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May 26, 2015 | 09:00 GMT

6 mins read

Studying the Kremlin in Soviet Times

The art of Kremlinology involves watching hundreds of seemingly unconnected events and pieces move while attempting to draw common threads into a narrative. These relationships and the struggles between them reflected the power and stability of the leader of the Soviet Union, the power and distribution of assets of Russia's most influential institutions, and the overall strength of the state.

Winston Churchill once said, "Kremlin political intrigues are comparable to a bulldog fight under a rug. An outsider only hears the growling, and when he sees the bones fly out from beneath it is obvious who won." It is true that studying the Kremlin's internal struggles is more an art than a science. Stratfor uses systematic approaches in much of its work, though the art of Kremlinology involves watching hundreds of seemingly unconnected events and pieces move while attempting to draw common threads into a narrative. It is an imperfect art but an important one nonetheless, and it is back in demand now that the Kremlin is facing multiple crises. 

Soviet-era Kremlinology was akin to sifting through mounds of pine needles before stepping back to see the whole forest. Kremlinologists studied every meeting to see who participated, looked at published photos to see who stood next to whom, and took note of who attended social events, such as the Bolshoi Ballet, to see which box each member of the elite sat in. Certain factions used various media outlets to publish formal agendas, gossip, slander and disinformation. The Communist Party used Pravda; the Soviet military used Red Star.

Through these varying levels of hints and information, a Kremlinologist could make sense of the ever changing web of alliances, rivals and influencers. These relationships and the struggles between them reflected the power and stability of the leader of the Soviet Union, the power and distribution of assets of Russia's most influential institutions, and the overall strength of the state. The difficulty for outside observers lay in the fact that changes in these relationships and balances of power mostly took place in secret.

After Josef Stalin's death, a power struggle took shape among members of the Kremlin elite. The fight lasted five years, until Nikita Khrushchev managed to purge his opponents. During the struggle, alliances and clans among the elite constantly shifted between personalities, control of assets and levels of power. For example, in the months after Stalin's death, Khrushchev aligned with the head of the secret police, Lavrenti Beria, to oust Communist Party leader Georgy Malenkov. Three months later, Khrushchev teamed up with Malenkov to remove Beria.

At the time, it was inconceivable to outside observers that anyone other than the deceased Stalin could take down Beria. He was, after all, in charge of the most powerful organization in the Soviet Union: the NKVD, which later evolved into the KGB and today's FSB. Malenkov and Khrushchev, who believed Beria would take them down eventually, were careful in their plan, understanding that Beria had eyes and ears in every dark corner. The men knew the only way to take Beria out of the picture was with the support of the Soviet military. They spread rumors that he was a U.S. agent and organized a swift confrontation by calling him to a presidium meeting, where they laid all his transgressions before him while the military waited in the wings to arrest him.

An important aspect of this power shift was that Malenkov and Khrushchev were able to take down the mighty Beria in extreme secrecy. His disappearance went unnoticed for two days, and authorities kept his arrest secret for two weeks before executing him nearly five months later. The first evidence of Beria's fall was his absence from a performance at the Bolshoi Ballet, followed by rumors of arrests of top NKVD officers.

The art of Kremlinology involves watching hundreds of seemingly unconnected events and pieces move while attempting to draw common threads into a narrative.

Secrecy also played a key role in Leonid Brezhnev's plan to oust Khrushchev from office. Knowing he would need a group of power players within the Communist Party on his side, Brezhnev set his plan in motion some six months before Khrushchev stepped down. During these months, evidence that Khrushchev was on his way out mounted: Anti-Khrushchev rhetoric increased in Pravda, the Communist Party's media outlet, and Khrushchev took more vacations away from Moscow, giving Brezhnev room to work more openly against him.

After Brezhnev took office, hints of a significant struggle between the new Soviet leader and Yuri Andropov emerged in media and in anti-corruption campaigns. Brezhnev's control over the KGB began to erode when Andropov took over the organization, even though Andropov did not have a background in intelligence. Andropov began a media campaign to boost the popularity of the KGB by planting pro-KGB stories in Pravda and other outlets on the 50th anniversary of Soviet intelligence apparatuses and on the 100th anniversary of Soviet secret police founder Felix Dzerzhinsky's birthday.

Andropov also began increasing the KGB's importance by lobbying Politburo members for expanded powers to combat infiltration by Western intelligence. At the same time, the KGB spread rumors throughout the Soviet media that corruption within the government was rampant under Brezhnev's watch. When the Politburo granted the KGB jurisdiction over economic crimes, the organization launched a campaign against Brezhnev's loyalists and family members and purged them from the KGB ranks. These moves solidified both Andropov's power base and the KGB's weight, eventually enabling Andropov to succeed Brezhnev.

Kremlin politics do not occur in a vacuum, though, and events throughout Russia and the world can shape how and when such intrigues take place. For example, Beria's ouster was postponed by a rebellion in East Germany that required a Soviet military response.

In each political transition, countless seemingly unconnected pieces could be detected, but as Churchill said, the victor was a mystery until he emerged from under the rug. The same is true today in the Kremlin, where a struggle for power over policy, assets and funds is taking place.

Such struggles are hardly new, but this one comes as Russia is facing a series of crises, such as the standoff with the West over Ukraine, plummeting government revenues because of low oil prices, and growing discontent among the Russian people. It is this confluence of factors that makes it more difficult for Russian President Vladimir Putin to arbitrate between members of the elite and protect his own position. But to know how significant the current power struggle is, we must return to the old tactics of Kremlinology.

Editor's Note

The following is the first installment of a four-part series on the tactics involved in studying Russia's internal political struggles.

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