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The Counterrevolutionary

Sto Sorok Besed s Molotovym (One Hundred Forty Talks with Molotov)

by Feliks Chuyev
Terra Publishers, 604 pp., 100 rubles

In the years after his overthrow, Nikita Khrushchev sat with a boxy reel-to-reel tape recorder and dictated his memoirs for hours at a time. To avoid the listening devices he knew had been planted in his house, he worked at first outside his dacha in Petrovo-Dalneye. One can hear on the tapes the buzz of planes flying overhead. But soon the old man grew disgusted with the discomfort and inconvenience of working in the cold. “To hell with the bugs!” he said and moved the project into the house.1

It was not long before the KGB and the Communist Party, under Khrushchev’s successor, Leonid Brezhnev, tried to quash the memoirs. Brezhnev’s deputy in the Central Committee, Andrei Kirilenko, summoned Khrushchev to the Kremlin for a dressing down.

The Central Committee has received information that you have been writing your memoirs for quite some time, and that they include many events of Party and state history,” Kirilenko said. “Actually, you are rewriting Party history. But interpreting the history of our Party and state is the business of the Central Committee, and not of private individuals, let alone pensioners. The Politburo demands that you stop work on these memoirs and immediately turn over what you’ve already dictated to the Central Committee.”

In a scene shot through with black comedy, the former general secretary and arbiter of ideology insisted on his rights “as an individual” to write his book, and, like so many dissident authors before him, he had his manuscript smuggled abroad to ensure its survival. Little, Brown published the first of three volumes in 1970. Once the issue of authenticity was settled, historians mined the Khrushchev memoirs for their descriptions of Stalin and Stalinism, the Cuban Missile Crisis, the invasion of Hungary, and the author’s overthrow in 1964. Brezhnev and his liegemen could only look on with frustration and disgust. They had run out of punishments. Khrushchev died in 1971 an unlikely, but highly valuable, Kremlinologist.

Soon after Mikhail Gorbachev came to power in March 1985, Khrushchev’s loyal son, Sergei, wrote the new leader and asked that the memoirs be published officially, at long last, in the Soviet Union. Gorbachev did not need much convincing. He was obsessed with the example of Nikita Sergeyevich. Gorbachev envisioned perestroika as a resumption of the anti-Stalinist campaign first waged by Khrushchev at the Twentieth Party Congress in 1956. He needed to legitimize Khrushchev, to rehabilitate both him and what he represented. Gorbachev was well aware that Khrushchev’s failure of intellect, courage, and political skill in the early 1960’s had led to the collapse of reform and the neo-Stalinist regime of Brezhnev. Gorbachev hoped that by gradually purging the Communist Party leadership of reactionaries and by nominating more reform-minded figures he could avoid that fate and survive in power. The publication of Khrushchev’s memoirs, therefore, was also a cautionary tale, a message to himself of what to resume, what to avoid.

By 1991, the last year of the Soviet regime, all had changed, including the taboo against political memoirs. Suddenly everyone was writing them. Gorbachev, Boris Yeltsin, and Andrei Sakharov had already published books at home and abroad, and now dozens of secondary figures were spending time at their tape recorders and quizzing foreign contacts about literary agents and first serial rights. Everyone from the leader of Kazakhstan to Brezhnev’s doctor decided the world must know their secrets. We can only hope that Gorbachev, after publishing two thin and self-serving memoirs, will do better in the more comprehensive book that he and his aides are now assembling. So far his vanity and resentment have stood in the way of his writing a Russian Present at the Creation.

I’ve read more of these memoirs of secondary figures than is healthy and found them lacking not only in substance but also in the sort of lurid revelations and fibbing that makes the work of, say, Michael Deaver so enjoyable. Mostly these officials whine. Nikolai Ryzhkov, the former prime minister known as the “weeping Bolshevik” for his crying jags when he was attacked in public, spends an entire book calling Gorbachev a “betrayer,” but he is so steeped in the old Communist Party discipline that he shovels no filth worth sniffing at. He is a hopelessly boring gossip.

Of the spate of memoirs published in the past two years, the most valuable may be One Hundred Forty Talks With Molotov, a huge compilation of the “thoughts” of Vyacheslav Molotov, Stalin’s loyal foreign minister. The poet Feliks Chuyev (try to imagine Rod McKuen gone Stalinist) regularly visited Molotov at his country estate in the town of Zhukovka and interviewed him, took strolls with him, and shared a bottle or two. The meetings began in 1968 and went on fairly regularly until Molotov’s death at the age of ninety-seven in 1986.

If only as an example of the mindlessness of the Soviet leadership in the Stalin era, Chuyev’s book should be published in every language. (So far I’ve only been able to find it in a few stores and at street corner book stands in Moscow.) If the accounts are accurate—and there is no reason to doubt them—Molotov’s conversations and monologues provide assurance that the banality of evil has never been a quality limited to the borders of Germany. Molotov, a pipsqueak in the Revolution, rose to his great position because he was efficient, loyal, and had the good sense to side with the prevailing butcher. Molotov, Lenin once said, “is the best filing clerk in the Soviet Union.” After Stalin fired as foreign commissar the one relatively intellectual, relatively free-thinking figure at his side—Maxim Litvinov—he looked to Molotov to do his bidding abroad. In recent times, Molotov has been best remembered for brokering the Nazi-Soviet pact of 1939, which resulted in the Soviet annexation of the Baltic states the next year. The regime’s admission a half-century later that the pact had been illegal encouraged the growth of independence movements in the region, and throughout the Soviet Union.

