literary masters' lengthy works, the Cold War's dark secrecy and the goofy surrealism of a 007 flick. Rachel Polonsky's "Molotov's Magic Lantern: Travels in Russian History" gives us the unexpected. She doesn't baby her readers. She demands, politely and eloquently, that we come to her book with some understanding of Russian history, its political eras and its notable people. See sentence No. 1 of this paragraph for the risk in this. Her book has no footnotes or endnotes, which will make some readers nervous but which overall serves most of us -- if only we let ourselves be swept away by the story, something we're not used to allowing history to do for us.
When she moves into the Moscow apartment building where voracious reader, book collector -- and frightening human -- Vyacheslav Molotov once lived, Polonsky is forced to confront new things about Russia, her second home.
The best way to explain this book is through her own words about others'. The dusty memoirs of a count who once lived in a building neighboring hers teaches the first lesson. As he records the past, "he senses that he is not just sitting in the same house [that he grew up in], but in the very same setting, with the same view on to the street and the Kremlin." In other words, history is fluid. A longtime lead Soviet librarian imagined a "scheme for resurrection of the dead through books."
The concrete beauty of history done right is the second tenant that Polonsky successfully makes her own. She explains one of her favorite predecessors, Walter Benjamin: "His prose is febrile with curiosity about real places and real people; with his obsessive love for the beautiful and strange, his fascination with physical things." Similarly, Polonsky finds history in the "canvas helmets laced at the back like old-fashioned corsets" worn by workers outside her window, and in the "wind-sown birch saplings ... their silky fraying bark catching the tonalities of the old buildings in the neighborhood: dull white, ochre, pink and rust; shades of plaster, light earth, northern skies and snow." For her, and then her readers, the 21st-century present is in a 1917 Moscow telephone book and in a "single hair in its paper mausoleum, relic of an old man's physiological need to read of the greatness his beloved Party had so abruptly confiscated."
In keeping with our wintry weather, know that "Molotov's Magic Lantern" is a stew worthy of being eaten with a fork. One may have to reread sentences to feel fully the descriptions or catch the heavy family names, and while the author gives us glimpses of herself as a fellow foreigner to these shores, she doesn't share many of her own secrets. Sure, we learn that Polonsky and her friends smuggled banned books from Britain to the USSR in the 1980s, but we don't learn more about that. Rather, she advises us to do what she does with history: Gather "random scraps and traces that could be assembled and juxtaposed ... a 'dialectical fairyland.'"
Kristin Thiel is a writer and editor who reviews for the Oregonian, Rain Taxi and the Christian Science Monitor.