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Coca Cola, Solzhenitsyn, and the power of storytelling

Business Insider recently reminded us of Coca-Cola product placement saga from the period after the Second World War mythologizing a plucky Soviet general, designed to appeal to both conservatives and the far-left. The tale is an interesting illustration of the appeal of storytelling using iconic and archetypal characters for propaganda purposes – or, in his case, to sell an awful tooth-rotting soft drink.

The yarn being spun is one of how the Soviet General, Georgy Zhukov, developed a taste for Coca-Cola and how Dwight Eisenhower managed to smuggle a few crates of coke into the Soviet Union for him after the Iron Curtain had descended. How romantic! It’s almost like the French resistance.

The story is designed to appeal to the liberty minded conservative types on the one hand, but also to the leftist hero worship types.

Coca-Cola is lauded up as a morale booster for the allied troops fighting the Nazis, who we can all agree were bad guys. The President (not CEO mind you, a cleverly chosen linguistic semaphore) of Coke, we are told, made a captain of industry decision that he would make a bottle of coke available to every troop for just 5c, no matter what the cost. Calling on the industrial spirit of free enterprise, and the spirit of freedom, he made this happen, and Coke becomes a symbol of the liberation of Europe.

At the same time the forces of the free West had an ally in the East in the plucky Georgy Zhukov, Marshal of the Soviet Union, who has the temerity to thumb his nose at the diktats of the repressive soviets after the war. Georgy is an irrepressible free spirit, practically a capitalist, if you want to see him that way.

Now Georgy Zhukov, for the cult of personality communist sympathisers in the audience, was the Marshal of the Soviet Union, and the one general who history informs us can take most credit for the repelling of the Nazis all the way from Moscow, Leningrad, and Stalingrad, to Berlin.

So he was a Nazi crusher and a symbol of soviet Bolshevik spirit. Somehow Coke managed to position him as a hero of the left and right. Good storytelling so far from the crowd whose employees were recently told to be less white in a Stalinist style re-education program.

But who was Zhukov anyway?

The historian of Communist Russia and supreme storyteller, Alexander Solzhenitsyn, weaves a much better story of the life and deeds of Yorka (Georgy) Zhukov.

Readers of his collection, ‘Apricot Jam and other Stories’, will see a different archetype than the simplistic caricature Coca Cola created. Here we see a more realistic portrayal of the type of person identitarianism produces at its top levels, which Solzhenitzyn ties into the biographical events of Georgy Zhukov’s life who is revealed as a zealot, a humanitarian criminal, and a fool.

The Zhukov of Times of Crisis (Apricot Jam and Other Stories pp 231-284) grew with the revolution and proved a perfect avatar for its strong-arm implementation.

Interestingly, it was a revolution that never ended no matter how much bloodshed and torture it entailed. This is central to Solzhenitsyn point; an unfinished revolution will not be questioned by its true believers, no matter how much blood is shed, no matter how much suffering.

Zhukov believed in the revolutionary rhetoric and willingly became the hardened spear tip of Marxist-Leninism praxis. In the Tambov province, while quashing the Antonov Rising, he would torture villagers to force out informants. He would line up every man in the village and proceed to shoot every tenth man until an informant would come forth. In classic communist fashion, the uncovering of the informant justifies the means. As the saying goes “these people were guilty, they confessed”.

Zhukov was a true believer. He could always justify the blood letting of the peasantry because they were “enemies of the revolution”.

Zhukov’s talent was noted and he quickly graduated through the ranks. He was an unquestioning and enthusiastic follower – a perfect party man – but he also had a rare military talent. He was in Stalin’s inner circle by the time the German army stormed through Russia in 1941. He directed the successful repulsions of the German’s at Leningrad, Moscow, and Stalingrad. He imbibed of the cult of Stalin, showing unwavering faith in the Russian dictator, but was perplexed that he was never appointed grand marshal of the Red army through his early successes. All his life this lack of recognition gnawed at him.

Stalin would send him in to trouble zones at the front where his skills in logistics and strategy fueled the soviet success between 1942 and 45.

Stalin ruled with iron disregard for Russian casualties, a thing which Georgy understood, but sometimes it perplexed him.

With Moscow surrounded in October 1941, Stalin rang him to order senseless attacks on the stalled German lines so he would have victories to celebrate for the November 7th parade in Red Square. Georgy attributes Stalin’s blunders and cover ups to the noble exigency of showing “the superiority of our system and ideology”.

Georgy longed for recognition for his role in saving Russia. His popularity amongst the military – he was the only person to have four “Hero of the Soviet Union” awards – would have galvanized the moral of the military. He believed that the revolution would reward its adherents, so it was a perplexing to him that he was never awarded the position to reflect his talents.

After pushing the Germans all the way to Berlin Zhukov returned to Moscow to organize the victory parade. He rode through Moscow on a magnificent cavalry charger. Stalin and the politburo took note and Zhukov found himself shuffled to the side with an administrative post in the provinces.

He is retrieved to Moscow for a brief period where he is utilized to dethrone the chief of police, the infamous Beria of “show me the man and I’ll find you the crime” fame. Georgy Zhukov was always a useful tool for jobs that involved guns and beatings.

Georgy spent the rest of his life waiting for his due recognition. In his countryside dachia, granted him by Stalin, he ponders his life. He writes his memoirs, which are altered beyond recognition by a team of party editors. He makes an appearance at a Moscow celebration of the war heroes where he is given a standing ovation but not allowed speak.  He wanted to say something, but faltered.

Solzhenitsyn’s story finished with Georgy Zhukov, a broken old man, thinking back on all his life and all the opportunities where loyalty staid his hand and his initiative.

In his mind the thought finally materialises “Can it be that I was really such a fool….”

What an end! Solzhenitsyn tells of the pursuit of an ideology – the utopia at any cost. Georgy Zhukov pursues the atheist utilitarian onthology that this can be achieved within a lifetime and established on earth. However at the heart of this conceit is the paradox that paradise, an eternal state, cannot be projected within the ephemeral existence of a life. If anybody could be an avatar for the spirit of Bolshevism, it was the dynamic Yorky (Georgy) Zhukov, but he is left a disillusioned frail and betrayed mortal man.

Compare this ending to the marketing grift of the Coca-cola placement piece: “It didn’t even earn Coca-Cola better treatment, either. Its rival Pepsi eventually gained a virtual monopoly in the Soviet Union, which the Soviets maintained.”

See, Coke are still the good guys and their enemies are so bad! If the life of Georgy Zhukov teaches us anything its ‘Boooo to Pepsi’ (sic).

Of course the real lesson is don’t do business with communists, because it’s a system drenched in innocent blood. That is not a story Coca-Cola would want to tell. It would not help their connections with a political system which is defiant in its exploitation of Uighur Muslims.


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