Game of Thrones: Night King’s 10 Leadership Lessons

Night King’s rule demonstrated the consistency of strengths and weaknesses that define many dictatorships throughout history.

Season 8 of the TV series Game of Thrones demonstrates the main strengths and weaknesses of dictatorship very clearly, from the Inca Empire to Stalin’s Communist project.

(================= possible spoilers alert====================)N


  • Unsurpassed ability to concentrate all available resources on a task of the highest priority.
  • Short response times, quick cycles of learning and innovation.
  • High maneuverability. No effort wasted on building consensus and following the rules.
  • Lower maintenance.
  • High ability to absorb peripheral shocks and tolerate attrition.
  • Political cohesion and ideological consistency.


  • Extreme vulnerability to any failure at the top level, like incapacitation of the dictator, his miscalculations, isolation, treason of a key aide or gatekeeper.
  • A shallow pool of talent and a narrower range of experimentation and learning.
  • Fragility: poor at regrouping under pressure and reassembling itself under a changed framework.
  • Power succession is a critical, almost never successful, bottleneck.
Game of Thrones Night Kings merit list
Game of Thrones: Night King’s merit list

Narcissism is a risky luxury in Russia

Russia provides a rather hostile environment for people too full of themselves.

In Russia’s millennium-long winner-takes-it-all history, the country has produced surprisingly few famous narcissists. Those who caught the public limelight, were brought down rather swiftly: Emperor Pavel I, Alexander Kerensky, Lev Trotsky, Mikhail Gorbachev, Boris Berezovsky.

It looks like the hammer and anvil of Russian self-doubt and imperial despotism kept weeding out the kindreds of Trump, Sarkozy, and Berlusconi in our neck of the woods. If you insist on putting your head high above the parapet, sooner or later the wrath of Russian gods takes you down. That’s the wisdom most Russian babies absorb with their mothers’ milk.

Stalin, for decades living in the sweetest spot of unrestrained glorification, never seemed to be relishing the moment. He just used it as a torchlight for spotting hidden enemies—those who either admired him too much, or too little.

The same is true for Putin. Watch Putin’s facial expression when someone tries to dissolve themselves in humility and awe before the Russian President: “Was that Judas’ kiss?”.

The brilliant Germa philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche famously said: “If you gaze long enough into an abyss, the abyss will gaze back into you.” It seems, in Russia, you don’t need to stare into the abyss to get noticed. All it takes is to be full of yourself. If you bask in your own impossible awesomeness long enough, at the end of the day the abyss will find you.

In a recent Russian TV series about Trotsky, his alleged narcissism is shown as one of the major reasons he lost the power game against Stalin. The creators of the series also hold his narcissism agaisnt him as something that revealed his uncompatibility with Russia’s culture and hate of our country.

How Siberia became Russian, and not Chinese?

Unlike China, Russia in the 17th century had a singular focus on pelt trade.

Siberia was conquered by Russian-Turkic cossack gangs for a singular, purely economic reason: furs.

For Russia, the fur exports in the 17th century played about the same role as petroleum now. By the start of the 18th century, they gave requisite cash flow for Peter the Great’s wars against Swedes and Crimean Tatars that resulted in the rise of the Russian Empire.

For the Chinese, furs had no particular value compared to other colonial wares. There was little else that could motivate them to spend precious resources on controlling these vast, barren expanses to the north. This is why they preferred to let locals harvest the territories for pelts without imposing military control or a dedicated arrangements for taxation

Besides, the Chinese didn’t possess the military technology for penetrating these territories. Cossacks, on the contrary, were made for the task. They operated as small, autonomous, highly mobile troops with firearms. They knew how to quickly construct ad hoc river vessels for traveling longer distances on the water (thank you, Varangians!). They combined this with traversing the wilderness between watercourses on foot—the task seemingly impossible for the massive, cavalry-based Manchu troops.

When Cossacks imposed control over Siberia and the northern part of the Far East, they took over much of the deliveries to China. For them, this was a high-volume and mostly low-margin business that included large deliveries of squirrels and hares. Mink, sable, bever, sea otters were typically dispatched to Muskovy, where they fetched a better price. Later, when permanent logistics were established along the Pacific coasts of northern Asia and Alaska, they added sea otters to this lineup.

