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Prominent Russians: Anastas Mikoyan

November 25, 1895 – October 21, 1978

Anastas Mikoyan was a Soviet statesman who held top positions in the government for over 40 years – starting his career under Lenin and ending it under Brezhnev.

From the seminary to the Bolsheviks

Anastas Mikoyan was born in the village of Sanain in the southernmost part of the Russian Empire (present day northern Armenian) in 1895. His father was a carpenter and his mother wove rugs. His younger brother, Artyom Mikyoan, later became known as an outstanding plane constructor and co-creator of the famous MIG military aircraft.

The Mikoyan family was very religious and thus Anastas’s father chose to send his young son to a theological seminary in the city of Tiflis (now Tbilisi, capital of Georgia). Later Anastas entered the seminary in the city of Echmiadzin in Armenia, which is the residence of Katolikos - the head of Armenian Christians to this day.

But, the more young Mikoyan studied the word of God, the closer he moved toward atheism. Mikoyan once said about his school years: “I had a very distinct feeling that I didn't believe in God even after I had received a certificate in materialist uncertainty; the more I studied religious subjects, the less I believed in God.” He took courses in liberalism and socialism and step by step, was drawn closer to the revolutionary movements gaining strength throughout Russia.

In 1915, when Anastas turned 20, he founded the Echmiadzin’s Soviet, a workers’ council. His aim was to educate Armenian workers about the revolutionary movement. That same year Mikoyan joined the Bolshevik faction of the Russian Social Democratic Labor Party. After the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution in Russia he became one of the top party members in the Caucasus. Mikoyan moved to Baku (now the capital of Azerbaijan). First, he edited the Armenian- language newspaper Social-Demokrat and later - the Russian-language paper News of the Baku Soviet of the People’s Deputies.

Commissar of the Northern Caucasus

After the Bolsheviks came to power in 1917 Mikoyan did his best to suppress any resistance by opposition forces in the area. He crushed the revolt of the Musavatists, the independent party of Azerbaijan, in 1918. When the Civil War broke out all over the country, Anastas became a commissar of the new Red Army regiment whose mission was to guard the city of Baku from opposition forces.

Mikoyan was one of 26 commissars who coordinated Bolshevik activity in the area under the aegis of the “Baku Soviet.” It was a key location as, at the time, Azerbaijan was the center of the Bolshevik movement in the Northern Caucasus.

The area was also extremely rich in oil and in addition to the struggle of the Bolsheviks against the Mensheviks, WW1 was still in progress and the British and Ottoman armies were fighting each other for influence in the area. Each of the armies supported an opposing party – the British helped the Mensheviks and the Ottomans rallied behind the Bolsheviks. Eventually the British army took over Azerbaijan to defend it against the forces of the powerful Ottoman Empire. This meant the Bolsheviks had to flee.

The 26 Baku Soviets boarded a ship to Astrakhan, a port city on the Black Sea. Along the way, however, they were captured by the Transcaspian government, controlled by the Mensheviks, and executed.

Mikoyan was the only one to escape execution – his survival remains a mystery to many historians to this day.

In 1921, when the Soviets took hold of Baku, Mikoyan came to the city and coordinated the reburial of his “brothers in arms.” Their common grave can still be found in one of the central squares of Baku and the memory of the Baku 26 has been commemorated in almost every Soviet city since.

Out of the Caucasus

Shortly after that Mikoyan was summoned to Moscow. He was sent to work in the regional party committee in the Nizhny Novgorod region, located along the banks of the Volga River. At first local party activists were rather cautious to receive a young activist from outside; Mikoyan, however, had been through worse trouble than this and soon found a way to gain favor with the local Bolsheviks.

The early 1920s brought massive famine to the southern regions of Russia. In Nizhny Novgorod the starved army and peasants were on the verge of revolt, but Mikoyan employed all the persuasive skills he had acquired to subdue the tension. Soon he was elected as head of the governing body of Nizhny Novgorod.

This position was a stepping-stone to the higher echelons of power and gave him access to the top figures in the country – he traveled often to Moscow, took part in all Congresses of Soviets and met with Lenin on several occasions. Finally in 1922, 26-year old Mikoyan was elected into the Central Committee of the Russian Communist Party.

Managing Soviet trade

Immediately after that Mikoyan was noticed by Joseph Stalin, whose political ambitions were running high and who was looking for supporters. He sent Mikoyan to work in the south of Russia as Head of the Northern Caucasian Bureau of the Communist Party with its headquarters in the city of Rostov-on-Don.

