Sunday, January 30, 2011

Rachel Polonsky

When the British journalist Rachel Polonsky moved to Moscow, she discovered an apartment building on Romanov Street that was once home to the Soviet elite. One of the most infamous residents 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 Molotov’s Magic Lantern, Polonsky visits the haunted cities and vivid landscapes of the books from Molotov’s library: works by Chekhov, Dostoevsky, Pushkin, Akhmatova, and others, some of whom were sent to the Gulag by the very man who collected their books.

From Polonsky's Q & A with Marjorie Kehe at the Christian Science Monitor:

Q. The hypocrisy of Communist elites living in a luxurious old-world building as a reward for helping to create a new classless society seems overwhelming. How do you think that Molotov and his colleagues justified this to themselves?

When No.3 [Romanov Lane, Molotov's home] was first expropriated by the Party, the apartments were communalized. It was during the Civil War between the Reds and the Whites. There were terrible food shortages; living conditions were rough and precarious for most people in Moscow. At that time, the lifestyles of the Bolshevik revolutionaries would not have been luxurious at all. That changed quickly as the new regime established itself after victory in the Civil War, when the Party's pragmatic New Economic Policy was introduced to try to end the shortages, and a free market in consumer goods was reintroduced, though living conditions were still turbulent, and not at all "bourgeois" for anyone. Later in the 1920s, the Bolshevik elite became more openly comfort-loving. Stalin's great enemy, the revolutionary Trotsky, who was dragged out of the building by the secret police to be sent into exile at the end of the 1920s, railed against the Stalinist elite, ridiculing them as a new bourgeoisie. He despised the way in which they had quickly been seduced by what he called the "automobile and harem" culture of privilege, at how they drank wine and attended the ballet and gossiped when they should have been working night and day for world revolution.

Molotov himself expressed discomfort about the comfort-loving habits of the Party elite; he could not justify it according to the Marxist theory that he believed should guide his life. He was rather ascetic in his own personal habits, we are told, but his wife, Polina Zhemchuzhina (who was sent to the Gulag in 1949) famously loved the high life. She visited spas, wore furs and fine scent, loved cut flowers and dinner parties and hosting private music recitals. Soviet
society was rigidly hierarchical, and the people at the top soon developed a sense of entitlement.

Q. Did you feel that you came to know Molotov the man as you lived in his building and browsed in his library? What did you feel about him as a person?

I felt that through my contact with the remains of his library (and what I saw was just fragments of a formerly huge collection of books), I was...[read on]
--Marshal Zeringue