Faber & Faber £20 (388pp) £18 (free p&p) from the Independent Bookshop: 08430 600 030

Molotov's Magic Lantern, By Rachel Polonsky

In search of a past behind Moscow's closed doors

The genesis of this intriguingly entitled book is the writer's discovery, as an academic expatriate living in Moscow, that the flat directly above hers had been occupied for many years by the disgraced Soviet foreign minister, Vyacheslav Molotov. His heirs, who were now renting the flat out to well-to-do foreigners, had left bits and pieces from his library, and a "magic lantern" affording faint pictures of a forgotten past. She learned this from the then tenant, an American banker, who cheerfully gave her the run of the place.

The result is that Rachel Polonsky was diverted from her flagging research into early 20th century Russian Orientalism and wrote this unusual and elegant book. It moves outwards, chapter by chapter, from the flat, in a block and a street at one time reserved for the Soviet priviligentsia, via provincial cities in the Russian north and south, to the Russian Far East, marking the point at which Molotov's professional life declined into quasi exile when he became ambassador to Mongolia.

The Bolshevik apparatchik who changed his name from Skryabin to the more proletarian and activist-sounding Molotov (derived from the Russian for "hammer") provides the link, sometimes tenuous, between the different strands. But this is not a book about Molotov – his character remains only intermittently revealed - so much as a book about Russia: the "journey in Russian history" of Polonsky's subtitle. As such, it is an exercise in total immersion, one in which the writer surrenders herself completely to the experience.

The surrender, like the writing, is at times a little too self-conscious for my taste. But felicity outweighs the burdensome many times over. I stopped marking the choice phrases after chapter one; there were too many – even as I kept returning to the thought that it was probably not by chance that Polonsky was initially drawn to Russian Orientalism.

Let me to declare a particular interest here. As a one-time exchange student, a graduate delving into some of the same early 20th century themes as Polonsky, and then as a journalist in Moscow as the Gorbachev "thaw" set in, I was drawn to many of the same places as Polonsky visits, and share many of her responses to the landscape, the people, and the authenticity, both of Moscow and what might be called the Russian heartland. I also have more than a passing acquaintance – via my husband's PhD thesis! – with the vicissitudes of the archaeological expedition at Novgorod and the political and cultural currents that swirled around the study of history in 1980s and 1990s Russia and, to an extent, still do.

I mention this only to endorse the accuracy and perceptiveness of Molotov's Magic Lantern and commend it to a wider audience. This is a many-layered portrait in which the strands of Russia past and present, town and countryside, real and intellectual, are interwoven with skill and – sometimes, dare I say, almost a surfeit of - erudition. There comes a point where almost too many connections are made. A tour de force of compilation obscures what can be a frustrating absence of synthesis.

Molotov's Magic Lantern is a hard book to catalogue. It repeatedly crosses the borders between memoir, travelogue, cultural appreciation and intellectual history. Nor are would-be readers particularly helped to know what they are getting by the folkloric design of the jacket, which suggests the contents are more historical than is the case. It could also do with far better maps than the two rather mean, and deficient, efforts the publisher has seen fit to include.

In Polonsky's style and approach, there is something reminiscent of what now seems the very precise, rather mannered, travel-writing of Patrick Leigh Fermor. Most of all, though, this book reminded me of Orlando Figes's virtuoso study of Russia, Natasha's Dance (2002). Which is not without irony, because Polonsky herself slated Natasha's Dance at the time, charging Figes with numerous inaccuracies and "pastiche writing" in a celebrated TLS review.

The similarity of treatment, however, which can be found also in other recent studies of Russia, poses a question of its own. What makes Russia almost uniquely susceptible to this variegated, cross-genre, and often highly subjective approach? Is it just that this vast country remains in many ways strange, even now that we have unlimited freedom to travel there? Or is it rather the emotional response that Russia, for whatever reason, tends to draw from otherwise buttoned-up Britons?

The risk for the chronicler then becomes self-indulgence. It is a risk that Polonsky, thanks to the quality of her writing, avoids, but she sometimes runs it perilously close.

