Molotov, the Bureaucrat in Stalin’s Shadow

“It is sad that there were so many innocent victims, but I can sleep at night.”

Vyacheslav Molotov, 1986

In 1940, while Europe was succumbing to Hitler’s blitzkrieg, Russian planes took advantage of the Molotov-Ribbentrop alliance to bomb Finland with impunity. Bolshevik pacifism, which had taken Russia out of World War I, had given way to military expansionism. The end justified the means to such an extent that on August 31, 1939 the Foreign Minister of the USSR, Vyacheslav Molotov, delivered to the nation one of the most surprising announcements in history: the Bolsheviks had signed a non-aggression pact with the Nazis…

The agreement, named Molotov-Ribbentrop after its signatory ministers, not only involved splitting up Poland and the Baltic countries between Russia and Germany: It also empowered the communist regime to freely invade Finland. That is where the nickname of Stalin’s most faithful collaborator would become immortalized.

In an unbridled display of cynicism, Molotov told the world that Soviet planes were dropping food—not bombs—at the hungry population. The Finns, ironically, called those bombs Molotov bread baskets. And they would accompany them with their own mixed drink, which they threw at the Russian tanks to show their “gratitude”: Molotov cocktails.

The name of the best-known Foreign Minister of the Soviet period also has a background story: it means Hammer, or Made of steel. Lenin and Stalin gave him the name while plotting the revolution together, years after their relationship began at the newspaper Pravda, the preeminent Bolshevik news source founded by Molotov himself.

When its founder died in 1986 at the age of 96, nary an article was published in the paper. The once almighty oligarch had fallen from grace years before. Although, unlike what happened with others, that did not lead to his execution. He lived his final decades in a very comfortable retirement. 

What caused his fall from grace? His loyalty to Stalin. And his steadfast defense of the bloody European genocide that ravaged Russia until 1953. That brings up an essential aspect of the psychology of our protagonist: In an interview shortly before his death, Molotov raised his glass of wine to toast to Stalin, the most important man in his life, whom he adored even decades after his death and his posthumous condemnation by the party he had led. He raised his glass again for Lenin, who after promoting him to the highest positions of power within the party would end up criticizing his excessive bureaucracy. And finally, a third toast: For the love of his life, Polina.

He did the toasts in that order. This was the order of importance for a man in love, but also deeply ideologized. Because it takes a lot of violence being exerted on someone for them to obey the organization more than what they love most. Ideologies, like money, have always been a good narcotic for the conscience. And that—silencing the conscience—is exactly what Molotov had to do a few years after the end of the World War, when Stalin accused his wife Polina of being a Zionist agent for Israel.

Apparently, on the first official visit Golda Meier made to the USSR after becoming Prime Minister of Israel, she requested a private meeting with Molotov’s wife. Stalin found out about the meeting and made the accusation in the Council of Ministers. Molotov paled, but did not raise his voice in protest: He abstained from the vote. Polina, after spending a year in Lubyanka prison, endured a three-year sentence in Siberia, until Stalin’s death prompted her release.

Molotov suffered tremendously, blaming himself for not being able to spare his wife that punishment. He, who had been Stalin’s right-hand man for so many years. He, who had been by his side in the celebration of Victory Day in the Red Square. He, who had signed more execution orders than Stalin himself during the Great Purge of the Communist Party. He, with whom Stalin was completely open and who enjoyed full autonomy in negotiations with foreign powers… Where was his power now, if he was not even able to protect his own wife?

Molotov had become a victim of what so many others had suffered before: falling out of favor with Stalin for no apparent reason. The consequence of a pathological inability to trust someone, and confusing reality with a sick imagination. Something that the two oligarchs had in common, and that they found terribly useful in the power games they spearheaded for years. 

The last power game, however, did not work out so well for Molotov. The death of Stalin, a fortuitous event that enabled his survival, restored the foreign affairs role he had held for so many years, as well as a preeminent place in the circle of power of the new president, Malenkov. He decided to form a triumvirate with Beria (the Himmler of Stalin, founder of what would later become the KGB) and Molotov himself; until the currents of influence ultimately opened the door for Nikita Khrushchev, a staunch enemy of Beria. In yet another display of cynicism, Malenkov and Molotov turned in their friend for Khrushchev to sentence him to death, and gave the power to him. Molotov had learned well from Stalin. But he wasn’t prepared for what came next.

Khrushchev, to everyone’s surprise, began a process of de-Stalinization, denouncing his former mentor as the one to blame for the Great Purge and the first years of defeats in World War II. Molotov had let his wife be unjustly condemned, but he was not going to stand for the demonization of Stalin. A remarkable exhibit of loyalty to a dead person from someone who had sent his friends to the firing squad.

Perhaps he was facing up to his crimes. And his victims. Maybe he saw the vilification of his mentor as a judgment of his own life, and the meaning he had placed on his entire existence. Stalin embodied the revolution for him, and everything had to be subordinated to him. Even love. If the Party was now judging Stalin as the enemy of the revolution, the meaning of all his actions was in limbo. So defending him was not just a matter of loyalty: it was a need to defend himself from his ghosts, from his fears, from his own conscience that, after being dulled by so much dehumanization, perhaps was being awakened, at long last, to show him the horror of his actions.

But he never apologized. He never wavered in his defense of Stalin. And, surprisingly, he would free himself from the fate of so many others who had stood up against the Party: He would survive everyone, unredeemed and deeply disappointed by the slow but inevitable opening that would culminate in Gorbachev.

However well-known these lessons may be, they should be remembered for their similarity to the Molotov case:

  • One of the most harmful effects of hard ideology is the affective detachment from even those who are closest. 
  • In every ideology, regardless of the type, the exaltation of the leader impels followers toward an almost childish subservience, and a refusal to recognize the mistakes and pathologies of that leader over the years.
  • Justifying any means to an end invariably leads to cynicism and sociopathy with one’s greatest allies, such as lies and manipulation.
  • When so much evil has been sown in the world, the alternative to despair is to invent a parallel and fictional story that frees one’s conscience; but no made-up story survives the test of time. Parallel stories far from reality are pure schizophrenia.