8 lessons I learned from Comrade Stalin about corporate life

Comrade Stalin

As a student of Russian history, I have from time to time been struck by some of the similarities between corporate life and life in the Soviet Union under Stalin. In saying this I do not wish in any way to minimise the suffering and the evil murder of millions of innocent people. Rather I want to focus on the similarity in techniques of persuasion.

Lesson 1: planning. As a planned centralised economy, the Soviet regime ran everything according to the pyatiletka (the five-year plan). Stalin even wanted to make the film industry work on the same lines. Often they were as much a complete fantasy as their claimed fulfilment or more likely ‘over-fulfilment’. In my corporate life, I lost count of the number of 3 and 5 year business plans I worked on. More often than not they were put in a draw and forgotten until the next planning cycle started.

Lesson 2: visions and mission statements. Stalin used clunky slogans and visionary statements to exhort the people to greater effort. Successive CEOs came and went with their simplified statements of why we were all coming to work day after day. One of the more memorable ones was one of the last: “A good place to do business for customers, shareholders and colleagues”. That was probably only true for shareholders, as judging by the volume of customer complaints, they did not share the vision – and for staff it was an increasingly unpleasant and unhealthy environment in which to work.

Lesson 3: intolerance of dissent. Stalin saw any dissent as betrayal and ruthlessly suppressed any actual or supposed signs of it. Similarly, corporate life discouraged any dissent or disagreement with decisions. It doesn’t like democracy or debate. The price it pays is much pent-up frustration amongst staff and a failure to properly engage people. In the end, for a quiet life, people pay lip service to the company, much as the majority of people paid lip service to Stalin’s regime.

Lesson 4: purges. One of the main ways that Stalin dealt with dissent was through purges. The worst of these occurred in the 1930s following the ‘death’ of Kirov in Leningrad. Stalin, who was almost certainly responsible for having Kirov murdered, used it as a pretext for getting rid of people who he felt opposed his regime through a succession of purges in most areas of life, from the party, armed forces, NKVD (Secret Police), academia, industry, the arts, ordinary people. It reached its peak in 1937 when it devoured Yezhov, Head of the NKVD itself. Of course, companies don’t kill people or send them off to die in labour camps, but they do periodically have re-structures, often to shed staff in the interests of becoming more efficient. Often incoming CEOs or senior management instigate their own purges as a way of stamping their own authority quickly on a company and bringing in their own place-men, people who are loyal to them and whom they trust to do their bidding.

Lesson 5: non persons and the re-writing of history. Once Stalin had managed to grab and consolidate power, he famously made his erstwhile rival, Trotsky, a non-person. He was airbrushed out of history: photographs in which he appeared were doctored to exclude him; and he was expunged from books about the civil war in which he had played a leading part, both in shaping the new Red Army and in leading it against the White forces. Companies often treat their ex-workers in a similar way, their contributions are quickly forgotten, often downplayed, as if they were a risk to the current incumbents. Truly they are names written in water.

Lesson 6: propaganda and self-delusion. Stalin maintained himself in power through an extremely powerful and insidious propaganda machine (as well as by force, terror and fear) that created the delusion that people were living in a society that was travelling towards the perfect Communist society. The relentlessly upbeat in-house magazines and press releases generated by my previous company create a similar sort of effect: ‘this is a great place to work, we are on the right path, we are doing well, we can do even better. Of course, there are still things we aren’t getting quite right, but’: this last is even a direct borrowing from Soviet propaganda wording ‘konechno u nas est nedostaki, no…’ And suddenly one day I went in to work to discover we were all ‘colleagues’: the word ‘staff’ became a non-word.

Lesson 7: cult of the leader: Stalin idolised Lenin (even whilst betraying his last wishes), endlessly doodling the words “Lenin – teacher, friend’ during meetings. But he promoted himself even more as the Great Leader (Vozhd), especially after the Second World War. Similarly CEOs position themselves as the fount of all wisdom and knowledge, omnipresent in in-house magazines. Endlessly quoted, directly or indirectly, by senior managers and their cohorts to justify their actions.

Lesson 8: subordination of personal lives.  Stalin wanted to re-make society and create homo sovieticus by remolding individuals, to colonise their private and even interior lives. Diaries of some intellectual revolutionaries in the 20s particularly showed that they shared the same ideal of re-making themselves. One of his great frustrations was what goes on behind closed doors in families and amongst friends and, even more frustratingly, what goes on in people’s heads. He therefore tried to break the family by encouraging people to inform on each other, even within families. My former company demanded ever greater and greater loyalty, forcing staff to work longer hours and sacrifice their own personal time, health and family life to meet corporate objectives.

Re-reading this, the way that companies behave is not just down to Stalin. It is behaviour that is learned from oppressive regimes of all stripes throughout history. Western Capitalism is just the latest to employ them.   


Travelling hopefully

I realise that it’s been two years now since I started this blog. I started it when I was made redundant after the company I worked for decided to rationalise its offices and close the one I worked in. So as good a time as any to look back on two years of unemployment / enforced semi-retirement.

At the time it came like a release. I had worked for the company for 25 years and for much of that time dreamt of getting out of it and doing something different, something with a purpose. When the opportunity came along, I took it willingly. My departure was eased by a redundancy package, and then about a couple of months after I left, by my company pension kicking in.

My aim initially was to try to get contract work in my old line of business and I thought it would be easy to find within a month or so of leaving. Of course, I couldn’t go back to my old employer for a couple of years, but surely there must be lots of other opportunities?

The recruitment consultants I contacted were very positive about my prospects. Gradually though as the weeks after I left turned into months they rarely contacted me and even more rarely returned my calls.