Although his loyal circle of Stalinists lost in the power struggle to Khrushchev, Molotov lived to see himself reinstated as a Party member in 1984 during the brief Chernenko era. He had served Stalin well. He played a crucial role not only in foreign affairs but also in the purges and the collectivization campaigns. That the Party rehabilitated a man up to his neck in blood gives some idea of its nature on the eve of Gorbachev’s ascension.

On their walks in the woods, Chuyev never challenges Molotov, never suggests that he might be guilty of some crime or ethical breach. He merely asks him in a “Some people say…” sort of tone about Stalin, the pact with the Nazis, collectivization, and the rest. Over and over again, Molotov makes no apologies. There were spies everywhere, he insists. There were enemies. There were capitalists, bourgeois farmers, bourgeois intellectuals in our midst. They had to be destroyed. Stalin was an “honest person” who “strengthened the Party and the international communist movement” through his vision and determination to do what was necessary:

[The purges of] 1937 were necessary. To be honest, after the revolution we wavered left and right, but there were all manner of enemies around and we were faced with the dangers of fascist aggression which united them. In 1937, we had to make sure there would be no fifth column in a war…I don’t think we should have rehabilitated many of the military people who were repressed in 1937. Perhaps these people were not spies, but they had links to spies, and, most important, at the decisive moment there were no hopes in them…

Part diplomat, part executioner, Molotov spoke the Soviet language flawlessly despite a nasty speech impediment. Everything is a formula, a word cluster masking one brutality or another. There are no excuses, no thoughts, only stock phrases. As Chuyev relates, Molotov considered the purges a mere extension of the revolution in a time of “complicated international circumstances.”

But it was awful wasn’t it that good men were killed?” Chuyev asks.

Such a bitter matter.” Molotov replies. “In such bitter struggles, in such difficulties, hands are not always raised against the correct people, and sometimes, maybe, good men are killed, and there were some such, without doubt. But this is difficult to prove. A dictatorship of the proletariat, any dictatorship, requires strict discipline.”

When the conservative majority in the Communist Party was waging its war against reform and revolution in the late 1980s. Molotov’s favorite word, “discipline,” became a sort of mantra. To this day, as Russia and the other former Soviet republics suffer their terrible growing pains of runaway inflation, ethnic clashes, and political intrigue, the reactionaries still see freedom and chaos as one and the same. Always the nostalgia for the “iron hand,” for discipline. For centuries, Russian autocrats have played upon this stereotype, insisting that the typical Russian craves only a crust of bread, a place to sleep, and a mean existence. He will not countenance the disorder of cultural or religious freedom, economic competition, uncertainties of any kind. The Russian craves only order. Such has been the rationale for Russian disciplinarians since Ivan the Terrible.

The man who came to embody discipline in the Gorbachev years was Yegor Kuzmich Ligachev, Gorbachev’s number two man in the Communist Party when the regime began in 1985. Ligachev’s memoirs are an anecdotal, self-justifying, and frequently untruthful account of his initial participation in perestroika and then his resistance to a fatal “radicalization” that he blames on Gorbachev. Kremlin advisers Aleksandr Yakovlev and Eduard Shevardnadze, and the various nationalist fronts that helped force the dissolution of the Soviet Union. Ligachev, it turns out, has the American knack for anecdote and self-pity. His literary style is that of a Communist Don Regan. The odd thing about him is that he is also charming, both in person and in his prose. Although everyone I have ever known who worked with him describes Ligachev as relentless and tough, he is, at least in the presence of those he wishes to woo, strangely modest, even (don’t laugh) gentle. Inside Gorbachev’s Kremlin represents Ligachev’s attempt to charm history, to portray himself as a hero of the “good” perestroika—the relatively deliberate period 1985 to 1988—and a martyr of the “bad,” or radicalized, perestroika, which led to the collapse of the Party and the Union.

Ligachev grew up in Siberia and served in Novosibirsk and Tomsk as a Party functionary and leader. Unlike the corrupt emirs who ran the southern republics as their personal kingdoms, he was an ascetic taskmaster who instructed his underlings in Tomsk that they could only smoke in the bathroom. In 1983, Yuri Andropov brought Ligachev to Moscow, and Ligachev, in turn, took Andropov as a model—a tough, even brutal, leader who saw the Soviet Union’s salvation in the elimination of corruption, tightly controlled liberalization in cultural life, and, above all, discipline. Discipline in the Party, discipline in the workplace, discipline everywhere.

  1. 1

    Sergei Khrushchev’s Khrushchev on Khrushchev (Little, Brown, 1991) is the best background source on Nikita Sergeyevich’s years in retirement and eclipse.

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