Tuesday, October 21, 2014

October 21, 1978: Death of Anastas Mikoyan

Anastas Mikoyan was perhaps the only politician that lived through the first half century of the Soviet regime, from the days of Lenin to the first years of Leonid Brezhnev’s rule in the 1960s, and remained at the highest positions of the Communist Party. He was also a controversial name with regards to Armenian history. (His younger brother Artem was the co-founder of the Mig aviation design bureau, which would produce the military jets.)

Mikoyan was born on November 13 (25), 1895, in the village of Sanahin, nowadays the neighborhood of the city of Alaverdi, in the province of Lori (Republic of Armenia). After graduating from the local school, he studied at the Nersisian School in Tiflis and the Gevorgian Seminary in Etchmiadzin.

In 1915 he formed a workers’ soviet in Etchmiadzin and formally joined the Bolshevik faction of the Russian Social Democratic Labor Party. He edited two newspapers in Baku and led the Bolshevik clandestine network after the collapse of the Commune of Baku in June 1918. He was among the 26 commissars who fled from Baku and the only one who escaped death when the others were shot in September 1918. The circumstances have remained shrouded in mystery.

In 1919 Mikoyan became the head of the Baku board of the Caucasian committee of the Russian Communist Party. After a short stay in Moscow, he returned to Baku as representative of the Military-Revolutionary Committee of the XI Red Army. In December 1919 he wrote a report to Lenin where he insisted on the need to put an end to the Armenian Question and to renounce the idea of the formation of a united Armenian state. In 1921 he co-signed a letter sent to Lenin by Nariman Narimanov, the head of the Military-Revolutionary Committee of Azerbaijan, which said that Gharabagh and Nakhichevan should remain under the authority of Soviet Azerbaijan.

Afterwards, Mikoyan moved to Moscow, where he continued his political career. He was in Stalin’s inner circle; he became People’s Commissar of Trade of the Soviet Union in 1926 and Commissar of Food Industry in 1931. He developed a comprehensive program for the Soviet food industry and, in this regard, he visited the United States for two months in 1936 with his wife Ashkhen (died in 1962) to study the American methods of production. He initiated the production of ice cream in the Soviet Union, which remained under his personal supervision until the end of his tenure.

The Caucasus trio: From left to right, Mikoyan, Joseph Stalin, and Sergo Ordzhonikidze.

Mikoyan was elected a full member of the Politburo of the Communist Party in 1935 (he would keep this position until 1966) and became deputy chairman of the Council of People’s Commissars in 1937. He was among those who executed Stalin’s policies, including signing documents that condemned to death hundreds and thousands of people during the Great Purge.

In September 1937 Stalin dispatched him, along with Georgy Malenkov and Lavrentiy Beria, with a list of 300 names to Yerevan, to oversee the liquidation of the Communist Party of Armenia, which was largely made up of old Bolsheviks. Over a thousand people were arrested and seven of nine members of the Armenian Politburo were sacked from office. On September 22, 1937, Nikolai Yezhov, head of the NKVD (predecessor of the KGB) from 1936 to 1938, transmitted to Stalin a petition by Mikoyan to execute 2,000 Armenians, instead of the initial 1,500. During the celebration of the 20th anniversary of the NKVD at the Bolshoi Theater in Moscow, on December 20, 1937, Mikoyan praised Yezhov for his tireless work: “Learn the Stalin way to work," he said, "from Comrade Yezhov, just as he learned and will continue to learn from Comrade Stalin himself.” On the other hand, he helped the families of purged friends who had remained without any assistance. He also saved Marshal Hovhannes Baghramian, a hero of World War II, from repression and exile in 1937.

Mikoyan had an outstanding role during the war. Trade, army supply, and production of light and food industry were under his supervision. In 1941 he became a representative of the State Defense Committee, which was the supreme state authority during the war, and was decorated with the order of Hero of Socialist Labor in 1943 for his remarkable job. After the war, he continued to be Minister of Foreign Trade until 1949. Despite his position, his teenage children Sergo and Vano were exiled on trumped-up charges, but returned shortly after the end of the war. His son Vladimir, a pilot in the Red Air Force, had died in combat during the war.

During the 19th Congress of the Communist Party in October 1952, despite his speech filled with praises of Stalin, Mikoyan was not elected to the presidium of the congress. Although he was elected a member of the Central Committee of the party, he did not make it to the presidium of the party. During the plenary session, Stalin rained invectives over Mikoyan and Molotov, first deputy chairman of the USSR Council of Ministers, and expressed publicly his lack of trust in them. Stalin’s death in March 1953 probably saved Mikoyan’s career and life.

Ernesto "Che" Guevara, First Deputy Premier Anastas Mikoyan of the Soviet Union, and Fidel Castro meet after the successful revolution in Cuba.

The “survivor,” as he would be labeled by Time magazine, maintained a neutral position in the struggle for power after Stalin’s death. He supported Nikita Khrushchev after he imposed himself over Beria as the strongman of the Soviet Union and backed his policy of de-Stalinization. He returned to the post of Minister of Foreign Trade (1953-55) and then became first deputy chairman of the USSR Council of Ministers (1955-1964). Nevertheless, he never gave a public assessment of Stalin’s crimes. In 1954 he visited Armenia and gave a speech in Yerevan, where he encouraged Armenians to reprint the forbidden works of Raffi and Yeghishe Charents.

The veteran politician, who visited the United States several times during Khrushchev’s time, would have a crucial intervention in the solution of the Cuban missile crisis of 1962. Two years later, he would become chairman of the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet of the USSR shortly before the coup that ousted Khrushchev and replaced him by Leonid Brezhnev, but he was forced to retire in 1965. Mikoyan was one of the few Old Bolsheviks who was spared from Stalin's purges and was able to retire comfortably from political life. He died on October 21, 1978, at the age of 82, from natural causes and was buried at Novodevichy Cemetery in Moscow. Last April, an initiative to erect a statue of Mikoyan in Yerevan gave room to a heated controversy that shows that the Soviet legacy is far from being resolved.