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Lessons in negotiation from Stalin at Yalta (abe-winter.github.io)
108 points by awinter-py 5 months ago | hide | past | web | favorite | 64 comments

> Roosevelt was probably sicker and had to travel all the way to Ukraine.

That is a bit sensitive these days, but Crimea wasn't Ukraine at the time. It was transferred to Ukraine in 1954 by N.Khrushchev (without much elaboration). He did many such transfers at the time. 40 years later, that caused several wars.


This transfer happened because the territory depends on the "mainland" which happened to be Ukrainian Republic. Most of the transportation happened through Ukraine, which also supplied with electricity and water. Crimea has no reliable source of fresh water, pumping it out from the ground turns the land into desert. They didn't believe it was possible that the soviet project would fail and the republics would turn hostile against each other.

> He did many such transfers at the time. 40 years later, that caused several wars.

All these types of things in my opinions were 'investments' in the future. Geopolitical instability is always a good lever for waging war. First think which came to mind when reading your comment was Transnistria.

I'm not sure Khrushchev intended it that way, many in the 50s-era USSR were still pretty confident that the various "people's republics" in the Warsaw Pact would soon apply for membership in the Union, followed by the gradual obviation of national borders, and then the state itself. I think they played fast-and-loose with moving territory between the soon-to-be-obsolete territorial units for that reason.

More likely, they were the result of brokering agreements between officials: you give me this, I give you that. When everyone answers to you, moving some land from Commissar X to Commissar Y (as a prize or punishment) is just business. The independence of places like Ukraine was nominal, so giving them a sweetener here and there looked like the smart choice.

This was very light on analogous details of the conference and what the specific negotiating victories were.

Otherwise these strike me as fairly boilerplate negotiating tactics; I didn't find that Yalta itself validated any of them.

As an aside - if anyone is interested in learning a whole lot about negotiating/diplomacy throughout history, including Yalta (I think), I recommend the When Diplomacy Fails Podcast with Zack Twamley:


I know nothing about negotiation aside from a couple of classes I took early in my career -- probably the best instruction I received early on aside from deeply-technical stuff. Doubled my billing rate immediately.

Having said that, it's important to distinguish these kinds of negotiation porn stories with real-world negotiations. Especially for tech teams.

Negotiation exists so that in a world of low-trust we can all meet some of our goals by working together in a careful manner. It's a kind of careful "dance" where a back-and-forth between the parties slowly allows information to move back-and-forth so that goals can be met. It's the spot between sharing nothing and sharing everything.

A lot of management theory, like Agile, depends on some kind of weird total trust environment that's never, ever existed. That means negotiation has to happen. (If negotiation happens with your kids when you're talking about where to go for dinner, it happens in tech teams, trust me.)

Yes, in the end you'll end up with a bit of remaining information asymmetry that can be spun to make it like one party got away with a lot and took advantage over the other one. But the real goal is also mentioned in the essay: everybody comes back to the table again and negotiation happens again on the next deal. Nobody wants to sit down with Stalin again. And thankfully, nobody has to. Real-world negotiation is much more about building trust and deep friendships -- sometimes using games and tactics which can appear to be slimy -- than it is trying to bulldoze somebody.

Negotiation has gotten a bad name for many of us tech folks. It really shouldn't be that way. It's an important thing to learn and practice for everybody.

Put another way, negotiation is how one deals with having less than "perfect information".

The author tries basing his “lessons” on one historical moment, to little avail. The gap between these two concepts is enormous and the logic connecting them is simply too shallow to offer the needed support.

In wiser hands, this article would be worth reading.

Could you please illuminate how the article falls short for those who ... can't?

I don't really understand the lesson behind "Control the agenda" or "Be the agent of chaos".

> Use these underlying power dynamics to control the agenda

How did Stalin do this, exactly? What topic did he fight to avoid?

> If you’ve ever been an A student in a group project with a C student (or vice versa), you know this game.

Know what game?

Regarding your second question: the "game" in which a C student doesn't do their part in a group project and the A student has to decide whether to do all the work by him/herself or to accept that the C student will turn in crappy work and both will get a B.

If you care less about the consequences of your action than the other part, you get an advantage. This is not really recommended as a negotiation strategy in the long run (it only works once, and the other person is now your enemy), but it's good to know it can happen.

In light of current US politics, I find this idea rather frightening.

The A student wants the highest grade possible and will maneuver in a way where the C student will do actual work without affecting quality. In the event the C student is beyond useless, the A student decides between doing all the work or throwing the C student under the bus.