Cossacks collect fur taxes from Siberian tribe.
Picture: a XIX-century watercolor by an anonymous artist visualizing Cossacks who collect fur taxes from a Siberian tribe.

Russian bombings and Syrian refugees

Russian military involvement in Syria happened after the main mass of refugees in Syria had been displaced.

The “refugee-triggering” factor has often been mentioned in Western media as President Putin’s power tool in dealings with Europe. Admittedly, he could ramp up the military activity in Syria and release new waves of refugees across the Mediterranean if the West refused to play along.

However, the Russian involvement in Syria happened after the main groups of Syrian refugees had been displaced, as demonstrated by the graph below. Besides, a pressure by generating masses of refugees is too awkward to manage: Turkey sits in the middle, and this makes Erdogan, not Putin, the holder of this trump card in haggling with Europe.

The chaos of uncontrolled immigration to Europe was certainly a welcome bonus for Putin in his game of weakening Angela Merkel ahead of the 2017 German elections. But it was unlikely his deliberate calculation ahead of the Syria campaign.

Medieval Russia compared to the rest of Europe

The Russian heartland could sustain limited population because of too little arable land and harsh climate.

Russia is situated on the edge of the climatic zone where traditional European agriculture such as grain production, can be practiced. During the continental warming in the late-Middle Ages, bumper crops happened more often. Still, harvests failures because of weather were a much more serious factor than in territories further west and south.

Most of Russian peasants up to the Imperial times practiced migrational single-field agriculture. It could give up to 10x the input the first year, only to drop to a fraction of that the second year. Which defined the precarious nature of living in the Russian woods.

In the East Slav territories in the time of Varangians and Kievan Rus (IX-XIII centuries), there was another major challenge: no roads. Almost all transportation required access to rivers. This made delivery of excess produce to other areas very problematic. Russia got permanent markets, and the mercantile class in the cities several centuries later than the countries to the west. (The Hanseatic enclaves in Novgorod and Pskov, later destroyed by Moscovy dukes, were the few exceptions). No wonder the Russian word yármarka (seasonal market) came from German, torgóvlya (trade) from Scandinavian, bazár (local market), déngi (money) and tavár (goods) from Turkic.

Russian dukes and their gangs lived primarily from taxing the cargo passing between the Black, Caspian and Baltic Seas—before the XIII century a very lucrative trade—as well as from occasional conquests.

To sum it up, the elites lived much like now, in habitual opulence, often surpassing the luxury of the Western aristocracy, yet punctuated by occasional blows of misfortune. The rest of the population had to struggle against harsher realities of East European nature and weather.

It required the spread of two-field and three-field agriculture brought to us by German settlers, as well as the annexation of fertile steppe lands in the south in the XVIII century, to create the economic base for larger swathes of population comparable with more benign areas in the Central and Western Europe.

arable land former European part of USSR
The map shows how little arable land there was in the Russian heartland north of the Cumanian prairies. The subsistence farming was a serious constraint for the population growth until the Russian Empire managed to conquer the fertile areas in Ukraine and southern Russia.

What Russians think about Estonia

Tiny alien territory very close to our heartland is the best description of Estonia’s place in Russian history.

Estonia, like the rest of the Baltic states, was part of the Russian empire since the XVIII century. Aside from the considerable role played by local Germans in the service of the Russian Empire, it didn’t leave very much mark in our collective mind. It was considered a dull periphery, where people speak their unintelligible language going about their dull business on the shores of a dull shallow sea.


This somehow changed in the XX century. After the reconquest of the Baltics in 1940, Estonia, like the rest of them, became a shard of Europe stuck in the hermetically insulated world of the Soviet Communism. For example, their actors were picked to play “Europeans” in our movies, and their tunes were our surrogates for international pop.


We suspected the Estonians didn’t like it very much being stuck with us, so we tried cheering them up with some privileges. Their infrastructure was better, thanks to all the investment in the build-up of bases and the military-industrial complex on their territory. Their grocery shops were better stocked, their writers and artists were allowed to publish things that were oftentimes borderline anti-Soviet.

Switched sides

They didn’t seem to appreciate much any of that. When all things Soviet went pear-shaped at the start of the 1990s, they declared independence, and never looked back.
Now, they are in NATO and EU. They got a Russian-speaking minority that became a sort of new lower class, and sometimes complains very loudly about inequality and discrimination, but never moves back to Russia.


