For decades the perception of Soviet history during the Joseph Stalin’s reign was that the Georgian despot ruled the USSR with an iron fist and that everyone else was dispensable, figuratively and, often, literally.
Those that survived Stalin’s capricious purges are often portrayed as little more than “yes men,” not that being a cold, ruthless henchmen was any guarantee that you’d survive the next round of show trials, deportations and executions.
Yet a recent biography of Vyacheslav Molotov by Geoffrey Roberts, called Molotov: Stalin’s Cold Warrior, shows that the Soviet politician played a pivotal role over many decades, serving in several positions, including minister of foreign affairs from 1939-49 and again from 1953-56, and was far from one-dimensional.
For one thing, as University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign history professor Mark D. Steinberg points out, Molotov essentially ran the country during the first week after Nazi Germany launched its invasion of the USSR in June 1941, while Stalin sat staring at a wall in his summer dacha.
Also, Roberts argues that Molotov tried to ease tensions between the USSR and the West as the Cold War began, in the late 1940s, and was instrumental in pushing Soviet foreign policy to a less confrontational stance in the 1950s, according to a review of Roberts’ book by the Irish Examiner.
“This was not just Molotov positioning himself in the Soviet hierarchy after Stalin’s death, but was consistent with his position on relations with the West from the war years,” the publication writes.
“Molotov, therefore, deserves some of the credit that is usually given to others, particularly Khrushchev, for the gradual improvement in Soviet-Western relations that followed Stalin’s death.”
Roberts argues that Molotov’s appointment as foreign minister in 1939 was not designed to bring about the Nazi-Soviet Molotov-Ribbentrop pact, as is frequently assumed.
The pact, signed in late August 1939, gave Nazi Germany the green light it needed to launch World War II, and many have seen Molotov’s appointment as vital to its negotiation.
“Roberts shows that Molotov was moved over to foreign affairs because his predecessor was unable to reach an acceptable deal with Britain and France over European security,” according to the Examiner. “Molotov was brought in to deliver such a deal and worked hard to get an agreement signed.”
Negotiations failed prior to Molotov’s involvement because Britain and France could not get Poland to agree to measures that fit with Soviet defense plans, and only afterward did Molotov and Stalin turn to the Germans.
Once the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact fell apart, with the German launch of Operation Barbarossa on June 22, 1941, Molotov began a long struggle to develop an effective security system in Europe.
This, Roberts shows, brought him into conflict with Stalin in the 1940s, and then with Stalin’s successors, most notably Nikita Khrushchev, in the 1950s.
Yet, despite Molotov’s conflicts with top Soviet leaders, he could be as cold and calculating as those he answered to.
Molotov’s relationship with Stalin dated back before the Russian Revolution, and their partnership blossomed in the 1920s, when Molotov was one of Stalin’s most important supporters in the Communist Party bureaucracy during the struggle to succeed Lenin.
In 1930, Stalin made him chairman of the Council of People’s Commissars, roughly the prime minister.
From this post, Molotov played a key role in the wildly unpopular collectivization of agriculture, the social revolution of Soviet industrialization and the great purges of the late 1930s, which left millions dead and millions more in Soviet labor camps.
“There can be no doubt that Molotov was loyal to Stalin. He attested as much during his long retirement (he died in 1986) and – under pressure – even went along with the arrest and imprisonment of his wife, Polina, in 1948,” the Examiner writes.
(Above: Stalin talks with his Foreign Minister Vyacheslav Molotov at Yalta.)