Once again Mikoyan proved himself a good manager in the area populated with dozens of small nations. Mikoyan was less brutal in bringing people under Bolshevik rule than his predecessors. Mindful of century-long traditions, he appealed to the common sense of the people, using persuasion rather than force to bring them under subjection. He also urged Communists not to destroy churches and mosques and not to clash with the population on religious matters. He also demanded that his comrades respect the legitimate rights, which had been granted to merchants and rich peasants.

Mikoyan supported Stalin in the power struggle that ensued after the death of Lenin in 1924. He executed all Stalin’s orders aimed at discrediting the opposition. Stalin greatly appreciated Mikoyan’s efforts and in 1926 Anastas Mikoyan was elected Candidate Member of the Party’s Politburo. He was also appointed People's Commissar for External and Internal Trade.

In 1921 Vladimir Lenin had introduced the New Economic Policy (NEP), aimed at liberalizing trade in order to boost the country’s fragile economy. At first Mikoyan was a supporter of liberal economic development. Stalin, however, turned to tough measures against the middle-class and rich peasants, leading to their demise.

Some openly objected to the new policy, but Mikoyan never voiced any public protests against these measures, though the facts prove he considered them destructive. He remained loyal to Stalin even in the obscure 1930s - during the times of inflation and hunger in many areas of the country. However, Mikoyan worked hard to keep a balance between his loyalty to Stalin and his responsibility to the people, exhausted by mass collectivization, arrests and famine.

USSR Minister of Bounty

Anastas Mikoyan, Joseph Stalin and Grigoriy Ordzhonikidze, Tiflis (now Tbilisi), 1925. Anastas Mikoyan, Joseph Stalin and Grigoriy Ordzhonikidze, Tiflis (now Tbilisi), 1925.

By this time it was clear the USSR would fall into turmoil unless the government started to develop food production. Mikoyan became People’s Commissar for Food. In 1935, after he was elected a full member of the Politburo, he went on a “goodwill trip to the United States to boost economic cooperation between the two countries and study the development of the US economy.”

During his three-month visit he did not only concentrate on the food industry - Mikoyan had a productive talk with Henry Ford and studied the system of Macy’s department store in New York. Upon his return, Mikoyan put some of his ideas into practice. He personally supervised the manufacturing of canned goods and sausages that turned out to be the Russian version of American hot dogs. Also, inspired by hamburgers, he launched the mass production of cutlets. His greatest love, however, was ice-cream, which contributed to the launch of the frozen foods industry and the transportation not only of comfort food but of many other goods that could be frozen.

Needless to say, many consumers all over the USSR liked Mikoyan’s innovations. Even Stalin once joked, Anastas Ivanovich, when I see the passion with which you launch the ice-cream production, I realize that ice-cream is more important to you than Communism.”

For his innovations in the food industry Mikoyan was promoted to the post of the Deputy Chairman of the Council of People’s Commissars (the Council of Ministers).

Purges and WW2

Mikoyan tried hard to keep a low profile during Stalin’s purges in the middle of the 1930s when millions of Soviet citizens were declared “enemies of the people” and sent to labor camps on false charges. However, it was practically impossible to avoid any part in the purges. It was a final test of loyalty to Stalin that every government official had to pass if he was to retain his position and in many cases avoid being arrested himself.

Because of his family background, Mikoyan was put in charge of ¨cleaning up¨ the enemies of Communism in his native Armenia. Dozens of high-ranking officials were displaced and sent to labor camps.

Mikoyan´s signature has also been found on the death sentence of the Katyn massacre of 26,000 Polish officers, who had been arrested at the beginning of WW2 by Soviet troops.

Mikoyan understood that signing every protocol initiated by Stalin was the price he had to pay to retain his position and save his life. He sacrificed his convictions to diplomacy during the mass deportations of national minorities - Crimean Tatars, Chechens, Ingush and Germans - to remote areas of the USSR.

While taking part in Stalin’s vicious purges, Mikoyan tried to focus on what he did best – food supplies. In 1942 Mikoyan became a member of the State Defense Committee, overseeing the distribution system and organizing a lifeline of supplies to the eastern parts of the country to where the majority of the population (as well as factories and plants) had been evacuated.