Arts and Entertainment
Wonder.land Musical by Damon Albarn


Arts and Entertainment

Film review

Arts and Entertainment
Innocent victim: Oli, a 13-year-old from Cornwall, featured in ‘Kids in Crisis?’
TV review
Northern exposure: social housing in Edinburgh, where Hassiba now works in a takeaway
books An Algerian scientist adjusts to life working in a kebab shop
Arts and Entertainment
Terminator Genisys: Arnie remains doggedly true to his word as the man who said 'I'll be back', returning once more to protect Sarah Connor in a new instalment


film review
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment

Final Top Gear review

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Pete Doherty and Carl Barat perform at Glastonbury 2015

Arts and Entertainment
Lionel Richie performs live on the Pyramid stage during the third day of Glastonbury Festival

Arts and Entertainment
Buying a stairway to Hubbard: the Scientology centre in Los Angeles
film review Chilling inside views on a secretive church
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Williamson, left, and Andrew Fearn of Sleaford Mods
musicYou are nobody in public life until you have been soundly insulted by Sleaford Mods
Arts and Entertainment
Natalie Dew (Jess) in Bend It Like Beckham The Musical
theatreReview: Bend It Like Beckham hits back of the net on opening night
Arts and Entertainment
The young sea-faring Charles Darwin – seen here in an 1809 portrait – is to be portrayed as an Indiana Jones-style adventurer
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    The Greek referendum exposes a gaping hole at the heart of the European Union – its distinct lack of any genuine popular legitimacy

    Gaping hole at the heart of the European Union

    Treatment of Greece has shown up a lack of genuine legitimacy
    Number of young homeless in Britain 'more than three times the official figures'

    'Everything changed when I went to the hostel'

    Number of young homeless people in Britain is 'more than three times the official figures'
    Compton Cricket Club

    Compton Cricket Club

    Portraits of LA cricketers from notorious suburb to be displayed in London
    London now the global money-laundering centre for the drug trade, says crime expert

    Wlecome to London, drug money-laundering centre for the world

    'Mexico is its heart and London is its head'
    The Buddhist temple minutes from Centre Court that helps a winner keep on winning

    The Buddhist temple minutes from Centre Court

    It helps a winner keep on winning
    Is this the future of flying: battery-powered planes made of plastic, and without flight decks?

    Is this the future of flying?

    Battery-powered planes made of plastic, and without flight decks
    Isis are barbarians – but the Caliphate is a dream at the heart of all Muslim traditions

    Isis are barbarians

    but the Caliphate is an ancient Muslim ideal
    The Brink's-Mat curse strikes again: three tons of stolen gold that brought only grief

    Curse of Brink's Mat strikes again

    Death of John 'Goldfinger' Palmer the latest killing related to 1983 heist
    Greece debt crisis: 'The ministers talk to us about miracles' – why Greeks are cynical ahead of the bailout referendum

    'The ministers talk to us about miracles'

    Why Greeks are cynical ahead of the bailout referendum
    Call of the wild: How science is learning to decode the way animals communicate

    Call of the wild

    How science is learning to decode the way animals communicate
    Greece debt crisis: What happened to democracy when it’s a case of 'Vote Yes or else'?

    'The economic collapse has happened. What is at risk now is democracy...'

    If it doesn’t work in Europe, how is it supposed to work in India or the Middle East, asks Robert Fisk
    The science of swearing: What lies behind the use of four-letter words?

    The science of swearing

    What lies behind the use of four-letter words?
    The Real Stories of Migrant Britain: Clive fled from Zimbabwe - now it won't have him back

    The Real Stories of Migrant Britain

    Clive fled from Zimbabwe - now it won’t have him back
    Africa on the menu: Three foodie friends want to popularise dishes from the continent

    Africa on the menu

    Three foodie friends want to popularise dishes from the hot new continent
    Donna Karan is stepping down after 30 years - so who will fill the DKNY creator's boots?

    Who will fill Donna Karan's boots?

    The designer is stepping down as Chief Designer of DKNY after 30 years. Alexander Fury looks back at the career of 'America's Chanel'