I started to expand my search out, looking at the charity sector, business admin work, anything basically. I have applied for quite a lot of jobs and been invited to about 10 interviews; so far with no success.

The fact is that I don’t feel ready to retire: my mind is too active and I still need to earn money.

How have I used my time? I have done some volunteering. I took a writing course. I have tried to improve my photography. I have written some news and feature articles for my local paper. I went through the lengthy process of applying to become a magistrate. This is something I dearly wanted to do. I enjoyed observing cases and watching the criminal justice system in action. I had a terrific second interview which was very stimulating and I felt I was on fire. But though found suitable for appointment, I got filtered out by the quota system. Well, I suppose there are only so many grey-haired, middle class men they can take if they are going to have a representative cross-section of society on the bench.

Then there’s this blog that I keep writing from time to time – and this is my hundredth post!

I have tried hard to think of businesses I could start on my own based on the things I enjoy doing as hobbies (baking, writing, photography). But, perhaps it’s just me, I can’t see how to turn them into paying businesses.

Hope and expectations rise and fall, although it always feels more comfortable when I am taking action, rather than just waiting on others to come back to me.

The search continues. I am still travelling hopefully. There is no other way.

The sawmill crew

The saw mill crew

The saw mill crew

Before I go on with my next blog post about our friend, Vasily (see here for the first instalment), I want to share a little story of an unusual encounter that happened when I was with Vasily in Belarus.

For some reason which I could never fathom, the local authorities in Narovlya introduced me to Sergey, the broad-shouldered man in the centre of the photograph. He had what sounded to me like a grandiose plan for a development around a natural lake which he wanted to turn into a centre for hunting, shooting and fishing, with houses, a restaurant and a small hotel. His aim was to offer rest and relaxation for visitors from Minsk and Gomel (the regional capital) and possibly for foreigners.

The local authorities were not interested in helping him and he felt it was because: “Businesses are looked down on in Belarus. There are a lot of old Communists in the government who are used to living at someone else’s expense and not earning their own living”.

He took me to see the lake which was right out in the back of beyond. With no sign of human beings, it was just a wild, reed-fringed lake with birch forests beyond in their brilliant gold Autumn colours against a deep blue sky. The lake had carp and pike in it, as well as swans, ducks and herons; and Sergey claimed there were deer and wild boar in the forest.

He wanted to top up the water in the lake from a nearby canal and start clearing out the reeds which were encroaching into the lake by introducing a type of carp (it sounded something like a ‘barb-mouthed carp’) that would keep the vegetation down.

It was mind-silencingly beautiful and I could not understand why anyone would want to spoil it by bringing loads of people there and turning it into a tourist centre. Sergey, however, could not seem to grasp that this would spoil the place.

Anyway, he seemed to be involved in several businesses, one of which was a saw mill which is where we went next. But it was a saw mill with a difference. It has only been going for a year and employed 10 people, all of whom had lost their jobs, mainly due to drink. Vasily told me later that Sergey had told him that he was an ex-drinker.

Alcoholism is a terrible blight on Belarusian society (as it is in Russia too). I had seen it close up when I had stayed in remote Belarusian villages and been treated to amazing feasts punctuated by frequent toasts. With nothing to do, living lives of often hard physical labour through harsh winters and with no hope that things would ever improve, people turned to drink as the fastest way out of town. Even though distilling your own vodka was illegal, many people did it, hiding their gear out in the forests. I can assure you from my experience that their samogon (home-made vodka) was lethal.

I wondered how Sergey kept them in order. He had a couple of foremen who made sure they worked and if they came to work drunk they got fined. It was a very dangerous place for people to stagger around having had a drink or two, as there were a couple of vicious looking electric saws with no guards on them. My friend Vasily was horrified at the lack of basic safety precautions.

Sergey provided them with accommodation too and was adamant that many of them came right in the end. If they asked him to help them stop drinking, he paid to send them to a doctor and after 1-2 sessions they usually gave up. I was curious as to what sort of doctor this might be that could perform miracle cures of alcoholism in such a short time, but did not get any clear answers.

Sergey got the contracts to supply timber, usually for companies in Minsk, and then sourced and bought the timber for finishing at the sawmill. In addition to the saws, he had a couple of tractors, an old lorry and a drying house which he wanted to use to cure the wood and install a lathe to add value to the raw timber by making shaped wood (tongue and groove, etc).

The workers got paid c.$100 per month, which is the same as what forestry workers received. Whilst we were there, some of the lads were loading up the lorry to take palleted rough timber up to Minsk which it has taken them about a month to prepare.

I was curious about his background. He used to be a tractor driver before working in forestry. Then he started buying spare parts in Minsk, taking them over the border to Ukraine and selling them, which at the time was against the law. He saw that this was not going to lead anywhere and a friend lent him some money to set up his own business in the village. He looked around, rented some land next to his parents home and set up the sawmill there. The sawmill had a good strong wooden fence round it which he said was there ‘to keep out the old Communists’.

To my friend Vasily’s huge amusement, Sergey called the sawmill the Pilorama (Saw-o-rama). As we were leaving the sawmill one of the workers came up to Sergey and asked him for a drink, and Sergey gave him a quick shot from a clear plastic bottle in his car.

Neither Vasily nor I could really understand what this was all about and why he thought that I might be able to help him. Our projects were all about sustainable livelihoods and using small amounts of money to try to make a big difference in people’s lives, not supporting businesses. But I often wonder whether the lake project ever got off the ground and what happened to the lads at the sawmill.