Isaac Deutscher 1956

Why Molotov ‘Resigned’

Source: The Reporter, 28 June 1956. Scanned and prepared for the Marxist Internet Archive by Paul Flewers.

Vyacheslav M Molotov’s exit from the Soviet Ministry of Foreign Affairs is an event in Soviet domestic affairs as well as in diplomacy. It marks the progress of the break with Stalinism which has been taking place for some time now, and it foreshadows the approach of a new phase of de-Stalinisation. All those elements in the Soviet Communist Party and in Communist parties outside Russia which have viewed this trend with misgivings or hostility and have sought to obstruct it have until now looked to Molotov for support, if not for leadership. They are greatly weakened and disappointed by his departure, and must expect new disappointments in the near future.

Molotov’s ‘resignation’ was, of course, timed to coincide with Marshal Tito’s arrival in the Soviet Union. But there were far weightier motives for Molotov’s removal. Preparations are now made in Moscow for a series of rehabilitations which, in the long run, will be of even greater ideological and political consequence than Tito’s rehabilitation, and which will be even more embarrassing to Molotov.

For some time now the Soviet press has denounced as travesties of justice the purge trials of Stalin’s adversaries which the late Andrei Vyshinsky conducted in the years 1936-38. Vyshinsky’s assertion that the ‘confessions’, upon which the verdicts in those trials were based, constituted valid legal evidence are branded as a monstrous perversion of the law. The inescapable conclusion is that the defendants in those trials, Zinoviev, Kamenev, Rykov, Bukharin and others (perhaps even the absent and impenitent Trotsky), were innocent of the crimes attributed to them. The Soviet leaders have so far still hesitated to say this in public, clearly and frankly. But the logic of de-Stalinisation will soon compel them to muster courage and to carry out this most difficult act of rehabilitation.

Nothing would be more incongruous than to proclaim the rehabilitation while Molotov remained in high office. The constitutional responsibility for the major purge trials rests on him, for it was under his premiership, which lasted from 1930 till 1941, that they were framed.

Rehabilitation and the Scapegoat: Molotov has resigned from the Foreign Ministry, but he still is one of the Vice-Premiers and a member of the party’s Presidium. It remains to be seen how long he will be permitted to hold these offices. The denunciation of all the ‘perversions of justice’ committed while he was Premier has thrown the gravest discredit on him. It should not be forgotten that the new Soviet generation has imbibed the story of the purge trials, in its Stalinist version, from school textbooks, and has grown with the idea that the victims were in fact traitors, spies and saboteurs. The recent revelations have come to it as a great moral shock. The final and now inescapable rehabilitations are coming as an even greater shock.

People inevitably ask who, apart from Stalin, was responsible for the denounced misdeeds. Only a few days before Molotov’s resignation, Mikhail Bagirov, the former Premier of Soviet Azerbaijan, was executed, because, it was said, he had made false accusations and staged false trials. It will be only natural for Soviet citizens to reason that if a provincial dignitary is so mercilessly punished for abuses of power, then surely the ex-Premier of the Soviet Union, who presided over much worse abuses at the very centre of power, should also stand trial.

It is difficult to see how the men of the present ruling group are going to solve this bloody tangle. Since nearly all of them were Stalin’s willing or unwilling accomplices, they are not inclined to fix clearly the responsibilities for the past, and to inflict punishment on Molotov. Nor can the legacy of the Stalinist terror be properly disposed of by new trials and executions – that is, by a wave of anti-Stalinist terror. But intense emotions and passions are now aroused by this issue, and it cannot be ruled out that the present leaders may yet seek to appease those passions by making a scapegoat of the man who was Stalin’s second-in-command over so many years.

In foreign affairs the change of ministers does not foreshadow any distinct change of policy. For some time now Molotov had already been removed from the effective direction of his department and made to suffer humiliation after humiliation. Not he but Bulganin and Khrushchev received important foreign visitors, went on missions abroad, and dealt with current diplomatic business. In the Central Committee Molotov was under strong attack from none other than Dmitri T Shepilov, the new Foreign Minister. Thus the change of ministers puts a seal on a change of policy already accomplished.

