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How to be a Successful (Communist) Executive

2011 September 28
by Greg Satell

When the Berlin Wall fell in 1989, it was nothing less than the validation over one way of life over another.  A decades old debate was ended, seemingly in an instant.  We one, they lost.  End of story.

Yet the story isn’t truly over.  In fact, the debate lives on quietly and, beneath the surface, you can be sure it’s still there.

Communism wasn’t just a system, but also a set of institutions.  It was propagated by a set of behaviors that made one successful in that system.  We’d like to think that the end of the system meant an end to the behavior, but I’m not so sure.  To see what I mean, let’s look at what you would have to do to be a successful communist executive.

Never Share Information

The Communist ideal was to make everyone equal.  There weren’t supposed to be leaders, but “councils” (the literal translation of the Russian word “soviet”).  People were supposed to call each other “comrade” (tovarish).  The differences in income were minimal by Western standards.

However, the truth was far different.  The real economy was informal and not captured by conventional economic analysis.  The point wasn’t what you could afford to buy, but rather what stores you were able to enter, what you were allowed to buy, where you would travel to for your state-supplied vacation and so on.

So status was paramount and you attained status by possessing information that others didn’t.  You hoarded it, saved it for a rainy day, let it out in whispered drops and dribbles while making it clear that you possessed far more.  You gave a knowing look, an eye wink, and an implicit promise that you intended to share more later, when the time would be right.

The one thing you never did was share information freely.  It was, after all, your currency.

Never Do Anything

While information was capital, action was devalued.  A common saying behind the iron curtain was “they pretend to pay us and we pretend to work.”  Getting things done wasn’t the point.  Your duty was to propagate the idea, the system, the greater whole.

Action, therefore, was dangerous.  It lacked nuance and created a fact pattern.  Facts, of course, could always be used against you and the consequences could be dire.  Even if you avoided the Gulag, there was only one employer and a single misstep could turn a respected professional into a manual laborer, just like Kundera’s Tomáš.

The solution, therefore, was to never do anything.  Observe, sit in judgement, pontificate, but never actually do anything.  Accomplishment will get you noticed and make you a target. Failure would be even worse.  

Never, never, do anything.  Your criticism of others’ actions will be enough to  validate you.

Always Leave Someone Around to Blame

Withholding information and refraining from actions will only get you so far.  Sooner or later, something will go wrong, the whispering will start and your neck will be on the line.  At that point, you will need a scapegoat and it’s best to plan ahead.  Smart apparatchiks would make sure to put someone in place to take the blame.

I once worked in the digital division of a post-Communist conglomerate.  The plans, as they often do in digital, went somewhat awry.  Rather than adapt, they fired the top manager and then put another in his place.  The next was gone in a few months as was the next one after that.  It got to the point that, as soon a someone was promoted, you just knew they were toast.

The management board of the company, however, prospered.  They were, after all, serious about innovation.  They had made serious investments in their digital division hadn’t they? Yes, there had been some problems, but the dullards had been removed. Action had, after all, been taken.  Things would be better now…

Always, always, have a fall guy in place.

There is, however, a catch…

Of course, the system failed and failed miserably.  Many who had prospered and saved for retirement saw their lives swept away by the hyperinflation that followed.  Success within the system, in the end, meant nothing.  A new system arose and those who operated the old one with deftness and agility now had to pay the price, just like everyone else.

In all of human experience, probably the hardest thing to do is to separate oneself from the context of place and time.  Now I am asking you to do just that.  Put yourself in the place of a communist executive circa 1980.  Play the game by the rules have been laid out for you.  Prosper in the system in which you find yourself. Become a moderate success.

Now for the even harder part.  Ask yourself if you are doing anything differently from the millions of those who found themselves in breadlines that stretched almost beyond imagination, who found themselves at the mercy of thugs and criminals and, later, siloviki. The ones that we found it so easy to pity.  Poor, misguided bastards.

After all, we won.  They lost.

– Greg


note: The caption on the poster reads: “Don’t chat away on the telephone. In chatterboxes you will find spies”

2 Responses leave one →
  1. Laura Hulscher permalink
    September 28, 2011

    Thanks, I enjoyed this post.

    Off topic but tangential, “Home Made Contemporary Russian Folk Artifacts,” by Vladimir Arkhipov, is an amazing book of home made, useful creations that epitomizes the plight of individuals in the system that “lost,” and also the resourcefulness that they developed under that system. The objects are beautiful in themselves (many put together out of garbage, or welded together on the clock by a friend at work) and the circumstances of their creation, recorded and transcribed by the author, are fascinating.

  2. September 28, 2011

    Thx for the tip Laura!


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