The Kremlin Then, Zhongnanhai Now

Watching China Watching (XXXV)

The following essay is the latest addition to Watching China Watching, the theme of China Heritage Annual 2018. In it Robert Conquest — a noted historian of the Soviet Union who Timothy Garton Ash said was ‘Solzhenitsyn before Solzhenitsyn’ — defends Kremlinology as a viable approach to the study of the Soviet Union. Among other things, Conquest argues that:

we are confronted in the Soviet Union not by a faceless society and economy but by an organization of actual rulers operating in accordance with definite standards of behaviour and preconceived doctrines. Any approach which ignores this tends to reduce the USSR to an abstraction of social forces not very different from our own. I suggest that the ‘value’ of the study of the struggle for power is that it shows how the political machine and the men composing it conduct themselves.

The author also observes that those who would divine meaning from the hermetically sealed environment of one-party Communist government, require:

the type of mind which is drawn to areas where the information is not adequate and a great effort has to be made to force the deductions from recalcitrant material.

And, in conclusion, Conquest writes:

It is not that we can seek any finality, any data on which certain prophecy can be based. No more can we in any other country; but in most other capitals we can at least meaningfully discuss the forces at work, the party and factional alignments, the personal affiliations. In fact most political comment about the rest of the world is in such terms. When we attempt it for the USSR, we must either call ourselves non-Kremlinologists and just guess or intuit, or we must go to Kremlinology, which is merely the assertion that faction and divergence exist in Russia as in every polity, and the formal determination to discover or deduce as much as possible about it by a conscientious study of the relevant evidence.

These views accord with our interest in ‘China Watching’, as well as adumbrating some aspects of New Sinology. This essay can fruitfully be read in tandem with Alice L. Miller’s Analysing the Chinese Leadership in an Era of Sex, Money and Power, republished as ‘Watching China Watching (XXXIV)’ in China Heritage, 3 November 2018.

— Geremie R. Barmé
Editor, China Heritage
18 December 2018

In Defence of Kremlinology

Robert Conquest


Quis? Quid? Ubi? Quibus auxiliis? Cur? Quomodo? Quando?
(mediaeval legal hexameter)


There have been many attacks on the practice of Kremlinology. I took particular note of these arguments when they found expression in connection with my own Power and Policy in the USSR [1961]. This was essentially a large-scale exercise in the genre, and it naturally attracted (and I naturally read with particular interest) reviews by numbers of scholars for whose opinion I have great respect, and several of whom stated their reservations about the whole approach in cogent terms.

I did, indeed, detect a certain competitiveness of approach, a certain possessiveness even, which seemed to lead to exaggeration. Sir William Hayter, for example, wrote of Kremlinology that I ‘would probably argue that it is the only valid branch of, or indeed coextensive with, sovietology’. But of course I would do no such thing. In fact, I have myself written on several other sides of Soviet life. But it does not seem reasonable to blame me when, in a book about the struggle for power, I treat economic and other matters only, or mainly, for their relevance to it. Sir William seems to be in the position of a man who criticizes a book on the climbing of Mount Everest because it ignores the — to him — more important question of the geology of the Himalayas. In fact I had written (and I imagine this would be the opinion of most Kremlinologists):

Writings on the subject of questions of power in the USSR are often criticised roughly on the grounds that they ignore the existence of large-scale social forces. It should be said at once that although this book is not in principle concerned with the forces it does not for a moment deny or denigrate them. The Soviet leaders do not live in a vacuum, and however much the totalitarian apparatus is designed to enable a few at the centre to manipulate the mass social tendencies, this does not mean that those tendencies do not exist nor, particularly when there is dissension at the centre, that they can fail to be taken into account. But this study is concerned with those large-scale movements only in so far as they are given political expression. And, in Soviet circumstances, they are not given any direct political expression: they figure simply as influences, competing with other and often more powerful influences, on the moves made in the only area where political change is possible — the central group of politicians.

