Vyacheslav Molotov was born Vyacheslav Scriabin in Kukarka, Russia (now Sovetsk, in the Kirov province). By 1905, he had become involved in revolutionary activities and was twice arrested and exiled over the next decade. When the Bolsheviks came to power in 1917, he had changed his name to Molotov (meaning “hammer”), had made Joseph Stalin’s acquaintance, and was working on the Communist party newspaper, Pravda, in the capital, St. Petersburg (at that time, Petrograd). Molotov became an ardent supporter of Stalin and as Stalin accumulated power, Molotov also rose in the party, holding positions of increasing responsibility until becoming chairman of the Council of People’s Commissars (similar to the position of prime minister) in 1930. He held this post until 1941, when Stalin took it over. In 1939, Molotov also became the commissar of foreign affairs, a position he held until 1949.
Molotov callously enforced Stalin’s severe directives, implementing plans for the country’s rapid industrialization and collectivization of agriculture at the cost of millions of lives. He also signed off on the purge of Stalin’s potential rivals in the party and military commands; he was one of the few who emerged from this period unscathed. During wartime, Molotov was known as a tough negotiator, picking up the nickname “Iron Pants.” His name was also borrowed to describe a homemade bomb: the “Molotov cocktail.” Molotov used his bargaining skills to arrange the 1939 alliance between the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany cemented in the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact and, after Germany attacked the USSR, to ally his country instead with Great Britain and the United States. Along with Stalin, he attended the Teheran conference in 1943, the Yalta conference in 1945 and the Potsdam conference , which followed the defeat of Germany. Molotov also represented the Soviet Union at the 1945 San Francisco conference, the first meeting of the United Nations .
After the war ended, Molotov, who had been Stalin’s faithful confidant and a valuable adviser, lost the Soviet leader’s favor. In 1948, Stalin called for Molotov’s wife, Polina Zhemchuzhina, to be expelled from the party. Molotov abstained from the Politburo vote, but later wrote an apology to Stalin, declaring:
“I acknowledge I made a political mistake when I abstained from the vote about the expulsion of P.S. Zhemchuzhina from the Party. I acknowledge my heavy sense of remorse for not having prevented Zhemchuzhina, a person very dear to me, from making her mistake.”
Molotov’s wife was arrested and exiled. He lost his position as foreign minister but continued working in the Politburo and regained the post in 1953, following Stalin’s death. Disagreements with Stalin’s successor, Nikita Khrushchev , resulted in Molotov’s steady loss of power after 1956. From 1957 to 1960, he served in a semi-exile as the Soviet ambassador to Mongolia before being stripped of party membership in 1962. Although his party membership was eventually restored without fanfare in 1984, he died two years later in Moscow at the age of 96.