Biographies & Memoirs


Molotov’s Chance: “You’ll Do Anything When You’re Drunk!”

The war,” Stalin admitted, “broke me.” By October 1945, he was ill again. Suddenly at dinner, he declared: “Let Vyacheslav go to work now. He’s younger.” Kaganovich, sobbing, begged Stalin not to retire. There is no less enviable honour than to be appointed the heir of a murderous tyrant. But now Molotov, the first of a deadly line of potential successors, got his chance to act as proxy leader.

On 9 October, Stalin, Molotov and Malenkov voted “to give Comrade Stalin a holiday of a month and a half”—and the Generalissimo set off in his special train for Sochi and then Gagra on the Black Sea. Sometime between 9 and 15 October, Stalin suffered a serious heart attack. A photograph in the Vlasik family archive shows a clearly ailing Stalin, followed by an anxious Vlasik, probably arriving at Sochi, now a sizeable green two-storey mansion built around a courtyard. Then he headed south to Coldstream near Gagra. This was Stalin’s impregnable eyrie, cut out of the rock, high on a cliff over the sea. Rebuilt, by Merzhanov, into a green southern house that closely resembled Kuntsevo, this became his main southern residence for the rest of his life, a sort of secret Camp David. Its studded wooden gates could only be reached by a “narrow and sharply serpentine road.” It was completely surrounded by a Georgian veranda and there was a large sunroof. A rickety wooden summerhouse perched on the edge of the mountain.253

In this beautiful isolation, Stalin recuperated in a restful and hermetic holiday rhythm, sleeping all morning, walking during the day, breakfasting on the terrace, reading late, receiving a stream of paperwork, including the two files he never missed: NKGB reports and translations of the foreign press. Perhaps because he so closely supervised the Soviet press, he had surprising faith in foreign journalists.

During his absence, Molotov ran the government with Beria, Mikoyan and Malenkov, the Politburo Four. But Molotov’s moment in the sun was soon overshadowed by unsettling rumours that Stalin was dying, or already dead. On 10 October, TASS, the Soviet news agency, announced that “Comrade Stalin has left for a rest.” But this only awakened curiosity and aroused Stalin’s vigilance. The Chicago Tribune reported that Stalin was incapacitated. His successors would surely be Molotov and Marshal Zhukov—a report sent southwards as “Rumours in Foreign Press on the State of Health of Comrade Stalin.” Stalin’s suspicions deepened when he read an interview with Zhukov in which the Marshal took the credit for victory in the war, only deigning to praise Stalin rather late in the proceedings. Stalin focused on why these rumours had appeared. Who had spread them, and why had Soviet honour, in his person, been desecrated?

Perhaps “our Vyacheslav” was so thrilled at last to have the responsibility that he did not notice the brooding in Abkhazia. Molotov was at the height of his prestige as an international statesman. He had only just returned from a series of international meetings. There had been tension between them when Stalin had demanded that his Minister put pressure on Turkey to surrender some territory: Molotov argued against it, but Stalin insisted—Soviet demands were rebuffed. In April, Molotov had visited New York, Washington and San Francisco to meet President Truman and attend the opening of the UN. In an unpleasant meeting, Truman confronted Molotov on Soviet perfidy in Poland. “We live under constant pressure not to miss anything,” Molotov wrote to “Polinka my love” but as ever he gloried in his eminence: “Here among the bourgeois public,” he boasted, “I was the focus of attention, with barely any interest in the other ministers!” As ever, “I miss you and our daughter. I shan’t conceal sometimes I am overcome with impatient desire for your closeness and caresses.” But the essential thing was that “Moscow [i.e., Stalin] really supports our work and encourages it.”

In September, Molotov was in London for the Council of Foreign Ministers where he pushed for a Soviet trusteeship in Italian Libya, joking drily about the Soviet talent for colonial administration. Unlike Stalin who restlessly pushed for radical leaps, Molotov was a realistic gradualist in foreign policy and he knew the West would never agree to a Soviet Libya. He made some gaffes but Stalin forgave him for the conference’s failure, blaming it on American intransigence. Molotov again complained to Polina of the “pressure not to fail.” He hardly left the Soviet Embassy, watching movies like An Ideal Husband by Wilde, but “Once, only once I went to Karl Marx’s tomb.” In typically Soviet style, he congratulated Polina on her “performance of the annual [textiles] plan” but “I want to hold you close and unburden my heart.”