Western diplomacy will find in Shepilov a man very different in temper from Molotov – it would indeed be difficult to find two more contrasting characters. Molotov was the perfect bureaucrat of the Stalin era – orthodox, shrewd yet dull-minded, suspicious, secretive and impassive. Shepilov is one of the younger party intellectuals who somehow managed to preserve a certain independence of mind even in the ritualistic atmosphere of the Stalin era. He is quick-minded, sharp-witted and full of verve. He also appears to be much better educated as a Marxist theorist and an economist than his predecessor.

Molotov was almost a symbol of the isolationism of the Stalin era, with its obtuseness and lack of sensitiveness to the outside world; this was reflected even in his lack of fluency in any foreign language. The new minister brings to his job an extensive knowledge of world affairs acquired in part from reading much in foreign languages. Molotov’s habits of thought were formed at a time when Western Europe still was, or seemed to be, the centre of world policy; and Old Bolshevik though he is, he belonged essentially to the nineteenth-century diplomatic school whose horizon rarely transcended Europe. He felt completely out of his depth whenever he stepped into the ‘Anglo-Saxon world’, and in his diplomatic conceptions he made little or no allowance for the rising nations of Asia and Africa. Shepilov is much more a man of this century. The Anglo-Saxon world has loomed very large on his horizon: he appears to have studied English and American history diligently. And in his diplomatic calculations he gives much weight to the affairs not only of Asia and Africa but even of Latin America.

It was on these points that Shepilov attacked Molotov, holding that Molotov pursued his diplomatic action on too narrow a basis, as a game between great powers only, and that he neglected the opportunities open to Russia in the vast, ‘uncommitted’ areas of the world. Molotov, indeed, viewed suspiciously the nations that remained neutral in the Cold War, and he treated the governments of India, Burma, Indonesia and Egypt as mere stooges of Western imperialism. Against this, Shepilov insisted on the need for Soviet diplomacy to encourage neutralism and to treat India, Burma, Indonesia and the Arab states with the consideration and respect due to independent nations. He castigated Molotov’s tactical rigidity and lack of initiative. He carried the day within the Central Committee: his was to some extent the initiative for Khrushchev’s and Bulganin’s visit to India; he undertook to test his line in Egypt, which he did with notable success; and he had the satisfaction of being able to listen to Molotov’s ‘self-criticism’ at the Twentieth Congress of the Soviet Communist Party.

The Bigger Stick: Shepilov is undoubtedly the rising star in the Soviet firmament. He may be expected to conduct foreign policy mediocriter in modo, fortiter in re. [1] He will carry a big stick and speak softly, unlike Molotov, who had a preference for speaking rudely. But the contrast between the two ministers is probably less a matter of personalities than of the different situations in which each has had to work. Molotov’s outlook fitted a time when the Soviet Union acted from weakness, inferiority and fear – first it was fear of Europe at large, then fear of the Third Reich, and finally fear of the American atomic monopoly. Soviet diplomacy then relied on the defences of the weak: secrecy, stone-walling, bluff and surprise. Molotov carried a rather short stick during most of the time when he spoke so rudely, but he found soft speech uncongenial even after the stick had become much bigger.

Just how much bigger the stick had become was indicated by Shepilov, when, at the recent Twentieth Congress, he pointed out that before the Second World War Communism was in control of only seven per cent of the world’s industrial output but that it now controlled not less than thirty per cent and was rapidly increasing its share. These two figures stand for two different eras of Soviet diplomacy, and the different eras require different men.

It should perhaps be added that in one crucial respect the former Foreign Minister probably represented a more conciliatory attitude towards the West than that which his successor is likely to take. Molotov was still vaguely inclined to consider a settlement with the West on the basis of Germany’s unification. This seems now to be ruled out in Moscow. Shepilov will indeed speak softly, avoid provocation, and make the most of Russia’s ‘unilateral disarmament'; but he enters the stage with an awareness of the new power which backs his diplomacy, and with quite a new sense of confidence.


1. Mediocriter in modo, fortiter in re – Moderate in manner, resolute in deed – MIA.