Life of Molotov challenges perception that Stalin’s henchmen were drones

Molotov: Stalin’s Cold Warrior

Geoffrey Roberts Potomac Books; £15.27 ,

Kindle £13.74

Review: Neil Robinson

Stalin’s lieutenants have been written out of history. In comparison to Hitler’s henchmen, they are invisible. The disparity in coverage of Hitler’s coterie and Stalin’s is the result of World War II and its aftermath.

The importance of Nazi ministers’ personalities to the nature and outcome of the war was clear during World War II, and recognised in history and popular culture after it.

Hitler’s men have been written about in popular and academic biographies and they are nearly all instantly recognisable from their ‘starring’ roles in a host of movies.

Stalin’s ministers have not had comparable public recognition. The wartime alliance with the USSR was all about Stalin — ‘Uncle Joe’.

Stalin’s ministers were seen as interchangeable drones. They could come and go at Stalin’s displeasure; one executed commissar would not change Soviet policy or its dictation by Stalin.

This crude view of Stalin’s USSR, and the men who ran it, is only now being challenged by historians. It suited many in the post-war period to paint a one-dimensional picture of the USSR as a crude dictatorship. Archival work that might have fleshed out the inner workings of Stalin’s clique was impossible until the USSR collapsed.

UCC’s Geoffrey Roberts has been one of the most important historians to confront Cold War conventional wisdom about Soviet foreign policy. In Molotov: Stalin’s Cold Warrior, he challenges it again.

Vyacheslav Molotov seems to conform to the Cold War stereotypes about Stalin’s ministers: cold, ruthless, and an implacable agent of Stalin’s will. Roberts convincingly shows this is too simple a picture.

Molotov began to work with Stalin before the revolution. Their partnership took off 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 position, he oversaw the murderous collectivisation of agriculture, the social revolution of Soviet industrialisation, and finally the great purges of the late 1930s, when Stalin destroyed any possible political opponents (most of whom were imaginary), and bludgeoned Soviet society into compliance with his will.

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. But loyalty did not mean that Molotov had no views of his own, or that he was not critical of some of Stalin’s decisions.

Roberts concentrates on Molotov’s periods as Soviet minister of foreign affairs, from 1939 to 1949, and from 1953 to 1956, and debunks several myths.

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 launched 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. Molotov was brought in to deliver such a deal and worked hard to get an agreement signed.

Negotiations failed because Britain and France could not get Poland to agree to measures that suited Soviet defence plans and only then did Molotov and Stalin turn to the Germans.

Once the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact fell apart, with the German invasion of the USSR in Jun 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.

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.

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.

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.

Ultimately, Molotov failed to secure the wider European security system that he wanted. Roberts presents Molotov’s failure as a lost opportunity to rein in the Cold War. I am not so sure. Security agreements in Europe of the type that Molotov wanted, and that Roberts argues might have curtailed the Cold War, would not have headed off post-World War II decolonisation. It was decolonisation that created the Cold War’s hotspots, not European security. Superpower relations in Europe were frequently overtaken by events in the developing world from the mid-1950s onwards.

Moscow’s positive reaction to these events, particularly to the emergence of new allies in decolonised countries in Africa and Asia, aggravated the Cold War irrespective of what happened in Europe.

The 1975 Helsinki Accords that guaranteed European state borders and eased tensions between East and West in Europe did not avert the fresh outbreak of the Cold War. This outbreak was caused by the conflict in Africa that followed the collapse of the Portuguese empire, the Nicaraguan revolution, and Soviet intervention in Afghanistan, despite events in Europe.

Roberts might overstate his case a little about what Molotov could have achieved if given a free hand, but he is very convincing in portraying Molotov as a more skilful and thoughtful diplomat than is commonly recognised. His description of Molotov’s views and time as Soviet foreign minister do not make Molotov any less of a Stalinist, but Roberts shows that there needs to be a broader appreciation of the role that Stalin’s ministers played in Soviet politics if we are to understand the Soviet Union fully.

* Neil Robinson teaches politics at the University of Limerick.


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