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Book Review

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Molotov's Magic Lantern

by Rachel Polonsky

A discovered library once owned by Vyacheslav Molotov, who was apparently an ardent bibliophile, provides the pretext for a string of fascinating forays into Russian history, literature, science and life. Polonsky writes beautifully, in the dense manner of Helprin or Hempel, forcing the reader to slow down and carefully take in the masses of information she has layered into each paragraph, each story, each curious little tidbit (like the shopping list Molotov wrote on the back of Vyshinsky's 1952 speech to the General Assembly: "door handles, shelf with mirror, pegs for the bathroom."

In fact, the book itself is like roaming the stacks of an amazingly rich library, finding bits of paper slipped in as bookmarks, referencing another work that you must then seek out, a trail leading through the dusty corridors of Russian literature - to Chekhov and Dostoyevsky, Akhmatova and Shalamov - and into previously hidden rooms - like the Academy of Sciences retreat outside Moscow, or to the docks of Murmansk during Lend-Lease, where starving prisoners ate the grease off an American bulldozer, convinced it was butter.

There are riches here. Stories that will send you digging into history books (could that really have happened), biographical notes that seem utterly unimaginable, and thus completely true. Get this book, steep a large pot of tea, and dig in.

— Paul E. Richardson

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Reviewed in Russian Life: Mar/Apr 2011