Lessons in PR from the Soviet Union

The Soviet Union produced the most effective and successful propaganda machine in the history of mankind. Have other movements followed its lead?

By , Guest blogger

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    A boy wearing a red neckerchief, the symbol of the young Pioneer organization, smiles in front of a monument to Soviet state founder Vladimir Lenin during the inauguration ceremony of newly adopted members of the movement on the day of its anniversary in Russia's southern city of Stavropol May 19.
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The collapse of the Soviet Union has caused many people to gradually forget about it and consider it more and more an aberration that is unlikely to return. Of course, history does not repeat itself, it merely rhymes. But given the continuing, and increasingly belligerent, existence of the North Korean and Cuban governments, one could seriously ask, was the fall of the Soviet Union inevitable? Could the nightmare of its rise happen again?

Was the end of the reign of mass terror in the Soviet Union just a lucky break caused by the death of one man responsible for nearly all Soviet executions: Vasili Mikhailovich Blokhin? Could it be that the end of the Soviet Union itself was a lucky break — in the form of the Soviet healthcare system ending the life of Mikhail Andreyevich Suslov?

The Soviet Union produced the most effective and successful propaganda machine in the history of mankind. Mikhail Suslov was that machine, and that machine was Mikhail Suslov.

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Probably his greatest work was what I call the "Suslov Maneuver." Facing the possibility of being accused of an atrocity, or facing any form of an ideological attack, one should immediately accuse the opponent of precisely that atrocity or ideological failure. For example, if the deaths of Korolov and Suslov seem to suggest some problems with the Soviet healthcare system, and some idiot American wants to bring that up, the best way to approach this is to immediately issue a statement condemning the inhumanity and failure of the American healthcare system.

In one of the most entertaining examples of the Suslov Maneuver, immediately upon invading Afghanistan in 1979, the Soviets issued a statement condemning Western intervention in the internal affairs of Afghanistan.

Suslov was such a master of propaganda that the Western politicians seemed like rank amateurs in any ideological confrontations with him. The most effective counter to Suslov came not from any professional ideologues but from popular jokes about communism. Those jokes conveyed much greater wisdom and understanding of the situation than all the pronouncements of all the Western political scientists put together.[1] The echoes of the ideological confrontation between the great master, Suslov, and the anonymous amateurs creating anti-Soviet jokes can still be heard today.

Consider the tea party movement. Journalists and politicians call them many bad things, the kindest of them being "ungrateful wretches," who enjoy the benefits of the federal government, yet attack that government. This is quite a fascinating claim, given that the politicians and journalists generally depend on income generated, in a very large part, by the participants in the tea party movement. Could this be a Suslov Maneuver at a small scale at least?

More interestingly, the term "ungrateful wretches" sounds very familiar to anyone who had lived under communism; that was exactly the term Suslov used to describe any Soviet subject who dared to express any opposition to the Soviet regime. After all, they had free education, free healthcare, and subsidized housing; why in the world would they complain about the government that took care of them so completely? Granted, in the Soviet Union, individuals did have to pay for something: they received a bill for the bullets used in any execution of their family members. But that was rarely mentioned by Suslov, even though it was consistently practiced by Blokhin.

Well, there was an anti-Soviet joke about "ungrateful wretches." A man applied for an immigration visa to be allowed to leave the Soviet Union. The matter had been held up for quite some time — for years — so he had almost given up. And then one night around 3:30 a.m. he hears a loud banging on the door of his apartment. So he goes to the door and asks, "Who's there?"

A voice replied, "Mailman." The hopeful emigrant opens the door, and several large men barge in. They tell him they are from KGB and they just need to talk to him. The main theme of the subsequent interrogation is that he is an ungrateful wretch: "The socialist mother country gave you a place to live, took care of you, gave you free education, free healthcare, and was always so good to you. How can you be so ungrateful?"

He hesitates for a moment, and then says, "Well … I was hoping to move to a country where mail is delivered late morning or maybe early afternoon."

As I see it, that story does not make it to the top three jokes about communism. The top three jokes about communism address precisely the top three nightmares of life under communism: It was economically inefficient, it was crude and boring, and it was lethal.

