'Mr. Nyets' day is almost over Revolution: Today few "Mr. Nyets" remain of the hard men who led the Bolshevik Revolution that began 80 years ago today.

November 07, 1997|By Kathy Lally | Kathy Lally,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

MOSCOW -- His grandfather was Vyacheslav M. Molotov, a leader of the Russian Revolution and later one of Stalin's most loyal lieutenants. For 30 years Molotov embodied the Soviet system.

He was premier, foreign minister, known as one of the "Mr. Nyets" for his refusal to budge from the Soviet line.

On one day alone -- Dec. 12, 1937 -- during the bloody purges of the Stalin era, Stalin and Molotov signed a list approving 3,167 death sentences. Then they went to the movies.

Today is the 80th anniversary of the Bolshevik Revolution that those men led. The anniversary remains an official holiday in Russia, but President Boris N. Yeltsin has renamed it Reconciliation Day. The Communists will march. But the demonstration will be tiny compared to the outpouring of people and banners that used to fill Red Square.

Some Russians, such as Vyacheslav Nikonov, will think about the past 80 years. As the grandson of Molotov, and as a historian, Nikonov has had long and personal experience in this painful embrace with the past.

"I've felt it all my life," says Nikonov, who is 41 and now runs a political consulting organization, the Polity Foundation.

His grandfather never admitted to regrets, Nikonov says, even though the secret police eventually came for his much-loved wife -- Nikonov's grandmother -- and sent her off to prison in 1948. Polina Molotov's offense was being too friendly with Golda Meir when Meir was the first Israeli ambassador to Moscow. Nikonov said she was a hostage Stalin used to ensure Molotov's good behavior.

"The day Stalin died he told Beria, 'Return Polina,' " Nikonov says. Two days later, on March 7, 1953, Molotov's wife arrived home from exile in Kazakstan. Lavrenty P. Beria, the head of the secret police, met Mrs. Molotov at the airport.

She died when Nikonov was 14, still admiring Stalin. "She thought it was a mistake and never blamed Stalin," he says.

Molotov died Nov. 8, 1986. Until the end he was unswerving in his devotion to communism and the Soviet system.

"Well, you know when we took power the country was wearing lapti," Nikonov remembers his grandfather saying, referring to Russian peasant shoes, woven from birch bark. "And when I left power we had launched Sputnik and had nuclear missiles."

Nikonov describes his grandfather as a loving man within the family. Vacationing in the Crimea at age 3, Nikonov fell into the Black Sea. His grandfather dove in and saved his life.

By that time Molotov had been expelled from the Central Committee for opposing Nikita S. Khrushchev, and he was later thrown out of the party. The whole family lived under that cloud. Nikonov's father had trouble getting jobs, and later so did he.

Nikonov grew up to become a member of the Communist Party. He was a leader of the Communist Youth League. And says now that he never believed in any of it.

For most of his generation, communism was a joke. Party membership was pursued, but only because it was the path to a good job, advancement and privilege for an ambitious, energetic person.

"Of course everyone laughed at Brezhnev," Nikonov says of Leonid I. Brezhnev, the Soviet leader who succeeded Khrushchev in the mid-1960s. "There were more Brezhnev jokes than all the Polish jokes ever told in the U.S."

Today, Nikonov supports First Deputy Prime Minister Anatoly B. Chubais, the liberal reformer. Sitting in his modern office on an old Moscow street, smoking American cigarettes, he describes a gloomy future for the Communists.

"The Communist Party is very similar to the Communist Party of Italy," he says. "They'll keep getting 20 to 30 percent of the vote but they'll never win an election."

Today's Communists are aging and only a few young people are joining up. "There is no correlation between living conditions and the Communist vote," Nikonov says. "The correlation is age."

When Russia's Communist Party began its observances of the revolution earlier this week with a concert and rally, the audience of 2,000 was gray indeed. They were looking at the past through the prism of their youth, and remembered the Soviet years as a time when they were guaranteed a job, an apartment and food. The long food lines appeared to have been been forgotten, along with the terror.

"We never thought of paying for education or medical care," said Tatyana Fyodorova, who had won a Hero of Socialist Labor award as a subway construction worker. "Our pensioners could live well."

She and others at the rally did not have to look far to notice how that has changed. Outside the nearby subway station, an old woman stood with her well-cared-for fur hat in hand. She said she had only $1.75 left to her name, so she was selling her sable hat. When someone bought it for $40, she nearly cried in gratitude.

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