The C student will take any grade C and up and strives to do as little as possible whilst not pissing off the A student to go ballistic and report you to the professor.

On be the agent of chaos:

Generally this is referred to as brinksmanship. The philosophy of brinksmanship is basically that when a situation is stable it is difficult to change. Takeing it to the the brink with chaos means you may be able to settle the chaos more in your favor.

The problem with it is that it's an awful long term strategy. In terms of game theory it's essentially the "defection" strategy, and negative sum.

In fact much of this blog posting seems to me like it could just as well be titled "a sociopath's guide"

I agree, rather cryptic. As I read it I thought, “interesting, please elaborate”, but there was no follow up

Stalin was smart and certainly had many cunning moments.

However he had plenty of blunders too, especially being blindsided by Hitler's Operation Barbarossa in the eastern front.

I read the post and I don't think I would be able to or want to apply any of those lessons.

Still an interesting insight into Yalta

His purges really messed up any chance his military had early on, but there was a weird and amusing follow on. He started rounding on another group in yet another of his paranoid, murderous purges: Jewish doctors and the so called Doctors Plot.

Unfortunately for him this included stroke specialists and he had a stroke. He received no care other than having a rug wrapped around him while he lay soaked in urine.

There is an excellent series of books about him by Simon Sebag Montefiore and his death is covered in Court of The Red Czar.

I think the point was rather to know these tactics exist, work in practice and are difficult to counter.

I don't want to lie in any circumstances, but I would like to detect that someone is lying to me.

He was not blindsided by Hitler at all. Soviet Russia had its own plan to attack Hitler and were amassing troops at the border as well. Hitler decided to strike first.

He was completely blindsided, rather than not at all, and so shocked he isolated himself.


> It was one thing for Stalin to begin trusting, to some extent, the judgment of Zhukov and Timoshenko (instead of Voroshilov & Co.) on how best to defend the USSR in the event of a German attack. It was quite another matter for Stalin to begin believing that a German attack would actually be launched.

> Several other answers have stressed Stalin’s refusal to accept the validity of intelligence reports re Barbarossa from Sorge and other spies. That is perfectly true. In fact, according to at least two books (‘Russia’s War’ by Overy; and ‘Third Reich’ by Burleigh), Russian Intelligence received no less than 84 different warnings of Barbarossa, from a variety of sources. Quite apart from British/American warnings (obtained via Enigma intercepts), Sorge, and various diplomatic listening posts; Moscow was being kept well informed by moles inside three German ministries: Economics, Air and Foreign. As the clock ticked down, the warnings became increasingly precise and accurate. It did not matter. Stalin kept on dismissing every warning as an “English provocation!” ... with the ominous footnote that the loyalty of the source should be investigated.


> Even after Barbarossa was launched, Stalin still refused to believe that Hitler could have ordered it. When Zhukov met him at the Kremlin late on June 22, 1941, Stalin was still insisting that the attack was “a provocation of the German officers” and that “Hitler surely does not know about it”. Once the truth finally sank in, it is hardly surprising that Stalin slunk off into isolation. Quite understandably, he feared that his staggering, glaring display of incompetence would mean the end of him. When Molotov led a deputation from the Politburo to winkle him out from his dacha on June 30, and talk him into coming back to the Kremlin to take charge, Stalin’s initial reaction to their arrival reveals that he assumed they had come to arrest him.

> This still does not answer the key question: why did Stalin trust Hitler’s intentions?

> As Churchill later wrote, at least as regards Hitler and Barbarossa, Stalin showed himself to be “the most completely outwitted bungler of the Second World War”. But ... there are a couple of rationalizations to explain Stalin’s apparently blind stupidity. To any logical man, Hitler’s decision to launch a two-front war - while Britain was still far from being conquered in the West – was crazy. Furthermore, the timing of Barbarossa was also wrong: Stalin knew that, by late June, the Germans were not likely to have time to crush the Red Army completely before the autumn rains made Russia’s roads into impassable bogs.

> However, I think that the likeliest explanation of Stalin’s obstinate trust in Hitler lies more in his Marxist convictions, and to his intense suspicion of Britain’s intentions, than anything else. Stalin did not see Nazism as being as much a natural enemy to Communism as was Capitalist Democracy. Above all, Stalin hated and distrusted the British. He constantly harked back to the 19th century Crimean War and ‘Great Game’ struggles for mastery of Central Asia, and to Britain’s post-WW1 interventions in the Russian Civil War. He was convinced that Britain was conspiring to undermine his pact with Hitler, and to form an alliance with the Axis powers to attack Russia. When Rudolf Hess flew to Britain in May 1941, Stalin interpreted it as the prelude to a secret Anglo-German pact to combine against the Soviet Union.

