Santa Clara University

An Economic 'Detective Story'

The Hidden History of Marketing in the Soviet Union

For most of its existence the Soviet Union’s leaders viewed marketing as a capitalist tool to promote excessive consumption, with no place in a society based on Marxist-Leninist principles.

So when Karen F.A. Fox, professor of marketing at SCU’s Leavey School of Business, went to Russia in 1998 as a Fulbright lecturer in marketing, she was struck by how many Russians were teaching marketing classes just a few years after the Soviet Union’s collapse.

“I said to myself, ‘Who are all these people teaching marketing? What are their backgrounds?’ It was a mystery to me, since I knew there had been no graduate education in marketing during the Soviet era, so I started asking questions,” Fox said.

That was the beginning of a line of research that Fox said was “like a detective story.” It led to a collaboration with two Russian academics, Irina I. Skorobogatykh and Olga V. Saginova, and to the publication of a series of articles, first on the backgrounds of Russian marketing professors and ultimately an article in Marketing Theory, “The Soviet Evolution of Marketing Thought, 1961-1991: From Marx to Marketing.”

Fox met the two women when she went to a conference in St. Petersburg looking for academics from Moscow who could tell her about the preparation of new marketing professors. Before starting to teach marketing, Saginova had been an instructor in English and Skorobogatykh had been an applied economist doing consumer research for a government agency. From their first meeting, said Fox, “we found a real connection and our work together has been a true collaboration.” Fox suggested lines of inquiry, and the other two were involved in shaping the historical work and locating valuable sources.

They discovered that there had always been people doing marketing work in the Soviet Union. Even though the word “marketing” was anathema, the Soviet Union still needed to produce goods, put prices on them, and make them available to consumers. The drive to earn foreign exchange also meant that the Soviet Union also needed to understand how to produce and sell attractive goods as well as raw materials to overseas buyers.

A turning point in attitudes came when the Soviet Union signed the 1975 Helsinki Accords, which covered mutual trade and marketing, as well as human rights. Encouraged by that document, some forward-looking Soviet economists formed the Marketing Section of the USSR Chamber of Commerce in Moscow in 1976.

Fox and her colleagues located written materials about the section and its work, but more important was talking with two of its founding board members, Professors Boris Soloviev and Igor Kretov.

“They were both well into their seventies and still professionally active, which is amazing when you consider that the life expectancy for a Russian male is 59,” Fox said. “If we (or someone else) had decided to explore this five or ten years later, I don’t know if these important developments would ever have been documented. We feel very fortunate that we could tell this story.”

The interview with Kretov filled in a major gap in Soviet marketing history. He was one of the translators of Philip Kotler’s seminal textbook Marketing Management, which was the first Western marketing book to be translated and published in the Soviet Union, back in 1980. However, the Soviet version was 227 pages, less than half the length of the English-language version — the result of going through the KGB’s censorship bureau.

The paper produced by Fox and her colleagues provides an extensive list of Soviet marketing experts with biographical information and a list of publications that might have moldered for years in Russian archives had the team not discovered them.

“I feel this paper is the best thing I’ve ever done,” Fox said. “We felt we had unique access to people and documents that enabled us to tell an important story, and we have saved from obscurity a number of people who quietly made a difference.”

As for the answer to Fox’s initial question, many new marketing instructors in the 1990s had previously taught a quite different subject: the Soviet-era mandatory courses on Marxism-Leninism.

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