In fact, the student of the struggle for power does not, as Sir William implies, deny the importance of sociological and economic developments within Russia. On the other hand, Sir William does appear to deny the significance of the political. But we are confronted in the Soviet Union not by a faceless society and economy but by an organization of actual rulers operating in accordance with definite standards of behaviour and preconceived doctrines. Any approach which ignores this tends to reduce the USSR to an abstraction of social forces not very different from our own. I suggest that the ‘value’ of the study of the struggle for power is that it shows how the political machine and the men composing it conduct themselves.

The temperamental reservations felt by many people against the study are not limited to the vague feeling that power on the one hand and personality on the other are nebulous subjects compared with the decent, impersonal, readily abstractifiable phenomena of general sociology and the homely and comfortable equations of the economists. They are also, I think, directed against the type of research worker who becomes involved in this unrespectable field. He is seen, perhaps, as a sensationalist — or, if not that, perhaps as a man who prefers an area in which speculation must remain the norm, just because this provides an opportunity for the construction of crackpot theories. And it is true that in its time Kremlinology has attracted such people. Yet there is another and different temperament which, I think, finds such subjects particularly fascinating. That is, the type of mind which is drawn to areas where the information is not adequate and a great effort has to be made to force the deductions from recalcitrant material.

That this temperamental distinction within the subject is not confined to Kremlinology may be illustrated in another field. The Vinland problem — the attempt to deduce the location of the brief Norse settlements and their other place-names in North America around the year 1000 from the available documents and the facts of geography — has recognizably drawn two quite different types of enthusiast. One is concerned to prove, with immense and laboured detail, that favourite spots answer to each point; these usually work in a large amount of local evidence which could equally well prove anything. On the other hand, there are those who may reach virtual certainty on one or two points, high probability on others and complete bafflement on still others: men who are truly concerned not merely to establish the truth but to consider the impossibility of establishing it; and to balance the claims of two alternatives, when the evidence does not answer. These letters seem to me to be admirable, perhaps the most admirable type of intellectual exercise in existence just as Namier seems to me to be worth a hundred Toynbees.

Such a man, in the Vinland case, was R. Swanton, whose comment is extraordinarily apt to Kremlinology too:

The fact of the matter is that the data are just strong enough to tempt one to theorise and just weak enough to open the door for an immense amount of speculation, especially if one has an undisciplined imagination and a plentiful supply of local pride or wishful thinking …. it is one of those investigations which enable men who pride themselves on their acumen to prove it by leaving the problems ostentatiously alone or by registering scepticism, the cheapest way there is to acquire a reputation for scientific ability. [Note: John R. Swanton, ‘The Wineland voyages’, Smithsonian Miscellaneous Collections, vol.107, no.12.]

The temperamental objection to such an attitude comes out again, I think, in Sir William Hayter, when he writes:

A classic specimen of the kind of thing I have in mind occurs when Mr Conquest describes the twentieth party congress at great length without ever mentioning what were, to my mind, its most important results, the revision of the doctrines about the inevitability of major wars and the possible achievement of socialism by parliamentary means.

Now, in the first place, I was not especially concerned to decide in a general way what were the ‘most important’ results of the congress, but merely to deal with it as it affected the study I was engaged upon — just as it would be unfair to a writer of the history of the British Cabinet in the 1830s to say of him that he seemed to think the only important thing about the development of the railway engine was that one of them had killed Huskisson. But I feel, still, that Sir William shows very strongly the dangers of too great a revulsion from Kremlinology. Of the two points he takes as being the most important one, the theorising about the attainment of power by parliamentary means, strikes me as very minor and largely concerned with verbal propaganda. Suslov, Mikoyan and the others who put it forward combined it with strong attacks on reformism and gave as their example of a parliamentary evolution what had already happened in Prague and elsewhere in eastern Europe! (I have, as a matter offact, dealt with this elsewhere.) The non-inevitability of war was, indeed, an important theme. And it may be taken as registering the acceptance by Moscow of the undesirability of a nuclear clash. But even on this one may perhaps doubt it was more than the transformation into theory of what had already happened in practice.

But, in any case, not to grant equal status as a major political event to the attack on Stalin seems to be greatly overdoing things, on any view. After all, it launched a series of vast political changes throughout the communist world, which are still going on. (And is it irrelevant to note that the Observer, in which Sir William’s review appeared, had at the time devoted an entire issue to the Secret Speech?)