> Perhaps the most revealing clue lies in one of Stalin’s immediate reactions once he accepted the reality of the Barbarossa attack. He warned his cronies to expect, as a follow-up blow, an amphibious assault by Britain’s Royal Navy against Leningrad!

Nobody wants to sit down with Stalin twice.

Probably the best observation in the whole article.

Do not forget a thing: Stalin at start receive big money from British crown, not much differently than Lenin from Germany before.

Could you explain this further? My understating is that Stalin was a key part of party finances early on but obtained money via robbery, hijacking, murder and other violent methods. The party tried hard to restrain him but loved the cash.

Why would the British want instability in Russia? That would suit Germany.

At first yes, Stalin was a thief that give money to bolsheviks, after Lenin death however was founded by British crown to avoid the "new regime" became more "socialist" instead of more dictatorial.

Basically no "western" élites want socialism and they do their best to stop them, they found ex socialist like Mussolini in Italy, they found "communism", they found nazism to stop that trans-national movement.

Wow, they sound astoundingly well informed, well organised, influential, disciplined and effective. No wonder Neville Chamberlain was able to lead and control events so decisively.

Any sources to back this up? Seems unlikely than those elites would support regimes that nearly defeated the West, just for the sake of suppressing socialists.

Only on paper unfortunately, however you can easily find small bits of information online, mostly about part of governments or single companies supporting many dictatorship even when their country formally combat them...

On "élites" consider a thing, if you are "Standard Oil" (that support nazis even during the first years of WWII) for you a government or another means nothing: you are needed by any parties and you'll be kept by both if you play your cards well, it's only a matter of business ability and timing. For instance actual "powerful&rich" automotive industry in Germany is property of the same families that finance nazis at their times, governments have changes, war etc does not change their business much, only vary a bit cash flow and volumes. Same in Italy, same in USA, same in Russian federation, Japan etc.

The only real problem for such subjects is a government really lead by citizen instead of by a kind of dictatorship, that's will really hurt their business. Dictatorship of any color for them are the same.

It would certainly be interesting to have supported the White army (including landing troops) and then fund the reds. I don’t believe this happened but that whole time period is incredibly complex and every time I think I understand part of it, it turns out I don’t.

White army was actively supported by UK, France, USA, Italy, Japan (White Siberian/Kolčak Army for Japan) and many others, even with landing troops, but after the substantial defeat and the food crisis of 1921-23 UK came in through "Save the Children" (formally and NGO created to help Russians people in trouble with Bolshevik government approval) and taking advantage of Lenin health crisis they offer support to Stalin and they maintain it for many years becoming de facto a "new economic friend" like Germany was for Lenin.

It didn't hurt that there were many traitors among FDR's administration.

Maybe there were some, can you elaborate. Where's the evidence? I always thought there were a few american communists walking around then, but they had few misconceptions about the evil of russia if they paid attention at all.

The big thing was the leader of the us was dying, probably of cancer.


Also you can read up separately on Harry Dexter White.

Edit to add: it wasn't until Khrushchev that the crimes of Stalin were revealed, and that was 1956. See the "Secret Speech" https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/On_the_Cult_of_Personality_a...

Thanks for the info. That was a good read. It was maybe a little more than I suspected, but I still think a lot of different countries had people from the US spying on them. I guess the communists in the US were true believers, instead of just economic agents. A lot of people were discovered by https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Elizabeth_Bentley it looks like.

I think the lessons in negotiation to be learned would be better explained by showing how the many mistakes made by the Americans and the Brits in giving away too much to Stalin could possibly have been avoided, rather than showing how Stalin's treachery worked in the short term.

Next up: "Lessons in resource management and controlling unruly populations by Stalin in Ukraine".


You're being downvoted, but surely we can do better than trying to learn from a monster?

Hacker News loves its iron-fisted rulers.

To control unruly population, bolsheviks used to use more efficient methods.

> The Bolshevik forces used chemical weapons "from end of June 1921 until apparently the fall of 1921", by direct order from the leadership of Red Army and from the Communist Party.


The main principles of the post-war world were negotiated by Stalin and Roosevelt before Yalta - at the Teheran conference in 1942.