In 1943 Mikoyan was awarded the star of the “Hero of Socialist Labor” but the award was of little comfort at a time when he mourned the loss of his son Vladimir, whose plane was shot down during the battle of Stalingrad.

In 1946 Mikoyan became Vice Chairman of the Council of Ministers. At the same time he held the post of Minister of Trade. However, his relations with Stalin during that period became increasingly strained. He was no longer a frequent guest at Stalin’s banquets or even the Politburo sessions. Rumors have it that Mikoyan would have eventually been arrested, were it not for Stalin's death in 1953.

Khrushchev’s right hand man

After Stalin’s death the USSR was again swept into a power struggle between Lavrenty Beria, the sinister Commissar for the Interior and the then Head of the Ukrainian Committee of the Communist Party, Nikita Khrushchev. While it was still unclear who would end up ruling the USSR, Mikoyan cautiously balanced between the opposing parties. However, as soon as it was clear that Khrushchev was winning, Mikoyan gave in to the majority, supported Beria’s arrest and execution and soon became an ardent supporter of “de-Stalinization.” He also helped to restore many of his comrades to their posts in the Communist Party and organized support for the families of those who had been executed during the purges.

In 1956 Mikoyan helped Khrushchev organize the “Secret Speech” – the public denouncement of Stalin’s personality cult. Mikoyan’s speech was one of the most shocking that followed Khrushchev’s report – he publicly acquitted many of those he purged in the middle of the 1930s. The whole audience was amazed at the “revelations.”

A half a year later Mikoyan tried to block Khrushchev’s decision to use troops in crushing the popular revolt in Hungary in 1956 and almost resigned when the Soviet leaders did not listen to him.

However, in 1957 Mikoyan made another ‘twist” – he refused to back the coup by Georgy Malenkov and Vyacheslav Molotov to remove Khrushchev from power. Thus he forever secured his own position as one of Khrushchev's closest allies.

Mikoyan’s foreign politics

Mikoyan was especially good at establishing international relations. In 1959 he was sent to Cuba to establish relations with Fidel Castro, becoming the first Soviet leader to visit the island. It was Mikoyan who secured a business deal that nowadays would border on insanity – he exchanged Soviet oil for Cuban sugar.

He always confessed that he liked the island. I keep feeling I’ve returned to my childhood every time I come to Cuba,” he would say. During this period he made many state visits to the US, Japan and Mexico and his title as First Deputy Premier of the USSR always secured him a warm welcome. He did his best to help Khrushchev ease tensions between the Soviet Union and the rest of the world during the Cold War.

In October 1962, during the Cuban Missile Crisis, Mikoyan was dispatched to Cuba. He tried hard to persuade Fidel Castro to remove all the nuclear missiles and bombers the Soviet Union had placed on the island. Mikoyan managed to carry out his mission perfectly, despite the fact that right at the same time, his beloved wife Ashhen died and he wasn’t even able to attend her funeral.

In November 1963 he represented the Soviet Union at the funeral ceremony of President John F. Kennedy.

From Khrushchev to Brezhnev

In 1964 Mikoyan once again walked the fine line between changing powers. A new election promoted Mikoyan to Chairman of the USSR Supreme Soviet – he became the president of the country de jure. At the same time Leonid Brezhnev was elected the Second Secretary of the Central Committee of the Communist Party. Mikoyan sensed the shifting dynamics in the higher echelons of power and foresaw the rise of Brezhnev’s star. He participated in the coup that displaced Khrushchev from the top position and put Brezhnev in the ruling seat.

But Mikoyan didn’t last very long in Brezhnev’s government – in 1965 he was forced to retire due to old age (he was70). He spent his remaining days writing memoirs about his life and political career.

Anastas Mikoyan died on 21 October 1978. He was buried not far from Khrushchev at the Novodevichye Cemetery in Moscow – Brezhnev decided not to give either man a state funeral at the Necropolis near the Kremlin wall.

Mikoyan became known in Soviet history as the man who spanned the political horizon of the USSR between “Ilyich and Ilyich” (ironically, the patronymic of both Lenin and Brezhnev was Ilyich), having spent over 40 years at the top of the Soviet hierarchical ladder.

Many still consider him one of the most contradictory yet skilled political figures of the Soviet Union. Some historians and Communist Party officials have expressed surprise at Mikoyan’s “art of political compromise.” They say he could walk through the Red Square on a rainy day, passing between the drops of water and coming out dry.

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