Saturday, 21 April 2012

PR History - Reputation Management in Stalin's USSR

Nikolai Bukharin (second from left), with Rykov, Kalinin, Uglanov, Stalin and Tomsky
at Lenin's tomb, 1927. (Source:

It is often said that public relations, as a profession, is a product of the free, democratic and economically advanced world. Certainly the profession as we know it has flourished in countries with a vibrant civil society, societies where the court of public opinion (as measured by votes and retail dollars) matters a great deal. The birth of modern-day PR is generally considered to be early 20th century America, as heralded by two fascinating, if controversial, characters - Ivy Ledbetter Lee and and the notorious 'father of spin' (and nephew to Sigmund Freud) Edward Bernays.

While PR as a formalized profession is relatively new, the tools of the trade have been around a whole lot longer. A convincing argument could be made for the father of public relations (at least in the western world) as being Protagoras, the pre-Socratic sophist who took then (and even now) controversial view "man is the measure of all things". Taking the view that human beings, as opposed to deities, hold the key to human destiny, Protagoras took political rhetoric and key message crafting to a whole new level in his 40 years as Classical Athens' most in-demand political pundit.

Even among absolutist regimes (at least among the more successful ones), there has been some degree of recognition of the importance of reputation management. In ancient China, the philosophical concept of the 'Mandate of Heaven' (天命,Tiānmìng) differed somewhat from the medieval European notion of the divine right of kings in the sense that it was predicated on the conduct of the ruler in question. As such, the concept of the Mandate of Heaven allowed for the removal of incompetent or despotic rulers, and in doing so placed placed the onus on imperial dynasties to demonstrate to their subjects that they still retained the mandate, be it through acts of charity, public works or extracting tributes from neighbouring states. Not exactly the two-way symmetrical model of modern PR, but a start nonetheless.

But what about in truly despotic regimes with effectively zero room for public participation in governance and reign by terror? It's probably safe to say that there is no PR industry to speak of in modern-day North Korea or Turkmenistan or in fast reforming but still destitute Myanmar. Nevertheless, even in most extreme cases of state-sponsored repressiveness reputation management still counts for something. And in such cases, saving your reputation while minimizing harm to yourself - and those close to you - becomes an art form unto itself.

Reputation Management for Beyond the Grave: Bukharin's Final Plea

Soviet Defence Minister Kliment
Voroshilov, as caricatured by
Bukharin (Source: Wikipedia)
Of the cast of characters that made up the Bolshevik Revolution, Nikolai Bukharin stands as one of the most fascinating. A founding Bolshevik party member at age 20, Bukharin was one of the party's most erudite and pragmatic strategists. He frequently clashed with Lenin on theoretical issues pertaining to Marxism and was also largely responsible for elevating a thuggish but politically useful young Georgian Bolshevik by the name of Joseph Stalin and helping him craft several key articles that solidified his presence within the party. He was also a gifted cartoonist and known for being something of a smart-ass within the Bolshevik entourage.

Following the death of Lenin in 1924, Bukharin became a full-fledged member of the Politburo and entrenched himself within the right wing of the party in his advocacy of an extension of the New Economic Policy (which allowed for limited capitalist enterprise within the communist system) and against leading successor candidate Leon Trotsky, who favoured abolishing the system. For those of you who don't remember from Grade 12 history, the NEP was initially implemented to shore up an agricultural economy that had been devastated by the Russian Civil War and alleviate famine and was, in a sense, a precursor to the reforms ushered in by Deng Xiaoping in China some 60 years later.

Those familiar with the early history of the USSR know that Stalin initially favoured extending the NEP together with Bukharin (a purely strategic move aimed at positioning himself as Trotsky's main leadership rival) but then dumped the policy following his formal accension as party leader in 1929, whereupon he launched the first of his Five-Year Plans. In the first few years of Stalin's reign of terror, which saw the purging of Trotsky and all those party members aligned with him, Bukharin appeared to be safe, and in 1934 was appointed to the prestigious position of editor of the newspaper Izvestia, in which capacity he wrote empassioned editorials on the perils of Europe's emergent fascism.

