Kremlinology

Alexander Zinoviev

Kremlinology is the study and analysis of the politics and policies of the Soviet Union while Sovietology is the study of politics and policies of both the Soviet Union and former Communist states more generally. These two terms were synonymous until the dissolution of the Soviet Union. In popular culture, the term is sometimes used to mean any attempt to understand a secretive organization or process, such as plans for upcoming products or events, by interpreting indirect clues.

During the Cold War, lack of reliable information about the country forced Western analysts to ‘read between the lines’ and to use the tiniest tidbits, such as the removal of portraits, the rearranging of chairs, positions at the reviewing stand for parades in Red Square, the choice of capital or small initial letters in phrases such as ‘First Secretary,’ the arrangement of articles on the pages of the party newspaper Pravda and other subtle signs to try to understand what was happening in internal Soviet politics.

To study the relations between Communist fraternal states, Kremlinologists compared the statements issued by the respective national Communist parties, looking for omissions and discrepancies in the ordering of objectives. The description of state visits in the Communist press were also scrutinized, as well as the degree of hospitality lent to dignitaries. Kremlinology also emphasized ritual, in that it noticed and ascribed meaning to the unusual absence of a policy statement on a certain anniversary or holiday.

In the German language, such attempts acquired the somewhat derisive name ‘Kreml-Astrologie’ (Kremlin Astrology), hinting at the fact that its results were often vague and inconclusive, if not outright wrong. The term Kremlinology is still in use in application to the study of decision-making processes in the politics of the Russian Federation.

While the Soviet Union no longer exists, other secretive states still do, such as North Korea, for which Kremlinology-like approaches are still used by the Western media. Such study is sometimes called ‘Pyongyangology,’ after the country’s capital Pyongyang.

The founder of kremlinology is considered to be Soviet sociologist Alexander Zinoviev. The term is named after the Kremlin, the seat of the former Soviet government. The term is sometimes sweepingly used to describe Western scholars who specialized in Russian law, although the correct term is simply Russian law scholar. Sovietologists or Kremlinologists should also be distinguished from transitologists, scholars who study legal, economic and social transitions from communism to market capitalism.

Academic Sovietology after World War II and during the Cold War was dominated by the ‘totalitarian model’ of the Soviet Union, stressing the absolute nature of Joseph Stalin’s power. The ‘totalitarian model’ was first outlined in the 1950s by political scientist Carl Joachim Friedrich, who argued that the Soviet Union and other Communist states were totalitarian systems, with the personality cult and almost unlimited powers of the ‘great leader’ such as Stalin.

The ‘revisionist school’ beginning in the 1960s focused on relatively autonomous institutions which might influence policy at the higher level. Historian Matt Lenoe describes the ‘revisionist school’ as representing those who ‘insisted that the old image of the Soviet Union as a totalitarian state bent on world domination was oversimplified or just plain wrong. They tended to be interested in social history and to argue that the Communist Party leadership had had to adjust to social forces.’

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