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"Molotov's Magic Lantern: Travels in Russian History": an interview with author Rachel Polonsky

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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 able to approach his life story in a new way, and indeed, to think about books and libraries in a new way. I was able to contemplate him as a reader, as a serious reader, as someone who revered books, for all his fanaticism and the terrible crimes he committed. I learned what I could about him from other sources, from records of wide-ranging conversations he had late in life, from published biographies, including a very thorough and revealing biography by his distinguished grandson, Vyacheslav Nikonov. Molotov put ideas before people, and was able to sentence to death people who had considered him a friend, and to appease his own conscience. He proposed using numbers rather than names on death lists; he wanted to distance himself from the humanity of other people. He loved his wife dearly, but he did not intervene to prevent her arrest, or even speak up against it. Books can be easier to love and cherish than other people for a man like that.

Q. Do you think the Russian national character was altered by Communism – or is it more powerful than any ideology?

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