The joke about economic inefficiency is actually well-known among Americans, because it very much represents the American perspective on the Soviet Union. The story takes place in Moscow circa 1987. A wife asks her husband to go to the store and purchase some bread. The man goes and sees a long queue; he lines up and waits patiently.

As he waits and waits, he is shocked to see that the line is not moving at all. He is used to queues, but usually they at least move. After several hours of waiting with no movement, he is aggravated and angry and starts loudly proclaiming his dissatisfaction with the Soviet system.

As he gets louder and louder, three large men in gray coats approach him and quietly instruct him to step aside. They explain that they are with the KGB and they need to speak with him. They tell him that his anti-government rant, so loud and so public, is utterly unacceptable. They say, "Look, comrade, only five years ago, you would have been shot on the spot. Now we have glasnost and perestroika; we do things differently. But you really should reconsider. Why don't you go home and think carefully about this? Run along and never do this again."

The man runs home, and as he enters the apartment, his wife says: "Back finally? Did you get the bread?" To which the man replies: "Woman — just forget about the bread! This country is completely falling apart. There is no bread, no bread, no bread, I tell you! Things have gotten so bad they don't even have any bullets!"

The Soviet system was just plain crude and boring. Long speeches of top Politburo members could have been entertaining because they were so insane, but in reality the question was whether the boredom or the crassness of it would kill you first. There was a joke about that.

In the 1970s, there was a special meeting of three leaders of the world — General Secretary Leonid Brezhnev, President Valéry Giscard d'Estaing, and President Jimmy Carter — with the Queen of England. They had lunch together, and after lunch they sat together having some tea.

Unfortunately, during the tea time, the Queen burped (you can substitute any bodily emission you choose). And, as we all know, the Queen of England does not burp. President Giscard d'Estaing immediately stood up and apologized profusely, explaining that he may have had too much onion soup during lunch. And yet, in a couple of minutes, the queen burped again. President Jimmy Carter instantly stood up and apologized with great sincerity, explaining that he always carries some peanuts with him, and probably should not have eaten them.

But the Queen of England had yet another unfortunate accident. This time, Leonid Brezhnev slowly rose, looked around, took out a piece of paper with his prepared remarks written on them, and read slowly and deliberately: "The responsibility for this third consecutive burp of Elizabeth Windsor, known by some as the Queen of England, is hereby graciously accepted by the masses of the working people in the cities and the countryside of the Soviet Union."

And, obviously, there was one more problem with the Soviet Union. As Tom Woods phrased it, What about the millions of corpses left behind? Well, one would expect a joke about Vasili Mikhailovich Blokhin, the man who personally killed more than anyone ever in human history. But, luckily, he remains somewhat unknown. Yet there was a joke about the killing. It involved the great leader of the revolution, the legend, the giant, the most important man to ever live: Vladimir Ilyich Lenin.

Before being the great leader of the world, Lenin spent some time in Poland, in a small town in the mountains in the south of Poland named Poronin. While in Poronin, Lenin rented a room at the upper level of a house of some local merchants. One day, when Lenin woke up and looked out the window, the sun was shining, and as he opened the window, birds were singing, and the air was fresh. Lenin felt the great exuberance of life and felt that his great plan for mankind had a great future.

He began to work on his morning hygiene, and once he felt clean and refreshed, he began to shave while looking out the window, admiring the magnificence of the world he was about to save, and thinking about great revolutionary ideas. He had to be careful however, as this was happening before the age of electric shavers, and he was using a traditional cut-throat razor.

As he was shaving carefully, suddenly a five year-old boy, a son of his landlords, barged into the room, screaming and running and pretending to shoot, playing as a cowboy. Lenin was shocked and dismayed, while the kid kept on running around his room screaming. Lenin put the razor down carefully, turned to the kid, and with great anger shouted: "You stop that, you damn stupid kid! Get out of my room right now, and shut up, or I will kick you in the butt so hard that you will never walk again!" The kid froze in fear, started crying, and ran away. And the whole world stopped for a moment in shock.

How could it be that this great, visionary leader of mankind could act so much out of character? To shout at a little kid, to lose his temper like that? Why? There was no need for that. He could have taken care of this problem right there, on the spot, without any need for shouting or unnecessary emotion. After all, he had the cut-throat razor in his hand.

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