Ed, as a student of Russian history (really, he is) will be the first to tell you that a Soviet Style has nothing whatsoever to do with “politics” or your political orientation. Rather it is a style your adversary takes based on a somewhat traditional Russian approach that predates by many decades the current regime and is by no means used exclusively by them.

Americans typically approach the negotiation process  – whether between or among friends, politicians or business people – as a process which will be largely dictated by logic, the respective needs of all parties and which is commenced with the intention of reaching some mutually agreeable end result.  A term such as “meeting in the middle” is emblematic of the approach most Americans employ at least at the beginning of such negotiations.  Such an approach is hardly universal and in some cultures is considered downright, laughable. You must never assume that the “other side” views negotiations in the same way as you do or you run the risk of losing your shirt.

Sometimes for good reasons a photographer and/or agent wants to do a specific job or work for a particular client “no matter what”.  Therefore, the photographer won’t walk away from the deal or say “no” under almost any circumstances.  The other party knowing or even suspecting that such is the case can then goes, well, “Soviet” on them. Meaning they state their position and that’s it. There’s no moving to the middle or anywhere near the middle.

Decades ago Herb Cohen, authored a classic bestseller entitled, “You Can Negotiate Anything“.  A terrific book on negotiating techniques and strategies, the author referenced the aggressive, bad faith negotiating style characteristic of the Russian government – back then The Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (a/k/a “Soviet Union”). His book popularized the term “Soviet style negotiation” and diplomats, artisans, sales people, indeed almost every person who has ever lived, has experienced the approach in one form or another. Sometimes it’s a screaming three year old in the supermarket or toy store, and sometimes even a much older art director. “I want it and I want it now. Nothing else will do!”

Let’s get even more real world for you, dear reader. Our version of the concept of a party “going Soviet” as it may apply to a photo assignment, job, etc:

A party who treats the negotiation process as a game which will produce a winner and a loser – not two mutually satisfied or dissatisfied parties – is likely to go Soviet. In this case the other party wants to win, win completely, and satisfy his/her needs at all costs.
There is simply no need to make the other side content, as the goal is to get what one wants and not to “make friends” or have a Kumbaya moment. This is the opposite of what we like to call a win/win. This win at all costs approach may include manipulation, intimidation, and even dare we say it, lying.

One popular technique is playing other bidders (real or imagined) against each other, inciting them to do battle against each other and by so doing making the other side believe there is no available option other than to cave in. “We have another photographer willing to do this job for $???” Also called a “straw man” as many times there is no other, cheaper photographer. Otherwise, why are they speaking to you? Concessions when you make them are viewed not as a good faith effort to reach common ground, but as a sign of weakness.

Another popular approach clients take is when they start flaying like a boxer, putting you off your game and your game plan. Think of a heavy weight boxer coming out slugging in a seemingly wild effort from the opening bell.  Remember how former Heavyweight Champion Mike Tyson who had most of his opponents “beaten in their own minds” before the fight really got started? Rather than as most “boxers” of the time, he didn’t take time to size up his opponent, he struck fear literally and figuratively into his opponents immediately, by coming out swinging away. As Tyson famously said, “Everyone has a plan until they get hit.” When photographers get “punched” right away by such a client making demands they didn’t expect, without any room for negotiating, they are, well, dumbstruck.

So what to do when faced with such a strategy? Let your “Soviet Provocateur” know that you know exactly what is going on. Let them know in no uncertain terms that their approach does not afford you the ability to pursue discussions such that there is any likelihood that a deal can be made.  Refuse to play the game and let your adversary know it.  If you still want the job/client, put them on notice sternly, politely and early on that you “won’t do the dance”. Of course this means you have to be willing to walk away, and actually mean it.

Remember, any party that assumes the “take no prisoners”, “scorched Earth” policy from the get go is very likely to assume that very same approach, all during the job you so desperately wanted. The negotiating period should be like dating, it’s the honeymoon phase, all love and lollipops. The actual job will be the marriage itself. If the “negotiating honeymoon” is rough, you better tighten your seatbelt for the ride during the job.

At that point you will remember the popular fable from your grammar school days, one that is repeated in countless cultures through the world, The Scorpion and the Frog, with you playing the frog. You knew the scorpion’s nature before you started the job.