Our attitude to Estonians, like to the rest of the Balts, is very much like of an ex from a lousy relationship. We were sort of married, but it never felt like marriage. More like roommates with privileges. Now imagine your former ex who you tried hard to impress and act cool, but who is now with some other guy, and tells everyone left and right that you were not cool at all.

It kinda hurts.

Disclaimer: The word “Balts” used here is what Russians use about all the three Baltic nations. Most of us know that Estonian language is not related to the other two, but belongs to the Ugro-Finnish group. “Balts” (or the older “pribálty”) denotes geography, not ethnicity or language.

“Defense initiatives” never been the Kremlin’s game

The Kremlin has no history of “defense initiatives” and is traditionally suspicious when others do that.

I worked in propaganda in the heyday of the anti-Pershing II campaigns, SALT/START negotiations and the “Star Wars” scare. I recognize much of the same logic in the Russian response nowadays.

Tip of the iceberg

First of all, whatever NATO does, it always finds both staunch opponents and gleeful challengers (“oh yeah, let’s beat these Yankees in their own game!”) among our generals and heavyweights in the military-industrial complex. The policy-makers always voice whatever gives them most leverage, or complaint points, at the negotiation table. Which means, the objections may disappear the moment we get something in return for our grievances.

Catch-up game

Second, strategic anti-missile systems have never been the field where our side was eager to compete. It was considered a high-tech stuff where the West seemed to have an unfair advantage because of the sheer size of resources they could throw at it. This is why the range of suggested reactions to President Reagans “Strategic Defense Initiative” among the Soviet decision-makers varied wildly between panicked red-level strategic deployment around the time of KAL-007 shoot-down to the “let’s sit down and talk” moves that came to fruition during Mikhail Gorbachev’s Perestroika.

Brute force

We always found most reassurance in the brute force of MAD counterbalancing. Since the defeat of Tatars, no one could ever beat us when brute force decided the outcome. Anything that circumvents brute force is therefore in our books a trickery, a ruse, a threat.

The level of distress caused by the US Strategic defense initiative spawned an entire sub-genre of visual propaganda. anti-anti-missile posters. The space shuttle program was believed to be a crucial part of the anti-missile system. Therefore: “No!” to space shuttles.

“Strategic defense initiative – life danger!”

“Stop the militarization of the outer space!”

“Peace to the outer space! SDI is dangerous insanity”

“SDI: the final rain of gold!”

“Another turn”

Why the Communists don’t like the past?

The defining feature of Communism is a forward-projection. Progressivism is its main driver.

All known ideologies and systems of belief can be grouped in two:

  • Tradition-bound
  • Forward-projected


The tradition-bound people go about their life with their heads turned to the past. It gives them the guidance of a known path, the safety of tested-and-tried solutions, the moral code of long-existing beliefs and rituals. Future for them is the source of disturbance, uncertainty. The future is where enemies, misfortunes and death are laying in wait, to do away each of us, one after one—or, if we are not vigilant, everyone in one fell swoop.

Forward projection

The forward-projected people are the creatures of escape. The world, as they know it, is too boring, too ugly, too absurd. It’s in our power to change it to something more exciting, more beautiful, more sensible. Even the weakest and most insignificant among us still have the ability to tweak a little bit of it to the better, if we gather all imagination, magnanimity and the thirst for perfection everyone possesses.

Escape from the present

Communists are the most radical and action-oriented faction among the forwards-projected people. They do not necessarily believe that the past is only bad. Still, the present for Communists is little else but a swelling cesspool of our accumulated blunders, illusions and crimes, with some occasional gems of nascent meaning floating in the waste matter. The cause of making a better future out of the deeply flawed present requires an outright rejection of the past.

Class struggle

When the time for action comes, and the banner of revolution is raised high and visible for all, a lot of people strongly object to revolutionaries taking away their stuff and destroying their lives. The sheer logic of power struggle that comes with it, greatly amplifies the forward-projected worldview, and makes Communists even less inclined to preserve anything from the past.

“Take hostages, according to yesterday’s telegram. Make it so that for hundreds of miles around people take notice, tremble, know, shout: bloodsuckers and kulaks are being strangled, smothered. Report the execution. Yours, Lenin. P.S. Find more result-oriented people.”