Now, with Stalin recuperating and Molotov acting slightly more independently, the temperature was rising. Molotov felt the time was right for a deal with the West. Stalin overruled him: it was time to “tear off the veil of amity.” When Molotov continued to behave too softly towards the Allies, Stalin, using the formal vy, attacked him harshly. “Molotov’s manner of separating himself from the government to portray himself as more liberal . . . is good for nothing.” Molotov climbed down with a ritualistic apology: “I admit that I committed a grave oversight.” It was a telling moment for the magnates: even Stalin and Molotov ceased to address each other informally—no more “Koba,” just “Comrade Stalin.”

On 9 November, Molotov ordered Pravda to publish a speech of Churchill’s praising Stalin as “this truly great man, the father of his nation.” Molotov had not grasped Stalin’s new view of the West. Stalin cabled a furious message: “I consider the publication of Churchill’s speech with his praise of Russia and Stalin a mistake,” attacking this “infantile ecstasy” which “spawns . . . servility before foreign figures. Against this servility, we must fight tooth and nail . . . Needless to say, Soviet leaders are not in need of praise from foreign leaders. Speaking personally, this praise only jars on me. Stalin.”

Just as the foreign media was trumpeting Stalin’s illness and Molotov’s succession, Molotov got tipsy at the 7 November reception and proposed the easing of censorship for foreign media. Stalin called Molotov who suggested treating “foreign correspondents more liberally.” The valetudinarian turned vicious: “You blurt out anything when you’re drunk!”

Stalin devoted the next three days of his holiday to the crushing of Molotov. By the time the New York Times had written about Stalin’s illness “in a ruder way even than has taken place in the French yellow press,” he decided to teach Molotov a lesson, ordering the Four to investigate—was it Molotov’s mistake? The other three tried to protect Molotov by blaming a minor diplomat but they admitted he was following Molotov’s instructions. On 6 December, Stalin cabled Malenkov, Beria and Mikoyan, ignoring Molotov, and attacking their “naïvety” in trying to “paper over the affair” while covering up “the sleight of hand of the fourth.” Stalin was burning at this “outrage” against the “prestige” of the Soviet government. “You probably tried to hush up the case to slap the scapegoat . . . in the face and stop there. But you made a mistake.” Hypocritically referring to the pretence of Politburo government, Stalin declared: “None of us has the right to act single-handedly . . . But Molotov appropriated this right. Why? . . . Because these calumnies were part of his plan?” A reprimand was no longer sufficient because Molotov “cares more about winning popularity among certain foreign circles. I cannot consider such a comrade as my First Deputy.” He ended that he was not sending this to Molotov “because I do not trust some people in his circle.” (This was an early reference to the Jewish Polina.)

Beria, Malenkov and Mikoyan, who sympathized with poor Molotov, summoned him like judges, read him Stalin’s cable and attacked him for his blunders. Molotov admitted his mistakes but thought it was unfair to mistrust him. The three reported to Stalin that Molotov had even “shed some tears” which must have satisfied the Generalissimo a little. Molotov then wrote an apology to Stalin which, one historian writes, was “perhaps the most emotional document of his life in politics.”

“Your ciphered cable is imbued with a profound mistrust of me, as a Bolshevik and a human being,” wrote the lachrymose Molotov, “and I accept this as a most serious warning from the Party for all my subsequent work, whatever job I may have. I will seek to excel in deeds to restore your trust in which every honest Bolshevik sees not merely personal trust but the Party’s trust—something I value more than life itself.”

Stalin let Molotov stew for two days, then at 1:15 a.m. on 8 December replied to the Four again, restoring his errant deputy to his former place as First Deputy Premier. But Stalin never spoke of Molotov as his successor again and stored up these mistakes to use against him.254 1

This was only the beginning. Stalin was feeling better but he had mulled angrily over the challenges from abroad, indiscipline at home, disloyalty in his circle, impertinence among his marshals. He was bored and depressed by stillness and solitude but his angry energy and zest for life were stimulated by struggle. He revelled in the excitement of personal puppeteering and ideological conflict. Returning in December with a glint in his yellow eyes and a spring in his step, he resolved to reinvigorate Bolshevism and to diminish his over-mighty boyars in a deft sweep of arrests and demotions.