Roosevelt spent a few days in the Soviet ambasy together with Stalin and they agreed on how to divide the world - divide Germany, split China and Japan, get rid of the British and French empires, etc.

> In hindsight Stalin was a bad dude

That's a great understatement for the single guy responsible for an amount of deaths 10 times greater than WWII casualties.

edit: number typo

No matter how bad Stalin was, please don't post unsubstantive flamebait to Hacker News.


I think that was awkwardly worded, but seemed to be expressing the stance of the US in 1945.

I don't think it's entirely accurate, though. Yes, the US had to align with USSR, yes the public face was he was our ally, but the US was already aware he was a "bad dude." In fact, the US would have no reservations kicking off a public campaign to that end immediately following the war.

Charles Lindbergh's views that the US should stay out of the war, allow Germany and Russia to fight each other to exhaustion, then show up to mop up the weak remainder of the military, seem rather prescient...

Actually, Patton proposed marching the US Army to Moscow in the immediate aftermath of the Nazi surrender but was pushed out of active leadership, in part for suggesting that. For some reason, Americans (then and now) are a little defensive about Stalin's legacy of mass murder on a scale greater even than Hitler. It's inexplicable.

I don't think we're saying different things.

"Yes, the US had to align with USSR" to take 50% of the cake while paying 5%.

I don't think you're engaging in good faith here.

HN guidelines include "Assume good faith". Please do.

So 85 millions died in ww2, that's not even casualties. How did you get to 850 millions?

> 10 times greater than WWII casualties

Any actual data on that? As far as I know it was exaggerated a lot, and real numbers show different view: https://www.nybooks.com/daily/2011/01/27/hitler-vs-stalin-wh...

That is untrue.

If people die of famine during your reign and not from a direct kill order, that doesn't make it not your fault.

Yep, it’s only around 2x as many.

The public count was over 60million deaths (he moved entire populations from a country to another), without accounting for all those not coming from direct orders but caused from small villages militia in an era of speech and thought repression.

1984 was written at that time, after all.

5x seems like a good approximate however, long-term consequences of the genocide against the russians are huge, e.g., the population size would be comparable to the one in the US

I wouldn't talk about the evidently poor quality of this article. What I truly don't understand is how repulsive and intellectually poor topics like Stalin get to be #1 on the front-page. Surely people wouldn't have upvoted this if the name happened to be Hitler. Surely we have plenty of Western literature on negotiation that doesn't involve a turd and pagan mass murder like Stalin whose negotiation skills are at best a result of accidents and lucky coincidences. Why is Stalin less repulsive for the HN crowd? What exactly makes Stalin intellectually interesting?

Are Americans so poorly knowledgeable of Western literature they find this well versed but empty writing interesting?

It is an interesting thing through in your comment. Once historical person is morally bad, the person just can't be skilled or good at something - success must be coincidence and luck. ThE same way as people get angry if you say that Hitler was not all that bad painter.

That is just not how it is. Murderous psychopath can achieve success due to talents and hard work etc - neither makes him less guilty.

What makes Stalin or Hitler intellectually interesting are their tactics and abilities. The next succesfully murderous dictator will have them too. Else he would just stayed violent young man.

I get your point but Stalin was not an intellectual and has never been considered one, not even by the Intelligentsia and much less by western intellectuals. It's not a case of good or bad, the man simply wasn't very bright. I welcome you to read any of his writings, he was a historicist and a refuter of science (Lysenkoism) much like his peers.

To understand Stalin's "success", you must first understand Russia and its history.

The idea that we can just profile Stalin/Hitler and what not, then try to find people that fit that profile to keep them away from power is at best naive and at worst dangerous.

Intellectuals rarely raise to power. So, I dunno why I should expect Stalin to be intellectual. It is almost by definition. In order to raise to power you have to seek it or at least to embrace it and bw able to keep it in dirty competition. Intellectuals are concerned with something else.

And no, neither Stalin nor Hitler were merely passive victims of unchangeable history flow. Both made conscious decisions that made them who they were and how much power they gained.

Stalin was a terrible actor for his country but calling his actions "Be inconsistent and unfair" is a fastfood-history propaganda.

I wish people stopped using throwaway accounts for every unpopular opinion on HN.

>> Roosevelt was probably sicker and had to travel all the way to Ukraine.

Ukraine? I'll just leave this map link: https://www.loc.gov/resource/g7011f.ct004274/?r=0.032,0.683,...

P.S. I know, I know, but please, don't confuse history with momentary politics

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