(Vladimir Lenin)

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a rough gem of propaganda

Irrespective of AOC’s political views and the public persona, we need to recognize her unique PR talent.

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is a rare gem. She has the full potential to become a shining star of propaganda of Donald Trump’s caliber. No wonder anyone slightly more moderate than Bernie Sanders runs around scared.

Irrespective of her political views and the public persona, we need to recognize AOC’s unique PR talent.

  • She has the drive and energy of a firebrand leader of peasant uprising. Bleach her hair and give her turquoise contact lenses-and send her to audition to any Jeanne d’Arc role she wants.
  • She combines the vocabulary and panache of an Ivy League graduate with the decibel level, hand-flailing and obnoxiousness of a Middle-Eastern bazaar lady.
  • Like President Trump, she speaks in short, strongly modulated sentences that just stick to the listener’s brains. But unlike Trump, she also knows grammar. Which allows her to reach out to simple folks and angry intellectuals at the same time.
  • AOC uses President Trump’s technique of shortcutting logic by stringing sentences by association. Like him, she picks short, simple, emotionally charged words, and never shirks from repeating them, hammering them down throughout the speech.
  • Like Trump, she is preternaturally attuned to the media reality where no one wants to hear speeches longer than three sentences.

The concept art below expresses my thrill when I imagine a public debate between President Trump and AOC sometime. “Alien vs Predator of Propaganda” would be a show of the century.

Battle of propaganda titans

Three reasons to read (and not to read) “Scorched Earth”, by Jörg Baberowski

The book “Scorched Earth”, by Jörg Baberowski contains an exhaustive description of the tool set of violence used by the most successful practitioner of Communism, Iosif Stalin.

German historian Jörg Baberowski was a Communist in his youth. He learned Russian, specialized in Russian imperial history, and is now recognized as one of the leading experts on Stalinism. His approach to the issue of politically motivated violence earned him a hate on the part of German leftist groups who call him a “right-wing extremist“.

In his book Scorched Earth: Stalin’s Reign of Terror, Jörg Baberowski analyzes the preconditions and driving forces for the reign of terror installed by the Bolsheviks during the first decades of the Soviet rule.

Three reasons to READ the book

  1. The book is a true fountainhead of quotes about Communism, Russia and Soviet Union coming from a dizzying array of personalities–from the dissident poet Joseph Brodsky to obscure Soviet functionaries. Many of the quotes are quite controversial. If you want to stir an epic discussion in an online forum with a lot of Russians and/or Communists, you find here much potent fuel to pour into the ideological flames.
  2. The book provides an exhaustive, albeit sometimes too verbose, description of the tool set of totalitarian violence every aspiring dictator needs in order to stay on the top of the game.
  3. Many years of anti-Stalinist research in the midst of the left-leaning European academia has taught the author to pick the words and arguments that have a lot of punch. For such a heavy subject, the book is an easy read.

Three reasons to SKIP the book

  1. Either it’s the author’s Catholic roots, or the remorse of his Communist past–either way, the text seems way too judgmental to my taste. “Stalin was a murderer who took pleasure in destruction and harm,” Baberowski writes. This moral indignation may compromise his approach if you want to look at the issue of violence from a revolutionary’s point of view.
  2. As a meticulous researcher, Baberowski find few details too small to add to his narrative.
  3. Violence in a land of a triumphant Communist revolution is a gory affair–especially in Eastern Europe. The wealth of horrendous details from the basements of Stalin’s secret service and his killing fields in the book is simply too tiring.

Quotes from the book:

People who know nothing but dictatorship develop different standards of valuation than people who were once free and then lose their freedom. After the reign of terror there were no longer any competing interpretative elites, no church as a moral institution, no emigration with a voice, no reminders of the time before communism, no Western television, no “brothers and sisters” abroad, and no occupiers to blame for the misery and oppression. There was nothing but the dictatorship, either in the present or in the past.

“Stalin is not dead. The ax outlives its master.

Scorched Earth: Stalin’s Reign of Terror, by Jörg Baberowski
Scorched Earth Stalin's Reign of Terror Jorg Baberowski
Cover of the German original of “Scorched Earth: Stalin’s Reign of Terror”, by Jörg Baberowski