Series Preview: Kremlinology Then and Now

MIN READMay 22, 2015 | 19:18 GMT

Reva Bhalla: Hello my name is Reva Bhalla and today I am joined by Lauren Goodrich, our Eurasian Analyst, to discuss the evolution of Kremlinology. So, Lauren, one thing I know about you, is that you perversely love to drown yourself in Kremlin politics. Given that, and when we talk about Kremlinology as a concept, as a study, what exactly should we know, what is Kremlinology?

Lauren Goodrich: Kremlinology is taking the countless number of pine needles and trying to see the forest. So, you're taking every little scrap of information inside of Russia, be it photographs of the elites, who attended what meeting within the Kremlin, who stood next to who, who was speaking with whom, whose wife was lunching with whom, and figuring out the connections and relationships within the Kremlin. That gives you a picture of three things: First, it shows you what is the ultimate power structure within the Kremlin and the stability of the ultimate leader within the Kremlin, be it the Soviet leader or the current Russian president. What is the distribution of assets and wealth within the Kremlin, and who holds and gets to make decisions within those assets of wealth. And third, what's the overall stability of the Russian state itself, because of the stability of the Kremlin?

Reva: And that is something that can evolve very very rapidly, as we have seen in history. So if were looking at old school, cold war politics, what would you see as the most interesting examples of where Kremlinologists were having a field day in picking out those little nuances of who was showing up next to whom, and sitting next to whom and what you were able to gleam from that, from Khrushcev after Stalin and onwards?

Lauren: Well, the transition after Stalin was the most obvious, because who could replace Stalin? There were about eight members within the Kremlin who were in Stalin's inner circle, who were the most obvious successors to Stalin. It took about 5 years of struggles before there was an actual succession that took place. The most obvious person to succeed Stalin was the head of the Communist Party, Malenkov. The problem was, is that leading up to Stalin's death, the years before his death, there was a certain person named Khrushchev, who wanted power. He just wasn't the obvious candidate to take power; he was from Ukraine, he was not from Stalin's inner circle. He was the dark horse, very much like Putin was, and so Khrushchev started making some very small power plays, that to the common person would not look like a power play. But, if you were studying the Kremlin as obsessively as we do, then it's a piece of the puzzle. Two years before Stalin died, Khrushchev started a series of publication in the Communist Party newspaper, against Stalin's wishes. That was unheard of. It really kind of set him up to be almost a rival to whatever happened after Stalin. So, as soon as Stalin passed, it was obvious that Khrushchev couldn't take power himself; he had to align with one of the power players. He chose the most powerful, which was the head of the NKVD, Beria, and him and Beria sidelined Malenkov in order to make sure he did not succeed Stalin.

Reva: But Beria was not safe in the end.

Lauren: No, Khrushchev wanted power for himself. So as soon as they had sidelined Malenkov, then Khrushchev ended up siding with Molotov, and they came up with a plan to get rid of Beria. Now, you can't just get rid of Beria, he's the head of the NKVD. What they needed was the Russian military. Now, the Soviet military at the time was actually fighting in Eastern Germany, was suppressing a descent movement in Eastern Germany. So they had to wait six months. So, the hint that we saw as kremlinologists is to see the Soviet military actually come back to Moscow; why would they come back to Moscow? Then, within a few weeks, you had the swift, rapid move of Khrushchev and Molotov having Beria arrested by the actual Soviet military.

Reva: Then, of course, we had Andropov come after that, coming from the KGB side. So, multiple security agencies, being a critical instrument of any power struggle within the Kremlin, are absolutely essential to watch.

Lauren: That's why the power circles within the Kremlin really do focus much more on the security circles, instead of the financers, the economists, the businessmen, the oligarchs, none of them actually have the power compared to the security services.

Reva: But they still play a big role and have a loud voice, as we even see today. So, moving more into contemporary politics, we've seen Putin, for many years, also emerging as a dark horse, like Khrushchev did, and coming in more easily post-Yeltsin, as sort of the savior of Russia. SO how would you say he faired for the bulk of his term in office, when it came to managing all of those different little struggles?

Lauren: Putin has been incredibly successful when it comes arbitrating all the various elites in Russia. The way he's done it is that he may have come in on the back of the FSB but he knew that he had to have loyalists outside of the FSB, especially given the rivals within the FSB. So he's had loyalists from the GREU, from the oligarchs, from the business circles that liberal economists even, such as Medvedev, have been all-loyal to Putin. He created a balance over the past 15 years that was really unheard of.

Reva: A really diversified power base.

Lauren: And one that he constantly shifts.

Reva: Sure, and he kept everyone on his toes, but everything that Putin wanted, usually happened right? It wasn't really as big of a question. So, when did you see things really start to shift, because Putin is having a much harder times these days in managing each of these power factions, what was the turning point there?

Lauren: I would say that it's two turning points over the past year and a half. The first turning point came when the FSB and Putin were blindsided by events in Ukraine. Russia was taken off guard, and Russia failed to prevent the uprising in Ukraine, the change in government in Kiev, and they were unable to react afterwards, in having a grand uprising in Ukraine to reinstate a pro-Russian government. It was a failure. And Putin blamed the FSB. So, right after the event in Ukraine took place, we saw a very dramatic shift in that the portfolio for Ukraine was taken away from the FSB and it was given to someone who is very loyal, if not a senior member of the GREU, the military intelligence unity, the rival to the FSB. That was a very big shift. The second big shift is the drop in oil prices. Russia doesn't have the financial assets that it used to have to keep all of the elites happy. So, the elites are starting to power-grab and struggle over money itself. That's a very hard thing to arbitrate when you're talking about money and power.

Reva: Absolutely, and we see Igor Sechin, for example, and Rosneft, what are they asking for, $40 billion something dollars now from the Kremlin, from various loans and everything else, and it's a real question of how exactly Putin is going to manage different factions when you have these big, state champions who are in such dire financial need. But, that gives him a little bit of leverage as well, doesn't it?

Lauren: It's interesting for Sechin, because he may be considered a businessmen, because he's head of Rosneft but he's also FSB, and he's aligned with the FSB. So, having the FSB power wane over the past year and a half, over event in Ukraine, that trickles all the way down into what is the future of Rosneft and the oil production inside of Russia. Everything is interconnected, between the elite fights and the overall state of Russia itself.

Reva: How would you roughly outline the sketch of the current power struggle within the Kremlin?

Lauren: There's a lot of power struggles taking place, but the most important one that we've seen evolve since the events in Ukraine took place, are between the FSB and the primary, non-FSB rivals, which is a very loosely oriented faction around Presidential aide Surkov, who has a lot of influence within the GREU and holds the Ukraine portfolio now and between Chechen President Kadyrov, who is very close with Surkov, and a lot of the forces within the Interior Ministry, which the Interior Troops, are considered a great rival to the FSB. So, those two competing factions, FSB and non-FSB, are the most important groups competing at this time.

Reva: So, Putin is dealing with an economic crisis, an enduring standoff with the West, where the United States is keeping many of its options open, trying to get sanctions lifted, all while trying to manage the power-politics within the Kremlin. Certainly he has his hands full. I think it's going to be a growing question whether he will be able to manage as effectively as we've seen him do earlier in his term. Good thing for our readers is that next week, we'll be publishing a four-part series that Lauren has worked on, on the evolution of kremlinology, to really put into context both the historical examples that we've seen of Kremlin power-politics, the little signs that you watch for and how that's evolved today. So, please check out that four-point series on our website,, and thank you for joining us today. 

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