Monday, April 8, 2013

Molotov's Magic Lantern

Rachel Polonsky produced such an oddly brilliant book when she wrote Molotov's Magic Lantern that I am feeling grief-stricken to be finishing it this evening. All that is left to read is part of the Epilogue, and then I will have to move on to the next book. How happy I could have been if this book were a thousand pages long instead of not quite four hundred! The passage below from the publisher's blurb provides a fairly concise summary of the author's intricate and unlikely project —

When the British journalist Rachel Polonsky moves to Moscow, she discovers an apartment on Romanov Street that was once home to the Soviet elite. One of the most infamous neighbors was the ruthless apparatchik Vyacheslav Molotov, a henchman for Stalin who was a participant in the collectivizations and the Great Purge—and also an ardent bibliophile. In what was formerly Molotov’s apartment, Polonsky uncovers an extensive library and an old magic lantern—two things that lead her on an extraordinary journey.

"Of the small group of men," Polonsky writes, "who signed almost four hundred execution lists during the Great Terror, which lasted, at its peak, from the summer of 1937 with Politburo Order no. 00447 against 'anti-Soviet elements' until the early winter of 1938, Molotov signed the greatest number: 373 (eleven more lists than Stalin himself signed), bearing the names of 43,569 people. On one day in December 1937, Molotov, Stalin and Andrei Zhdanov signed away 2,274 lives. It was Molotov who had suggested sentencing by list. On some lists, he personally changed verdicts from imprisonment to death, but he made a habit of underlining numbers, not names." 

The majority of those 43,569 people were established politicians and/or intellectuals. Molotov collected and read and annotated their works even as he ordered their executions.

Only in Polonsky's Epilogue is another Magic Lantern named. Maria Tsvetaeva was one of the "four nightingales" of 20th century Russian poetry, held up throughout the book as exemplary victims of brutish authoritarianism. Her second published collection, it turns out, was called Magic Lantern.