The Suez Canal had already drained much of Kyakhta's trade by the time the Trans-Siberian Railway was routed twenty miles to the west in the 1890s. The last of the merchants moved on, leaving their mansions and clubhouses to the learned societies of orientalists that had colonised the city. The Hun antiquities that the archaeologists discovered in the sands of the steppe may be the pure expression of Eurasian 'passionarity', but the Kyakhta Museum which they founded to preserve them--the last viable institution in this beautiful, dead city--is the creative work of traders' money, which mixes and scatters people--Gumilev's anthropofauna--without regard. And people are also scattered by the force and movement of ideas, like the ideas that brought a Jewish Bolshevik and a proto-Nazi Baltic baron face to face in a theatre in Siberia. History does not move forward. It moves not in a straight line, or a circle, but in an arabesque, which is not always a line of beauty.I was impressed by Polonsky's book, and I was not expecting to be. Popular books about Russia, especially ones written by Brits, tend to be half flatulent pseudo-mysticism and half weepy encomia for the eternally oppressed liberal (or "socialist-with-a-human face") intelligentsia. Though Molotov's Magic Lantern features an appreciable amount of both, they are far from overwhelming the narrative. Instead, Polonsky treats us with many, many gorgeous and lushly empirical passages full of travelogue detail and historical anecdotes, nearly all of which are interesting and enjoyable to read.
- Rachel Polonsky, Molotov's Magic Lantern
It is this lushness in her world that leads me to the other chronotope I wanted to highlight, which I have called, somewhat arbitrarily, "prosopography." But the paradigmatic prosopographic work is the oeuvre of James Michener (whose novels, I'll admit, are essentially just porn for history buffs). In contrast to the chronotope of claustrophobia, the chronotope of prosopography relies on the gradual, stately advance of generations, the linkage between history and human time, the openness and transformability of the world. The two are not opposites; they sit side by side in our experience of books, and like claustrophobia, prosopography is more a sense one gets from reading than a genuine and integral feature of a work on its own terms.
The ideal of prosopography, then, is a kind of Naturphilosophical vis creativa, a capacity of human life to burgeon, evolve, and produce future generations. In computer game terms, the characteristic genre of claustrophobia is the first-person shooter, in which one is trapped in an endlessly different but fundamentally similar series of spaces. The prosopographic equivalent is the real-time strategy game, whose laws are open-ended and are governed above all by the variable pulse of expansion, production, and absorption of space. A truly prosopographic narrative, in other words, cannot be circular even in the Bakhtinian sense: its changes are irreversible and its spaces are fluid and shifting.
Prosopographic works are more satisfying, undeniably, on a visceral level; this accounts for the popularity of The Godfather as well as of Hegel and Auerbach. But it would be too easy to forget its fatal weakness, which is the fundamental absence of any solid external point of reference. Whereas one can be sure that a claustrophobic work will be about what it is about, a prosopographic one inevitably substitutes the passion and drama of its own evolutionary drive for any broader claims it seems to make on the surface. A classic example is the Old Testament: even if it is supposed to be about the relationship between human beings and God, the reality is that the historical development of the Jewish people, as it is represented in this book, in a narrative sense overwhelms any strictly theological concerns.
Happily, the same happens with Molotov's Magic Lantern. It is difficult to imagine this book being actually about Stalinism and the Terror in any consistent way without it also being horribly tedious, for the author's ideas about Stalin and his court are neither novel nor compelling. Instead, the book is about the burgeoning vitality of several other things--Molotov's monumental career, his library, the travels of Polonsky herself--and it therefore relentlessly marginalizes the author's
tendencies toward didacticism. We are left with a lush book, but certainly not a "politically meaningful" one.