Russian history and culture, from a historian in Cambridge
‘Make arrangements for the children,’ said Molotov to his closest friend, Alexander Arosev, shortly before Arosev’s arrest in July 1937.
You can read this and have a pure connection with the past, an easy empathy. The five words shoot straight down the decades as you sense the fear and sadness. When I was an undergraduate, a favourite exam question was ‘Did Stalin betray the revolution?’. While Molotov, the curiously mild-mannered hammer of the revolution, was writing his spare but anguished note, was his answer ‘yes’?
Known as ‘Stone Bottom’ to those ‘on Stalin’s team’ (as Sheila Fitzpatrick calls it in a splendid new book) Molotov signed off thousands of death sentences during the Great Terror. But he looked on with dismay while his own office and intimate circle were stripped bare by Stalin and the secret police. Even his wife would later end up in a prison camp, though he himself survived to old age. Yet he always insisted on the rightness of the Terror. In the 1980s, he still argued that it was necessary. Even his beloved wife’s incarceration was required to keep the decades’ old revolution going. For Molotov, who helped make the revolution, extreme violence was no betrayal of the promise of 1917.
Molotov’s complex life and twisted intellect seem to make the issue clear enough: vicious destruction was tightly built into the revolution, both in practice and theory.
But this does little to explain the lives of Soviet citizens from the 1950s onwards. Perhaps it does not even treat their experiences with respect. The Russian Revolution contained within it multiple futures. There was the Khrushchev era, which was a self-conscious revival of 1917, emphasizing reasonable living conditions for many, a focus on equality, the reconciliation of the countryside, vast welfare reform (when that meant expansion), even the conquest of the cosmos. The Revolution also created the warmly remembered stability and mild ideological consolations of the Brezhnev era, when the world seemed to make sense. Above all, in the 1920s, the Revolution looked two ways, producing the New Economic Policy, which seemed to promise a steady, bloodless walk to socialism, before another much more dangerous path was taken by Stalin at the end of the decade.
Were these rays of light enough to justify the Russian Revolution’s dark side? In the end, revolutions are like wars: they kill innocent people, sometimes millions of them. Today, keen as we sometimes are to drop bombs and incite regime change in nasty places where we will never set foot, we might also reflect on the scope of peaceful politics. Even in the most unpromising circumstances, outside the most acute emergency, domestic and international politics can promote incremental improvements of the type that preserve social complexity, and allow people to remain alive and possess some kind of hope. (Think Iran, not Iraq.) Even today’s sensible undergraduates can usefully be reminded of the most important lesson of 1917: if somebody shouts ‘revolution’, walk calmly in the opposite direction.