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Polonsky, Rachel, Molotov's Magic Lantern: Uncovering Russia's Secret History (London: Faber and Faber, 2010).

A writer explores a country and its culture in a luminous, original and unforgettable book.

In the 1990s Rachel Polonsky went to live in Moscow with her family, and began a journey of discovery into a country she thought she knew well. She lived in an apartment block on Romanov Street that had, in Tsarist and Soviet times, been a residence of the elite; and one of those ghostly neighbours was Vyacheslav Molotov, Stalinís henchman and arch survivor of that ferocious regime. (Marshal Budenny, hero of the civil war, and Marshal Konev, conqueror of Berlin, also lived there; Leon Trotsky was carried out of the building by the secret police when he was first sent into exile).

In Molotovís former apartment, Rachel Polonsky discovered what remained of his library. And she learned that Molotov - ruthless apparatchik, joint author of the collectivisations and the Great Purge - was an ardent bibliophile, an eager reader with a particular devotion to Chekhov. He had all the classics; and he owned signed first editions of books by writers he later sent to the Gulag.

The library and the building in which Rachel Polonsky found it are at the heart of the book, the prism through which she looked at Russian history and at Russia as it is under Putin, and she kept returning to it in her journeys around Russia in search of the places associated with the writers in the library and with the politicians and soldiers who had lived in the Romanov house. At first she walked the streets around the Kremlin, writing about Moscowís buildings and churches, its old bath houses and vanished aristocratic families, about Pushkin and the Decembrists, then widening her search to the towns and artistsí colonies in the region around the capital. Later she went from the far south to the high Arctic, from St Petersburg in the west to the border with Mongolia in the east.

In each place she encountered the past of a country ravaged by war, famine, genocide and totalitarianism, but also the legacy of Russiaís writers: their airy humanism, their tortured insights and nationalist fantasies, their epic responses to war and terror, their commitment to spiritual values and to natural science - a great and contradictory culture that continues to haunt the rest of the world.

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