The increasing opacity of Russian politics has opened a window of opportunity for Kremlinology to make a comeback. Many people ridicule the field of study as little more than reading tea leaves, but it can be a helpful analytical tool when done properly.
The standard dictionary definition of Kremlinology is “the study of the policies and practices of the former Soviet government” (Merriam-Webster), rendering it synonymous with Sovietology. The Urban Dictionary offers a more relevant definition: “The art of observing, deducing, and guessing what is really happening within a secretive organization.”
I see Kremlinology as the formalized study of hard facts in a closed society, observing appointments, organization, decrees, and formal speeches. Kremlinology has no role in an open society, but Russia today is no open society, though it is far from Soviet. The Kremlin offers plenty of information today, notably through President Vladimir Putin’s magnificent website, of which Steve Lee Myers has made eminent use in his book The New Tsar, but disinformation thrives as never before, best illustrated by Peter Pomerantsev.
In Stalin’s time, the world usually learned about ousters from the semiannual reviews at the Lenin Mausoleum on November 7 and May 1; Soviet newspapers published photos of the whole party elite on these occasions, providing a meticulous documentation of their ranking. Wondering how it was done, I attended an official reception of Prime Minister Nikolai Ryzhkov in 1987. When Ryzhkov arrived, the senior officials swiftly arranged themselves into their correct protocol positions. Protocol matters in closed hierarchical states, which Kremlinology utilizes.
Today, the Kremlin publishes multiple photos from top-level meetings, and it matters who attends and where they sit. When Putin gathered his Economic Council on May 25, liberal Alexei Kudrin sat far down the table, in a lower spot than hardline adviser Sergei Glaziev. Thus, Kudrin was getting nowhere. No Western journalist noted that fact at the time. Since December 2011, Ivanov always sat closest to Putin, showing that he was number two in the Kremlin, a fact which was also ignored.
A common view is that Putin is a full-fledged dictator, but that is a simplistic view. It matters which bodies are important and how they interact. At present, the Security Council is the real Politburo, the most senior body that meets regularly in a small closed circle chaired by Putin.
Stunningly, Putin does not control its composition. On April 5, he appointed his favorite former chief bodyguard General Viktor Zolotov, the newly-appointed commander of the new powerful National Guard, as a permanent member of the Security Council, but on April 11 another presidential decree demoted him to a mere member, of whom there are dozens, telling us that Putin was unable to defend him.
After Ivanov had been sacked as Chief of Staff, he stayed on the Security Council. Putin only removed the long-retired Interior Minister Rashid Nurgaliev from the Security Council and replaced him with his new Chief of Staff Anton Vaino. Thus, by means of Kremlinology—by studying organizations and appointments and not relying on any “inside” information—we could surmise that the Security Council could oust Putin.
Since April, Russia has seen a major rivalry between the country’s many security services through reorganizations and well-publicized arrests of high-level officials. One side is the FSB, the bulk of the old KGB, and the SVR (the foreign intelligence agency), while their opponents are the FSO (the Presidential Guard), the New National Guard, and Putin’s favorite Chechen President Ramzan Kadyrov. The Ministry of Defense may be an independent player.
Through his radical reorganizations, Putin has showed his preference for the FSO, the National Guard, and Kadyrov. But the opposite, FSB side dominates the 12-member Security Council: Ivanov, National Security Secretary Nikolay Patrushev, FSB Chair Alexander Bortnikov, and SVR chief Mikhail Fradkov. Interior Minister Vladimir Kolokoltsev must not like getting his best parts taken away, and Duma Speaker Sergey Naryshkin is identified with the other KGB generals.
Putin needs to change either the composition of the Security Council fast or make it unimportant, as Mikhail Gorbachev did with the Politburo. Otherwise Putin will sooner or later be ousted. As Talleyrand stated: “You can do anything you like with bayonets except to sit on them.” The Security Council should be front and center in current analysis of Russian politics, but analysts tend to ignore it.
What we ought to be ignoring, rather, is the official propaganda. On August 11, both Ivanov and Putin said that Ivanov had asked to leave after four years. Really? It was as obvious a lie as when Putin in September 2011 claimed that he and Medvedev had agreed four years earlier that Putin would return as President. The sacking of Ivanov came as a complete surprise to all, apart from us Kremlinologists, who saw this serious tension at the heart of the Kremlin, which became evident at the time of the murder of Boris Nemtsov at the Kremlin wall on February 27, 2015.
Similarly, we ought to ignore the more or less official Kremlin propagandists. They are only interesting as generators of Kremlin disinformation. Remember how the Brezhnev Kremlin warned about hardliners who would take over if he were ousted, or how nice a liberal reformer Yuriy Andropov was?
Kremlinology is a sound counterpoise to disinformation.