Vyacheslav Nikonov, historian

It is hard to tell the life story of Vyacheslav Molotov—one of Joseph Stalin’s few close associates—in a short space. It is even harder when you are Molotov’s grandson. Vyacheslav Nikonov has written 300 pages of a biography of his grandfather, and that is only through 1917.

Nikonov, 45, boasts a rather impressive academic and political career in his own right. A graduate of the History Faculty of Moscow State University, in 1989 he became the youngest doctor of history ever in the USSR. His specialty was US political history, and, after graduation, he served as a sector head at the Central Committee of the CPSU, and aide to Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev’s head of staff.

Interestingly, it was Nikonov who first voiced the idea of creating a presidency in the USSR. “Yet, I cannot really credit it 100% to myself,” he admitted. “I was clear in my memo that the post of USSR President would make sense only if the president was elected by direct, popular vote ...” (Gorbachev was subsequently elected by the deputies of the USSR People’s Congress.) When he was the sector head for party and scientific institutions of the CPSU, Nikonov also secured approval of a resolution officially sanctioning political science as an academic discipline in the Soviet Union.

After the failed coup attempt in August 1991, Nikonov became aide to then KGB Chairman Vadim Bakatin, who began to radically reshape the KGB’s role in society. During his short tenure at the KGB, Nikonov said, “more documents on Raoul Wallenberg were found than ever before.” (Russia later admitted its wrongdoing in the Wallenberg case; see Russian Life, March/April 2001.)

When the USSR broke apart, Nikonov was jobless. But, since he had plenty of friends—and a professional reputation—in the US, he was able to secure a teaching post at CalTech. He soon returned to Russia, however, and became a Duma deputy and chairman of the Subcommittee on International Security and Arms Control. He also sat on numerous expert councils dealing with domestic and foreign policy issue. As head of electoral headquarters, he “played a rather strong role,” he said, in Boris Yeltsin’s reelection to the presidency in 1996.

It is a sublime irony of history that such an influential role in the development of Russia’s democracy has been taken up by the grandson of one of Soviet Russia’s most devout Bolsheviks and unrepentant Stalinists. “But for me,” Nikonov said, “he [Molotov] was above all my grandpa, whom I loved, and to whom I owe my life—and not only genetically speaking. When I was three, he dove in and rescued me when I nearly drowned in a river.”

Nikonov’s mother was Vyacheslav Molotov’s only daughter, and Nikonov was born in 1956—the same year his grandfather was disgraced by his involvement with the “anti-party group,” in a failed attempt to unseat First Secretary Nikita Khrushchev. His family’s life and livelihood was thrown into jeopardy and Nikonov “bore the cross” of his relations to Molotov (who died in 1986) for many years. He recalls how his history teachers loved to torment him with exam questions about the “anti-party group.” He soon learned to reply by reciting from memory the full text of the 1957 CPSU Resolution responding to these events.

“It would be odd if I said my and his views coincided completely,” Nikonov said.  Yet he does calls himself “a conservative in the Western sense of the word … an advocate of free markets and a strong Russia.” Nikonov said that, while he can in no way “justify [Stalinist-era] repressions,” he does feel that his grandfather was a man of integrity and a politician of rare caliber, who has never received “an objective assessment of his role in Russian history.”

While writing his important biography, the young political scientist heads the influential Foundation Politika (“Politics”) and frequently voices his opinions on Russia’s foreign and internal affairs. Nikonov is very supportive of President Vladimir Putin’s recent foreign policy moves. “Now, for the first time since 1945,” Nikonov said, “the US and Russia have again acquired a common enemy ... i.e. militant Islamic extremism. It looks like this enemy is here to stay for a long time … I generally feel that Russia and America should not have any enmity—all our enmity is to a great extent caused by misunderstanding, rather than by some global, geopolitical confrontation ... I don’t feel America and Russia have incompatible interests ... Now that we are in the same boat, we can be there for quite some time ...”

Certainly Nikonov will continue to be involved in Russian politics—both as a participant and an observer—for some time. Could he foresee ever filling his grandfather’s shoes at the foreign ministry? “I am afraid this offer will not be made to me,” he says. “But, well, should that happen, I feel I have the right background and preparation.”

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