RUSSIA'S STREET OF SECRETS; MOLOTOV'S MAGIC LANTERN: A JOURNEY IN RUSSIAN HISTORY by Rachel Polonsky (Faber, [Pounds Sterling]20)

Article excerpt

Byline: SIMON SEBAG MONTEFIORE

ONE of the delights of Moscow for the historian is that the Asiatic, gargantuan and sprawling capital with its wide skies is still full of secrets. There is one particular small street in Moscow that holds both many of the secrets of the Soviet era and many connections to the aristocratic and literary era of the Romanovs.

It was Rachel Polonsky's luck that when she and her husband (a top lawyer) arrived in Moscow, they happened to rent an apartment in the most secret building in this secret street.

Number Three Romanov Street is a huge, turn-of-the-century apartment building containing palatial apartments, two of which were still owned in the 21st century by the Molotov family. Soon after she arrived, Polonsky was invited by her neighbour, who was renting Molotov's own apartment, to examine the old monster's library and treasures: she found there a magic lantern which has furnished her imagination because, as she says, "a look back at the past is a magic-lantern show".

She explains how she strayed from her original plan: "Instead of the scholarly masterpiece on orientalism I had in mind, I have written this book, which recounts my wanderings among the muddle of past time that books and places make ... I have travelled from our home close to the Kremlin Wall whenever I had the chance, following whims, hunches and bookish romances ..." Stalin's most loyal henchman, mocked by Lenin and Trotsky for his stupidity, nicknamed Stone-Arse for his capacity for work, Soviet Premier during the slaughter of collectivisation and the Terror of 1937, Foreign Minister during the Second World War, believer and practitioner of mass-killings and signer of death lists, Vyacheslav Molotov retired to this building and managed to become the owner of two of these splendid apartments.

Molotov, who was born in 1890 and lived to almost 100, was a reader and bibliophile: Polonsky finds much treasure in his huge library of books.

After the Revolution, most of the Bolshevik magnates lived in the Kremlin until 1937, when Stalin moved them to this building: virtually the entire Party and military leadership (except Stalin and Beria) -- Khrushchev, Malenkov, Bulganin, Voroshilov and Marshals Budyonny, Koniev and Zhukov -- resided there. During the Thirties, many of the inhabitants were arrested and shot on the orders of other leaders living in the same building, their children still playing together. Most of these families continued to live in this building until recently.

Although Polonsky begins her journey with Molotov, his lantern, his books and this historic building, from here she embarks on a journey right through Russian history and literature. …