A bird's eye view of the Kremlin, Moscow

In 1998, Rachel Polonsky began a 10-year exploration of Russia which culminated in the publication of her book, "Molotov's Magic Lantern". She told the Hay Festival the extraordinary story behind her research.

They believed in the idea and the idea was more important than them. There are many psychological mysteries about the cult of Stalin and that is just one of them.

Dr Rachel Polonsky

At the end of the 1990s, Dr Rachel Polonsky – then a research and teaching fellow at Emmanuel College, Cambridge and lecturer in Slavonic Studies – went AWOL in Russia. This is a term that she still freely uses to describe her  behaviour at the time, and the situation in which she remained for the best part of the next 10 years.

It might seem a strange course of action. Polonsky was still in the early stages of her academic career and had set off to Moscow in the summer of 1998 to pursue a research project that had already been arranged. Soon, however, she was comprehensively sidetracked by a twist of fate consonant with the sort of surreal events Russia was singularly capable of producing at the time. Polonsky abandoned her project, then resigned her post at Cambridge altogether, and set off on a remarkable journey which would culminate in the publication in 2010 of her book, Molotov’s Magic Lantern.

Her discussion of this book at the Hay Festival last week opened with images of the apartment building she and her young family found on Romanov Street. Located close to the gates of the Kremlin, this was an attractive block and in better times might have been beyond the budget of most scholars, but the Russian economy was in spasm and rents were a third of what they had been two weeks earlier.

Once occupied by Moscow’s haute-bourgeoisie, the building had been expropriated after the Revolution, and by 1918 the Bolsheviks had started to move in – among them a number of eminent figures from the new administration. Later, in the 1930s, many of the same individuals had been forcibly removed from the premises during Stalin’s purges. Surrounded by history on all sides, Polonsky started to explore the building’s past.

It wasn’t long before she struck gold. At a cocktail party, she met one of her new neighbours, an American banker who, it turned out, was living in the same apartment once owned by Yacheslav Mikhailovich Molotov. Perhaps best known to school pupils as the co-signatory of the 1939 Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact which guaranteed Nazi-Soviet non-aggression before the start of World War II, Molotov had led a long, complex and frequently astonishing life. He was born in 1890 and only died in 1986, meaning that he almost saw the entire Soviet story from the beginning to the end. In between, he had been the feared right-hand man of Stalin himself, a key figure in the purges (in which he sanctioned the removal many of his Bolshevik colleagues), and was later expelled from the party after a failed attempt to remove Stalin’s successor, Nikita Khrushchev.

The American tenant of what had been Molotov’s home was renting the apartment from his granddaughter. He told Polonsky that the flat was still full of the former foreign minister’s paraphernalia, including a large number of his books. Noting her interest in the subject, he added that he was unlikely to be in very much due to the exigencies of his job. Would she like the key?

Polonsky soon found that she had inadvertently opened a treasure trove of historical material, although she stresses that because she is not an historian by trade, she was careful to view the collection as a scholar of literature. “I was overwhelmed with excitement but it was clearly not a complete library,” she said. “I didn’t quite know how to approach it. I catalogued it and spent many hours going through the books trying to work out its shape, contemplating the life of this historical figure, who was also a mass-murderer.”

Among the numerous treasures, Polonsky found a rare, Russian translation of Churchill’s history of World War II, in which the former Prime Minister reflected on a meeting with Molotov himself, describing him as a man of “cold-blooded ruthlessness” and adding that he had “never seen a human being who resembled more effectively the modern conception of a robot.” She also found Communist pamphlets and books, an atheist translation of the Bible, and a letter from an author working on the subject of collectivisation that urged Molotov to take an interest in his research.

What surprised her more than anything, however, was the wide range of fiction in the collection, including writers like Chekhov – Molotov’s personal favourite – whose work is characterised by a deep humanity. This represented a puzzle; how could this killer, this robot, also be a bibliophile and reader of material such as this?

At the same time, Polonsky stumbled across another item, an old stereoscope or “magic lantern”, with some of the slides still in it. It was while viewing this that she really started to work out what she was doing. Like the pictures in the magic lantern, she saw herself as assembling a set of images of Russia which she could animate just slightly. Thus the lantern became a metaphor for her book.

This was roughly when she really started to go AWOL in a serious way. Inspired by this notion of bringing still images of the past to life, Polonsky set off on an odyssey in which she explored the places associated with the people and works connected with Molotov and his library. It started with more revelations about the building on Romanov Street. Among other things, she discovered that it was in her apartment block that Trotsky had been arrested in 1929 and dragged down the stairs while his wife and children screamed and banged on the doors of neighbouring flats. A few people poked their heads out to see what the noise was about, but none intervened.

Polonsky’s journey soon extended to cover much of the rest of Russia. With no fixed end point in sight, she began to work as a freelance scholar exploring stories that started with the collection in Molotov’s flat. She followed tales about the Russian Civil War, Chekhov, the Arctic convoys to Archangelsk during World War II. She also headed to the summer-house colonies outside Moscow, where she found stories about the scientists who had worked on the atomic project under Stalin and excavated information about the terrible things that had happened to Russia’s thinking elite during his rule. Ultimately, the book takes Polonsky to the country’s furthest reaches, to the decaying baroque churches in south-west Siberia on the Mongolian border.

If there is an overall theme to her dilating exploration of Russia’s writers, its sprawling history and the shadow it casts, then Polonsky considers it to be the role of place in shaping books, and the role of books in shaping places. Now that her leave of absence has at least nominally come to an end, however (she is a teaching associate in the Department of Slavonic Studies at Cambridge), she also reflects that she found some sort of answer to her questions about Molotov himself, and how a man with so much blood on his hands could engage with works of great humanity, or express something as human as a love of books.

A clue to this may be found in the story of what happened to his Jewish wife, Polina Zhemchuzhina. The couple had a devoted married life, but in December 1948, even Molotov’s high status in the government could not stop her from being arrested for treason and sent to a Gulag, where she was tortured. There was nothing he could do to help, and Molotov continued to work alongside those who had sanctioned Polina’s arrest, including Stalin himself. After Stalin’s death in 1953, however, they were reunited. Remarkably, they not only lived together happily for the rest of their lives, but also toasted Stalin every evening at dinner.

This is perhaps the most striking example of a number of suggestions that Polonsky found pointing to Molotov’s ability to separate his work and the Party from humanity and those whom he held most dear. As a result, he somehow managed to keep the two in equilibrium.

“They were both fanatical believers,” she told her audience when questioned on Molotov’s marriage. “Part of that was not believing Stalin had given the order, although that’s double-think because the truth must have been obvious. But they believed in the idea and the idea was more important than them. There are many psychological mysteries about the cult of Stalin and that is just one of them.” The same duality may have allowed a learned and sympathetic bibliophile to do the terrible things he did.

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Licence. If you use this content on your site please link back to this page.