Catriona Kelly on an unworldly travelogue of post-Soviet life

The Russian social elite, with its reputation for secrecy and sybaritic living, has preoccupied westerners since travel to the country began – partly because, in many periods, travellers (from early modern merchants and interpreters to Soviet-era diplomats) could only observe these circles from a distance. Rachel Polonsky, on the other hand, spent nearly a decade living in what was once an elite party block in central Moscow, between the Kremlin and the city’s premier avenue, Gorky Street.

Neighbours included a high-gloss salon portraitist and a leading TV presenter, while getting up and down the street meant contesting pavements with the bonnets of Hummers and Bentleys. Polonsky observes the social contortions of this tiny area (what Russians would call a pyatachok, “five-copeck piece”) with a sharp yet lyrical eye: the demi-mondaines in their “air-soft sable”, the “silky fraying bark” of the birch trees in the yard.

At the same time, Molotov’s Magic Lantern is preoccupied as much with the past as with the present. A former neighbour in Polonsky’s building, Stalin’s henchman Vyacheslav Molotov, removed here in his political retirement, provides the book with a pattern and a rationale. A magic lantern found in his “panelled drawing room” acts as justification for Polonsky’s own fugitive impressions, which draw on travels to Murmansk, Rostov-on-Don, Irkutsk, Archangel and Staraya Russa, setting for The Brothers Karamazov, as well as her life in Moscow, and trips to the dacha and skiing areas around.

The reference to Molotov along with the subtitle, “A Journey in Russian History”, might lead readers to expect a rather different book. But references to Molotov’s library, underlined in purple ink, act as a structural device rather than a way of illuminating the communist leader’s psychology. History of the documentary kind is not Polonsky’s genre; the government archives within five minutes’ walk of her Moscow fastness are left mostly unexplored. Rather, she works within the frame of historiosophy or psychogeography, being concerned to identify in each place visited “an arrangement of landscape, politics and myth”. A gifted literary critic, she delights in the “opulent yet spare” prose of Isaak Babel, but writes just as well about the bleak Gulag stories of Varlam Shalamov.

Many scenes have hidden parallels in canonical European art. At the Sandunovsky baths, a woman, naked except for plastic slippers and a turban, dangles her leg like a Muscovite Olympia. A bar in Vologda where the barwoman’s “bleached hair and the brilliant green of her suit were reflected away, gleaming, into infinity” is a Technicolor version of Manet’s Folies Bergère. The magic lantern image itself is borrowed from Nabokov’s Speak, Memory.

Occasionally – as in a chapter on Chekhov’s birthplace of Taganrog – the overlay of citation and paraphrase can obscure the object in view. Yet Polonsky is not the hero of Hofmannsthal’s Der Tor und der Tod, fretting over his inability to see a sunset without a baroque painting getting in the way. While her preferred intonation, particularly when she writes about the provinces, remains the dying fall, she writes powerfully about squalor and futility. Seeing trees bandaged to mark the sites of road accidents in Siberia, she wonders: “Did these dirty scraps appease the spirits of the dead for the insult of a pointless end?”

Molotov’s Magic Lantern gives some sense of the sharp political edge in post-Soviet life (particularly the taste for insane versions of neo-Eurasianism). But it is at the same time rather an unworldly book. It is a rare modern travelogue that includes the phrase “we had decided to abandon our driver and use the local bus service”. This is Russia as it might be seen through the exquisite sensibility of an Anita Brookner heroine. Chosen sites include the restaurants where the rich leave almost untouched plates of food costing the same as a week’s pension, but not the markets where pensioners buy out-of-date supermarket foodstuffs, or their grandchildren shell out for Chinese T-shirts and pirate software.

The recent intellectual life of Moscow is reduced to “old men in grimy ill-fitting suits and thick plastic-rimmed spectacles” in reading room number one of the former Lenin Library. Passes for this reading room are issued only to doctors of science and academicians; the superannuation of its regulars is hardly surprising. Nothing is said about the capital’s vibrant publishing scene, or the smoke-fugged literary cafés that make many London intellectual discussions seem laughably underpowered.

If a well-read Russian woman who had lived for some years in Dolphin Square and followed DH Lawrence to Nottingham and Edwin Muir to Edinburgh (travelling, as Polonsky puts it, “innocently tucked in luxe”) were to write a book about her experiences, the results might be similar. Some of the places that Polonsky describes as decaying outposts now have their own websites and forums; their centres swirl with rebuilding and traffic jams. The westerners who spend months or years studying, living and working in formerly inaccessible areas, from Petrozavodsk to Kamchatka, tend to see Russia with robust affection, not in the colours of the fin de siècle. But there is no reason why all journeys to a changing society should take the same route, and Polonsky certainly constructs a highly individual map of her chosen country of the mind.

Catriona Kelly’s Children’s World: Growing Up in Russia, 1890-1991 is published by Yale. © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds