Vyacheslav Molotov was born on March 9, 1890, in the remote village of Kukarka, Russia. He managed to rise from a Marxist member of the Bolshevik Party in the mid-1900s to one of the most influential Soviet politicians and diplomats. In 1921, by eagerly supporting Joseph Stalin’s struggle for leadership after Vladimir Lenin’s death, Molotov acquired the post of Secretary of the Central Committee and became a member of the Politburo in 1926. Molotov became the Commissar of Foreign Affairs in 1939 and played a pivotal role in Allied Forces conferences during and after World War II. After World War II, Molotov actively engaged in a diplomatic gamble to place the Eastern European countries under the Soviet Union’s influence and to counterbalance the United States’ aid in rebuilding Europe by proposing the Molotov Plan. After Stalin’s death, Molotov’s political career ended due to his criticism of a new leader, Nikita Khrushchev.
1. Vyacheslav Molotov’s Path from a Remote Village to the Politburo
Born to a merchant family, young Vyacheslav Molotov was described as shy and quiet. He graduated from a secondary school in Kazan, Russia, where he became familiar with Marxist revolutionary ideas. In 1906, Molotov joined the Russian Social Democratic Labor Party, and his political career quickly advanced. As a “professional revolutionary,” Molotov was arrested several times by the Tsarist regime, which exiled him to Eastern Siberia. Molotov escaped, returned to Moscow, became a member of the Military Revolutionary Committee, and took an active part in planning the Bolshevik October Revolution.
During this time, he met with Joseph Stalin and became his loyal supporter during the power struggle after Vladimir Lenin’s death in 1924. When Stalin became General Secretary of the Bolshevik Party, he appointed Molotov a full member of the Politburo in January 1926.
During this time, Molotov changed his birth name, which was Vyacheslav Skryabin. Since he was already in a high echelon of Soviet leadership, Vyacheslav decided to change his name to illustrate his close affiliation with Soviet policies and governance. This practice was common among Bolshevik leaders, who tried to demonstrate and enhance the strong image of Soviet governance. Vyacheslav chose “Molotov,” derived from the Russian molot, meaning “hammer.” He believed that the name reflected both the industrial and proletarian ideals of the Soviet Union.
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2. He was Joseph Stalin’s Trusted Confidant
Vyacheslav Molotov first met Joseph Stalin when he worked for Pravda, a newly established Bolshevik newspaper, where Stalin was the editor. Even though their initial communication was short and did not lead to a close political and personal association, by the time Stalin became the leader of the Soviet Union, their friendship had already formed. Throughout the various Soviet positions Molotov held, he always remained Stalin’s true and loyal supporter and friend. A famous Soviet author and wartime correspondent, Konstantin Simonov, remembered,
Even when Stalin exiled Molotov’s wife, Polina Zhemchuzhina, to Kazakhstan in 1948 after ordering her arrest on suspicion of being a “Zionist spy,” Molotov remained silent. Even though Molotov dearly loved his wife, the tragedy of her banishment did not alter his loyal stance toward Stalin. Polina Zhemchuzhnaya didn’t visit her family again until 1953, the year Stalin passed away.
Valentin Berezhkov, Molotov’s biographer, recalled:
Joseph Stalin himself valued Molotov, at least as a colleague and political supporter. He once said that if Molotov did not exist, it would be necessary to invent him.
3. Molotov was a Key Architect of Stalin’s Terror Regime
Joseph Stalin appointed Vyacheslav Molotov as the Chairman of the Council of People’s Commissioners (Prime Minister of the Soviet Union) in 1930. In this role, Molotov became a pivotal figure in carving out the internal policy of the Soviet Union. He actively formulated and executed the policies of Stalin’s Great Terror, including the purges of the “enemies of people,” the staging of the feminine in Ukraine, and the persecution of the Kulaks (wealthy or prosperous peasants). Molotov recalled that he personally marked the territories from which the Kulak families should be deported, who, as perceived by the Soviet government, were threatening the rapid agricultural collectivization processes. About 1,8 million Kulaks fell victim to the harsh conditions of their deportation.
Molotov also held responsibility for the Holodomor, the intentional starvation of the Ukrainian population in 1932–1933, aiming to suppress the Ukrainian national resistance. Millions of citizens, politicians, and military members perished during the Great Purge of the 1930s due to mass deportations to prison colonies in the remote territories of the Soviet Union, the death sentence, and murders. Most of these orders were signed by party leaders, including Molotov. He later recalled:
4. He was a Book-Lover Diplomat with “Cold-blooded Ruthlessness”
Vyacheslav Molotov was appointed Foreign Minister of the Soviet Union in 1939. Even though he lacked the expertise and education common for a high-level diplomat, he proved to be a capable and powerful statesman during difficult and tense negotiations with more experienced foreign colleagues. The Molotov-Ribbentrop Non-Aggression Pact shaped history by contributing to the outbreak of World War II. Prime Minister of Great Britain and one of the greatest political minds, Winston Churchill characterized Molotov as “a man of outstanding ability and cold-blooded ruthlessness; he was “robot-like” but also “an apparently reasonable and keenly polished diplomat.”
Molotov was described as vindictive and short-tempered but extremely focused on detail and disciplined. It seemed that he almost embodied Stalin’s strict character and stubbornness. Milovan Djilas, a Yugoslav Communist leader who had an opportunity to work closely with Molotov, stated: “Molotov was almost always the same, with hardly a shade of variety, regardless of what or who was under consideration.”
Surprisingly, behind this “robot-like” individual was a man deeply in love with poetry, music, and literature. Reportedly, while in political exile in Siberia, he played the mandolin in different restaurants to make a living.
He was also often seen reading books and owned an extensive personal library of various authors, including those he sentenced to death. However, his passion and affection for history, literature, and philosophy were not the results of only personal amusement. He firmly believed education was a cornerstone for strong political leadership and the state. During 1930–1940, Molotov also served as the People’s Commissar of Education. He oversaw the development of the establishment of various scientific institutions, including the Soviet Academy of Sciences.
5. He was the Inspiration Behind the Molotov Cocktail
Molotov cocktails are hand-made, improvised firebombs that symbolize civil unrest and revolutionary movements. Due to its accessibility and efficiency, it has been in use for almost 100 years and continues to be popular even in the 21st century.
The name of the improvised incendiary weapon is a reference to Vyacheslav Molotov, as he was one of the architects of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact signed between the Soviet Union under Stalin’s rule and Nazi Germany under Adolf Hitler’s rule on August 23, 1939. According to the treaty, the Soviet Union and Germany refrained from attacking and engaging in hostilities against each other, even if one of these states was attacked by a third state. The leaders of the two major powers also secretly agreed to divide the European continent into spheres of influence. Parts of Poland, Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia fell under Soviet influence. Russia’s neighboring Finland, which had been in independence struggles against the Russian Empire for over a century, became a target of the Soviet expansionist policies.
After Hitler invaded Poland, Stalin responded with the invasion of Finland to prevent the Germans from using Finland’s territories for military operations against the Soviet Union. Even though the Finns showed unprecedented resistance during the Winter War, it was brutal and caused many casualties. During one of the Soviet bombing missions, Molotov declared on the Soviet radio that the government was not dropping bombs but providing food for their starving neighbors. The Finns ironically referred to the bombs as “Molotov’s bread baskets” and offered “drinks” to go with food, successfully using the Molotov cocktails against the Red Army. The name “Molotov cocktail” remained in history and spread around the world quickly.
6. Vyacheslav Molotov Ended Up Betrayed & Lonely
After the end of World War II and the start of the Cold War, the political environment around the Soviet Union changed. Rearranging the organizational structure within the Soviet leadership was Stalin’s commonly-used strategy for retaining his control and grip over the vast Soviet government. Since Molotov held considerable influence during his almost 30 years in the Soviet government, many saw him as a future leader of the Soviet Union, and Stalin perhaps perceived Molotov’s growing support network as a threat to his dominance. In March 1949, Molotov was removed from his position as head of the Foreign Ministry.
Joseph Stalin died on March 5, 1953. New leader Nikita Khrushchev restored Molotov as a Soviet Foreign Minister for a short period. Khrushchev embarked on a policy of de-Stalinization, blaming his purges on the Red Army command structure for the early defeats during World War II. The fact that Molotov played a key role in Stalin’s terror regime indicated that he would soon lose power. Molotov formed an anti-Khrushchev faction but failed to acquire the necessary support, and in 1957, he was removed from the Foreign Ministry and appointed as a Soviet Ambassador to the Mongolian People’s Republic.
By 1962, Khrushchev had expelled Molotov from the communist party and ordered the complete destruction of all the documents in which Molotov was ever recorded. Just a year later, he retired and continued to live in obscurity until 1984, when Mikhail Gorbachev allowed him to rejoin the Communist Party. Only two years later, after his seventh heart attack, Molotov died at 96.
Vyacheslav Molotov was the only known statesman and diplomat who had worked with almost all the key figures of the 20th century, including Lenin, Stalin, Churchill, FDR, Hitler, and Himmler, among others.