Molotov Remembers” is a journey into the mind of one of Josef Stalin’s most notorious henchmen, Vyacheslav Molotov. Most focus on the study of the Soviet Union is placed on the two key figures in its history, Lenin and Stalin. However, one can learn so much more when you delve into how some of their most famous followers managed their lives and careers in such a totalitarian system. Since Molotov never published official memoirs, “Molotov Remembers” serves as the primary historical source for the man who became the second most powerful man in the Stalin era.
Questions inevitably arise. Who would follow such people and such ideologies? Are these people swept into an uncontrollable fate or are these people simply true believers? Can unthinkable crimes be explained by people who seem like us, but carry out despicable crimes? Is there guilt or regret? How does one make peace with all this? Is there a sympathetic “other side of the story”? For every ideology, one must understand the leaders and the followers to gain the full spectrum of understanding.. Vyacheslav Molotov is the perfect specimen to study to create a robust case study.
Vyacheslav Molotov (March 9, 1890 – November 8 1986) was a politician and diplomat in the highest ranks of the Soviet Union’s government during Lenin and Stalin’s rule.. He began his political career by joining the Bolshevik Party in 1906 when he was sixteen years old. He performed the typical revolutionary activities of a Bolshevik in those times by agitating in the workers’ ranks, running illegal newpapers, and eventually getting arrested and exiled twice.
Ultimately, he survived his political setbacks and became a member of the Military Revolutionary Committee under Lenin which planned the October Revolution. He partnered with Stalin early on and stayed true to him until his death. In his career, he served in the upper echelons of power, most notably the Central Committee, Council of People’s Commissars, and the Politburo. His most famous role was that of the Soviet Minister of Foreign Affairs. He was the primary negotiator for what became the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact which created an alliance with Nazi Germany until fortunes reversed and Hitler attacked the Soviet Union. He was frequently the face of the Soviet Union in global affairs and always upheld Stalin’s hard line in diplomatic warfare.
Molotov’s activities touched nearly every aspect of the Soviet Union’s political machinations. He was integral in the collectivization of agriculture, the Great Terror, the Katyn Massacre, gulag formation, and the Great Purge. Molotov’s signature was prevalent among the multitude of execution lists.
After Stalin’s death, Molotov was edged out of power by Krushchev and was expelled from the Communist Party. He spent most of his remaining life in quiet retirement at his government-issued dacha. Only in 1983 was his party membership reinstated. In 1986, at the age of 96, he died. Molotov very nearly lived to see the entire life of the Soviet Union from beginning to end. His thoughts and words are invaluable for a better understanding of how this movement, this ideology, this political/economic system grew, lived, and then ultimately died.
“Molotov Remembers” is not a biography. It is a collection of conversations that occurred between Felix Chuev and Molotov over the course of seventeen years from 1969 to 1986. In these conversations, Chuev questioned Molotov about historical events, major decisions made within the government, his thoughts about Communism, and most other topics related to the Soviet Union’s checkered history. Some questions were softball, but many were provocative. Some revealed the sympathetic nature of the questioner and some represented the anger and bewilderment that a Soviet citizen or foreign observer would always wish, but never dare ask.
The book almost strictly captures dialog between Chuev and Molotov. Another historian, Shota Kvantaliani, joined the conversations occasionally between 1970 and 1977. All conversations were organized by topic rather than by chronology. Since topics of conversation became so scattered over the course of seventeen years, Chuev chose to organize the conversations by topic in order to preserve some continuity for the reader. This was a wise choice since many disconnected excerpts from Molotov made the reading confusing frequently. The ability to tie these excerpts to a specific topic allows the reader to consolidate Molotov’s words into a more consolidated message;
Regardless of the wise choices of the editor, the book was still difficult to read. When a topic was established, it usually included a long, reasonably comprehensive quote from Molotov that explained the bulk of the issue. The remainder of the topic frequently included additional smaller excerpts recorded over the years that supplemented the longest quote. There were occasions where some of his quotes contradicted each other, revealing Molotov’s wrestling over his true feelings about a matter or simply reflecting his increasingly fuzzy memory. The result of this style was a choppy collection of thoughts that could not possibly serve as a comprehensive essay on any of the topics. This was the disappointment. There was never a fully developed beginning, middle, and end that a thoughtful memoir could have provided. In life, you may never fully understand what someone believes through conversations. You can only do that if they write it out. This is the loss with Molotov. We never get a sense of what he believed and why that is written in a historically conclusive way. Perhaps it is better this way since a man’s thoughts about something do not end once they are printed on the page.
Not finished. More to come.