Thursday, March 3, 2011
Molotov's Magic Lantern
Always on the lookout for a new book on Russian history and culture, I was surprised to come across this article, in which Orlando Figes apologizes for having anonymously savaged Rachel Polonsky's new book, Molotov's Magic Lantern: A Journey in Russian History, in an effort to steer readers toward his books at amazon.com. Sad, because I have always liked Figes, particularly Natasha's Dance, which provides an engaging and very insightful review of Russia's vast cultural legacy. Doesn't seem to me that he needs to resort to such tactics to attract readers. Now, it appears he will lose many readers.
As for Polonsky, it looks as though she too has written a very engaging book, judging by Alexander Nazaryan's review in The New Republic,
But still this is an audacious effort, one that tries to capture an entire literary legacy, and the collective tragedy of a beleaguered people, in fewer than four hundred pages. And it is, at least to my limited knowledge, the only history of Russia to use a Bob Dylan lyric as its epigraph: “I can’t feel you anymore, I can’t even touch the books you’ve read.” I imagine that Figes was, at bottom, stung by the thought that Polonsky had written a book more clever and current than his: there she was, drinking Jack Daniels at 3 Romanov while he poured over Stalin’s archives. And so he went online, and at a time when people are reading less, tried to turn away a potential audience away from a book that is worth their attention. Molotov would have been proud.