Nevertheless, by 1936 Stalin was determined to purge the party of any potential rivals, which included all of the surviving veterans of the October Revolution. And as a visible symbol of the revolution, Bukharin was an obvious target. Bukharin was arrested in February 1937 on the dubious charge of being member of the 'Bloc of Rightists and Trotskyites'. In his trial, which ran from March 2 to 13, 1938, Bukharin and others were accused of trying to assassinate Lenin and Stalin from 1918, murder Maxim Gorky by poison, partition the Soviet Union and hand out its territories to Germany, Japan and Great Britain.

Consider for a moment what must have been going through Nikolai Bukharin's head as he sat down in his cell to pen his final plea. He knew full well that his verdict was a foregone conclusion, that the penalty would be death by firing squad, and that there was absolutely nothing he could do to save his own life. He also knew that unless he offered up a satisfactorily contrite confession that he would either be subjected to more torture or, more likely under the circumstances, that the NKVD (the precurser to the KGB) would go after his wife and young child. On the other hand, he knew that the international press would be covering the trial and that his last words would long outlive him. In sum, he knew this was his last chance to give anyone a piece of his mind, salvage his reputation and maybe even stick it to his former ally.

What did he do? The greatest communicator among Lenin's top brass delivered what has to be one of the most perplexing 'confessions' in courtroom history. He opened his final plea as follows:

In Court I admitted and still admit my guilt in respect to the crimes which I committed and of which I was accused by Citizen the State Prosecutor at the end of the Court investigation and on the basis of the materials of the investigation in the possession of the Procurator. I declared also in Court, and I stress and repeat it now, that I regard myself politically responsible for the sum total of the crimes committed by the 'bloc of Rights and Trotskyites'. I have merited the most severe punishment, and I agree with Citizen the Procurator, who several times repeated that I stand on the threshold of my hour of death.

This over-the-top genuflection and self-flagellation carries on for some time....until he gets into the specifics of the accusations against him. At this point, Bukharin offers a bit of perspective.

Nevertheless, I consider that I have the right to refute certain charges which were brought: a) in the printed Indictment, b) during the Court investigation, and c) in the speech for the prosecution made by Citizen the Procurator of the U.S.S.R. I consider it necessary to mention that during my interrogation by Citizen the State Prosecutor, the latter declared in a very categorical form that I, as one of the accused, must not admit more than I had admitted and that I must not invent facts that have never happened, and he demanded that this statement of his should be placed on the records.

But then he carries on with the "I've been a bad, bad boy" banter.

I once more repeat that I admit that I am guilty of treason to the socialist fatherland, the most heinous of possible crimes, of the organization of kulak uprisings, of preparations for terrorist acts and of belonging to an underground, anti-Soviet organization. I further admit that I am guilty of organizing a conspiracy for a 'palace coup'.

The entire translated transcript of Bukharin's final plea is available here. It's a fascinating read, if for no other reason because in the midst of all of Bukharin's "I'm a bad, bad communist and a traitor and a terrible person who should be spanked shot" he actually doesn't admit to anything specific. All of his 'confessions' are entirely vague in nature, whereas when it comes to people he supposedly had conversations with or meetings he is accused of having attended, he qualifies his 'confession', stating that while he is indeed guilty of being a traitor, that particular aspect of his being a traitor wasn't true. And so on and so forth.

Lessons for PR Practitioners?

It is often said that a good reputation is great insurance for a company or organization. The same is true for individuals, especially individuals in prominent positions. Moreover, Bukharin's last plea - and the man's subsequent posthumous stature - shows just how much the right messaging and the right type of communication can accomplish in sealing that reputation, even for beyond the grave.

Bukharin's confession did exactly what it was intended to do. In the actual trial, his deftly inserted barbs against the regime went pretty much unnoticed within the morass of self-flagellation and vague admissions of guilt, and in March 1938 he was quietly executed. While his widow Anna Larina (a great communicator in her own right) was briefly dispatched to a labour camp, she was shown relative lenience and her and their son Yuri survived the great terror - and lived to see Bukharin's full rehabillitation by Gorbachev in 1988. She died in 1996, vindicated after a lifetime of fighting to clear her late husband's name.

Were he alive today, Nikolai Bukharin would no doubt have made a formidable PR professional. After all, he accomplished a communications feat that most would have thought unimaginable in one of history's most repressive regimes. By sticking to his messages - both bogus and legit ones - he managed to save his family and make a mockery of the system that did him in. Sad he wasn't around to see the results.


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