Having shaken Molotov, Stalin turned on Beria and Malenkov. He did not need to invent the scandal. When Vasily Stalin had visited him at Potsdam, he reported the disastrous safety record of Soviet planes: of 80,300 planes lost in the war, 47 percent were due to accidents, not enemy fire or pilot error. Stalin had mused over this on holiday, even inviting the Aircraft Production Minister, Shakhurin,255 to Sochi. Then he ordered the investigation of an “Aviators’ Case” against Shakhurin and the Air Force Commander, Air Marshal Novikov, one of the heroes of the war, whom he had jokingly threatened at de Gaulle’s banquet.

On 2 March, Vasily Stalin was promoted to Major-General. On 18 March, Beria and Malenkov, the two wartime potentates, were promoted to full Politburo membership—just as the Aviators’ Case nipped at their heels. Then Shakhurin and Air Marshal Novikov were arrested and tortured. Their agonies were carefully directed to kill two birds with one stone: the overlord of aircraft production was Malenkov.

Abakumov, the Smersh boss and Stalin’s protégé, arranged the Aviators’ Case which was also aimed at Beria. Stalin’s old fondness for the Mingrelian had long since turned to a surly disdain. Beria’s theatrical sycophancy and murderous creativity disgusted Stalin as much as his administrative genius impressed him. Stalin no longer trusted “Snake Eyes.” His first rule was to maintain personal control over the secret police. “He knows too much,” Stalin told Mikoyan. Stalin’s resentment burned slowly. They were strolling in the Kuntsevo gardens with Kavtaradze when Stalin hissed venomously at Beria in the Mingrelian dialect (which no one except Georgians understood): “You traitor, Lavrenti Beria!” Then he added “with an ironic smile”: “Traitor!” When he dined at Beria’s house, he was charming to Nina but dismissive of Lavrenti: in his toasts, he damned Beria with the faintest of praise. Beria reminisced about his first meeting with Stalin in 1926.

“I don’t remember,” Stalin replied crushingly. Beria’s attempt to speak Georgian to him at meetings now irritated Stalin: “I keep no secrets from these comrades. What kind of provocation is this! Talk the language everyone understands!”

Stalin sensed, correctly, that Beria, the industrial and nuclear magnifico, wanted to be a statesman. “He’s ambitious on a global scale,” he confided in a Georgian protégé, “but his ammunition isn’t worth a penny!” Stalin decided something was rotten in the Organs. During his holiday, he asked Vlasik about the conduct of Beria. Vlasik, delighted to destroy Beria, denounced his corruption, incompetence and possibly his VD. At a dinner in the south, Stalin told a joke about Beria: “Stalin loses his favourite pipe. In a few days, Lavrenti calls Stalin: ‘Have you found your pipe?’ ‘Yes,’ replies Stalin. ‘I found it under the sofa.’ ‘This is impossible!’ exclaims Beria. ‘Three people have already confessed to this crime!’ ”

Stalin relished stories about the power of the Cheka to make innocent people confess. But he became serious, “Everyone laughs at the story. But it’s not funny. The law breakers haven’t been rooted out of the MVD!”

Stalin moved swiftly against him: Beria was retired as MVD Minister in January, but remained curator of the Organs with Merkulov as MGB boss. Then Merkulov was denounced by his secretary. Beria washed his hands of him. On 4 May, Stalin, backed by Zhdanov, engineered the promotion of Abakumov to Minister of State Security: his qualifications for the job were his blind obedience and independence from Beria. When Abakumov modestly refused, Stalin jokingly asked if he would “prefer the Tea Trust.”

Abakumov remains the most shadowy of Stalin’s secret-police bosses just as the post-war years remain the murkiest of Stalin’s reign, although we now know much more about them. The coming atrocities were Abakumov’s doing, not Beria’s, even though most histories blame the latter. Beria, who, as Deputy Premier in charge of the Bomb and the missile industry, now moved his office from the Lubianka to the Kremlin, was henceforth “sacked” from the Organs. He bitterly resented it.

“Beria was scared to death of Abakumov and tried at all costs to have good relations . . .” recalled Merkulov. “Beria met his match in Abakumov.” Like a rat on a sinking ship, Beria’s pimp Colonel Sarkisov denounced the sexual degeneracy of the Bolshevik “Bluebeard” to Abakumov who eagerly took it to Stalin: “Bring me everything this arsehole will write down!” snapped Stalin.

If you find an error or have any questions, please email us at Thank you!