The words “cocktail” and “cocktail party” carry positive connotations; in contrast, the Molotov Cocktail conjures images of devastation. Vyacheslav Mikhailovich Molotov had the dubious distinction of having a Do-It-Yourself-Bomb-the Molotov Cocktail- named after him.
As opposing Tsar Nicholas II was risky business, the Russian Revolutionaries adopted names to camouflage their identities: Ioseph Vissarionovich Dzhugashvili became Joseph Stalin, (Man of Steel,) Vladimir Ilich Ulyanov became Vladimir Lenin, (after the Siberian River Lenin,) Lev Davisovich Bronstein became Leon Trotsky, (after his jailer in Odessa Prison.) Another key player in the Bolshevik Revolution started life as Vyacheslav Mikhaylovi Scriabin, who took the name Molotov, (derived from “malot,” the Russian word for hammer, due to its association with the Proletariat).
Molotov was born in 1890 in Kukarka where a common sight was chained prisoners on their way to the Siberian gulag. In university, Molotov joined the Russian Social Democratic Party, the organization headed by Lenin that transformed into the ruling Communist Party. At the outbreak of World War I, due to his revolutionary activities, the czarist police exiled Molotov to Siberia. After his escape, along with Lenin, he orchestrated the 1917 Bolshevik takeover. In deference to Molotov who sided with him over Trotsky, Stalin appointed him Prime Minister. Due to the unholy alliance of Stalin and Molotov, millions ended up imprisoned or perished in political purges. A non-fiction Boxer, (as in Animal Farm) Molotov blindly followed Stalin.
Molotov became associated with a pact as well as a bomb when he organized the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact that he co-signed with the German Foreign Minister Joachim von Ribbentrop-hung at Nuremberg. The treaty allowed Hitler to attack Poland, the event that sparked World War II. In the early years of the war, Molotov went to Berlin and was the only high Soviet official to shake hands with Hitler. He also conferred with Roosevelt, Churchill, Truman, Mao, and Eisenhower. As a negotiator, Molotov garnered the name “iron pants” as his ability to endure hours of argument until he had won his point. Churchill described him as a man with a smile like a Siberian winter. At postwar conferences in Tehran, Yalta, and Potsdam, Molotov, an unwilling negotiator, he became known for his trademark response: “no.”
Molotov did not even say “no” when Stalin instituted a purge of “rootless cosmopolitans,” a euphemism for Jews. One of these undesirables was Molotov’s wife, Polina S. Zhemchuzhima Molotov, a Ukrainian Jew. The Politburo voted for her arrest due to her religion and her friendship with Golda Meir. Polina had also been a close friend of Nadezhda Alliluyeva Stalin, Stalin’s second wife, and had visited her shortly before Alliluyeva shot herself. In 1955, in answer to how he could have acquiesced in Polina’s internment in a Siberian labor camp, Molotov replied, “Because I am a member of the Politburo and I must obey Party discipline.” At Stalin’s funeral, Molotov shed tears and praised the dictator as an “infinitely dear man.”
Molotov’s name lives in infamy due to the Winter War between the Soviet Union and Finland when the Russians rained bombs on Helsinki. After Finnish newspapers reported the aerial attack, Molotov countered that the Russians were only dropping food and water. The Finns retaliated by throwing their homemade bombs-dubbed Molotov cocktails- that consisted of bottles filled with inflammable liquid and a cloth wick- and tossed them at the invaders.
At age eighty-six, Molotov went to the great gulag of the underworld. If Mephistopheles allowed a journalist to ask Molotov if he ever felt a modicum of pity for those he consigned to a tortuous death, no doubt he would reply with his trademark response, “Nyet.”