With support from the University of Richmond

History News Network

History News Network puts current events into historical perspective. Subscribe to our newsletter for new perspectives on the ways history continues to resonate in the present. Explore our archive of thousands of original op-eds and curated stories from around the web. Join us to learn more about the past, now.

Aaron Leonard: Review of Geoffrey Roberts's "Molotov: Stalin's Cold Warrior" (Potomac, 2011)

Aaron Leonard is a freelance writer and frequent contributor to HNN.

Geoffrey Roberts introduces us to Vyacheslav Mikhailovich Molotov in 1976, long after he has left power. Molotov tell us, “Not often, but sometimes I dream of Stalin. In extraordinary situations. In a destroyed city. I can’t find a way out. Then I meet him, in a word, strange dreams, very confused.” Such disturbing dreams are not surprising. The twentieth century was, in many ways, the most awful time in human history: two world wars, famines, genocide and, for the latter half of the century, the specter of utter nuclear annihilation. Molotov, as premier of the Soviet Union from 1930 to 1941, Soviet foreign minister from 1939 to 1949 and again from 1953 to 1956, was more times than not at the center of it all.

Roberts presents a more nuanced picture of Molotov than other biographers, someone whose mind and meticulousness suited him to the exacting demands of representing the Soviets in the realm of foreign policy. Robert’s Molotov is not absolutely slavish to Stalin -- though when push comes to shove he falls into line -- and he is even less cowering in front of Khrushchev. Regardless, to review Molotov's life is to walk a tightrope, and Geoffrey Roberts does a fine job of doing so.

There is Molotov, the committed Communist selflessly sacrificing for what he saw as a more just world, only to end up in a position of authority during the Great Purge of the late 1930s with its effort to solve real, perceived, and imagined problems through the most horrific and unconscionable means. Then there is Molotov the face of Soviet foreign policy -- a policy that, when stripped of its socialist and internationalist pretenses, is too often driven by fierce nationalism.

Molotov’s pivotal role was during World War II, and it's here that things become most complicated -- and dire. When the Soviets could not broker a deal with England and France to stave off ascendant Germany in 1939, they made a deal ... with Germany. Negotiated by Molotov with the German foreign minister Joachim von Ribbentrop, it meant Germany and the Soviets would not attack each other -- for the time being. The ink had hardly dried when the Germans took their then-cleared path to invade Poland, ushering in World War II. The Red Army followed seventeen days later, dividing Poland between Germany and the Soviet Union and paving the way for the Soviet annexations of the Baltic states, as well as the disastrous Winter War with Finland. In this way the Soviets, pursuing their own state interests, gave their own particular fuel to the fire to that conflagration. In the end they did themselves no service -- though it is still debated to what degree this respite strategy benefited them -- for in June 1941 the Germans, which had used the temporary peace with the Soviets to conquer most of Western Europe, launched one of the most murderous campaigns in human history, Operation Barbarossa -- the invasion of the Soviet Union.

Through the leadership of Stalin, and with Molotov’s diplomacy, the Soviets -- who Roberts notes did the bulk of the fighting and dying in that war (eight million military deaths and sixteen million civilians, or ten percent of the Soviet population) -- were able to defeat Hitler’s forces. The victory was in many ways pyrrhic. The Soviets went from the occupied to the occupiers in Eastern Europe. Stalin and his cadre, at the best of times viewed with suspicion, were now seen by the United States and Britain as a threat. This was not without basis, as Roberts quotes Molotov, “Sometimes it is difficult to draw a line between the desire for security and the desire for expansion.” Yet Soviet foreign policy was not operating in a vacuum. The United States was keen to stake out its place in the postwar world -- and the development of atomic weapons were no small part of that.

The book goes against the grain in arguing Molotov, more than is largely understood, was not a simple bulwark of Cold War intransigence. It describes how, while Stalin was still alive, he fought an uphill battle to keep some semblance of the Grand Alliance together and to diminish the Cold War. Later, under Khrushchev, we learn of his efforts to broker a deal with the Western powers to the same end. He was ultimately unsuccessful, for, as Roberts notes, “his efforts to end [the Cold War] and unite a divided Europe were frustrated first by Stalin and then by Khrushchev. But Molotov’s failure to realize his vision should not blind us to the importance of his efforts.”

Regardless, after the horror of the purges (in which he, like Khrushchev, shared in the culpability), divorcing his wife when she came under Stalin’s disfavor, seeing Stalin attacked by Khrushchev, being kicked out of the Party (though he was reinstated by Leonid Brezhnev toward the end of his life), Molotov was unrepentant. In 1985 at the age of 95, he said, “In time, Stalin will be rehabilitated by history. There will be a Stalin museum in Moscow. Without fail! By popular demand.” Though he comes across like a man in the wrong defending the indefensible, things are more complicated than that. As Roberts concludes, “No simple epitaph could encompass Molotov’s life and career. But for both good and ill, he was a pivotal figure in shaping the diplomacy and politics of those extraordinary times.”