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The Meaning of Russia

Tom Cutterham

Meaning of RussiaRachel Polonsky
Molotov’s Magic Lantern: uncovering Russia’s secret history
Faber and Faber, 2010
416 Pages
ISBN 978-0571237814

Elif Batuman
The Possessed: adventures with Russian books

and the people who read them
Granta, 2011
304 Pages
ISBN 9781847083135

Russia seems more mysterious than ever. If it was once monolithic, grand, and terrible, it is now shattered and shifting, a collection of fragments casting obscure patterns of light, like a magic lantern. Both Polonsky and Batuman propose journeys into Russian consciousness and history; both offer not only interpretations of its literature, but accounts of their own travels and encounters. Their books combine memoir and travel-writing with historical and literary insights. Each had its origins in academic scholarship, but took a different turn along the way. As Polonsky writes, “Instead of the scholarly masterpiece on orientalism, I have written this book…”

The result, Molotov’s Magic Lantern, is thick with the layered dust of history, with reference upon reference and digression nested in digression. Polonsky’s book is an archaeology in which each street and building, each name and phrase, offers a story, an account of what made Russia and its people what they are. Its problem is that, upon such a slender structural premise as the author’s “wanderings among the muddle of past time that books and places make,” this weight of detail is too much to bear with grace. Instead of a focused beam of light, Polonsky’s lantern lights too much, too indiscriminately, to be satisfying.

The Possessed, however, masters the anecdotal form completely, as we would expect from a book woven primarily from pieces in The New Yorker, Harpers, and n+1. Batuman offers us far more of her own life in this book, and while we learn much less from it in terms of facts and references, we learn more of something quite different: what it is like to study and to think about another culture. “What did you know about Uzbekistan once you learned that Old Uzbek had a hundred different words for crying?” Batuman asks; and then, with the light, knowing humour that makes her book so much more fun than Polonsky’s: “I wasn’t sure, but it didn’t seem to bode well for my summer vacation.”

Certain overlaps between the books are obvious – Dostoevsky, Pushkin, Tolstoy – but others are unexpected. Both introduce us, for example, to the undoubtedly fascinating Nikolai Fyodorov, librarian and mystic, “who had declared the future tasks of mankind to be the abolishment of death, the universal resurrection of all dead people, and the colonisation of outer space (so the resurrected people would have somewhere to live).”

Both books emerged from their authors’ rejection of academic straight-jackets. This gives Batuman the chance to be hilarious, which she is, and to expose some of the more absurd features of academic life itself, from Samarkand to Stanford. Her forays into meta-analysis are thankfully few (“when you studied Uzbek, you weren’t learning a history or a story; all you were learning was a collection of words”). Like the novels she reads, Batuman is more profound when she’s just telling stories. There’s no solving Russia’s mysteries, but in that strange, fragmented country and its literature, we can at least see “the riddle of human behavior” at work.

Tom Cutterham is reading for a DPhil in American History at St Hugh’s College, Oxford. Tom is a senior editor at the Oxonian Review.