A taste for what one might call anti-politics leads to the neglect of matters not only important in themselves but often actually decisive in the fields which anti-political man is trying to cultivate as autonomous enclosures. As I said in Power and Policy:

There seems to be a definite feeling among sociologists that the actual events of politics and war are in some way superficial. They believe that deep social tides are more basic to all change in human circumstances and that battles and coups d’état are somehow rather petty subjects. And it is true that to concentrate attention on them in such a way as to imply a denial of the existence of deeper movements would be absolutely wrong.

Just the same, it is a little unreal to deal only with the deeper movements and ignore the visible political and military climaxes. It is rather as if a man interested in racehorses should study only their form and their general condition, without concerning himself with the actual races.

This view of history is dubious enough at the best of times. ‘The best of times’ was probably in the nineteenth century, when economic forces were exceedingly powerful and political ones comparatively weak — and, in any case, often disoriented by the current theory that political intervention in economic matters was bad doctrine. Even then, Engels had been able to point out that ‘Force is itself an economic power’. It is the great discovery of the twentieth century that political and political-military technique and organization can be developed to such a degree of power and efficiency that they are able for the first time in history (if we except some special cases like Inca Peru, as Plekhanov noted) to take the economic forces head on and thwart and divert them. Sociologically, the totalitarian state is a lever by which one man, or a small group, can exert the same weight as whole social classes.

Ironically, it was in the USSR that this discovery was given practical form. Stalin’s collectivization and industrialization were the imposition of policy decisions against the wish of the whole people and the tendencies of the economy. Their dynamic — and it was one which defeated the supposedly unconquerable forces arising naturally in the economy and society — was a theory in the minds of a few policy-makers, will-power in the skull of a paranoid Georgian. For once, an Idealist Conception of History was correct.

Our own epoch has been the scene of a number of attempts prematurely to erect into rigorous disciplines various studies which are not yet prepared for this. The prestige of the true sciences has been so great that there has been a rush to make some of it rub off on investigations which cannot yet meaningfully absorb it. In part this has been abetted by the creation of academic institutions to which the erection of ‘scientific’ theory gives added raison d’etre. Thus we have seen the pretensions of ‘literary criticism’ blown up past bullfrog-bursting point. There is the now crumbling structure of Freudian psychology. And, to my mind, a great deal of what passes for scientific sociology is of a similar nature. (One of the distinctions between a scientific journal and one aping science is that in the former the interest always lies in the anomalous, that which appears not to fit existing conceptions, while in the latter, as in a theological journal, everything proves the theorist right all the time.) But even bona-fide science has produced many an erroneous theory. Its past is littered with astrologies and phrenologies. The tide seems to be running against the last batch.

But one of the saddest by-products of a dubious sociological attitude has, in any case, been the persistence of historicism — of the notion that there are forces assessable by economic or sociological means which are determinative of history. That is, in effect, the formal denial that politics are anything but an epiphenomenon of other processes. Or, even if the ‘superstructure’ is permitted to react upon the base, it reacts according to rules ultimately determined outside itself. This view is one which typifies the over-tidy mind, the simplifier who has, moreover, already oversimplified for himself even the ‘base’. It arouses not only rejection, but also resentment, because it is in political action too often an excuse for inhumanity, the theorist being prepared to accept the real and visible sacrifice of generations and nations in the name of the (one would have thought) less tangible future predicted by his patent method. I cannot believe that this is an accidental correlation, that it is mere chance that the idolater of the abstractions of System and History is also the worshipper of Power and the shrugger-off of the suffering of the mass of individuals.

What, in any case, is the nature of the Soviet polity? Professor Leonard Schapiro has written:

How little as yet (one cannot safely make predictions about any political system) public opinion of any kind can hope to operate on politicians who, over a period of forty years, have mastered the art of keeping all power safely in their own hands — even though they may fight to the death inside their own narrow circle.

And he adds that the amateur is inclined to project on to the Soviet system political principles with which he is familiar in his own experience. They very seldom apply. For example, in democracies politicians quarrel over policies and if need be resign in the hope of making a comeback. In the Politbureau and the Presidium it is the other way round: politicians quarrel over power, using policies as a means of struggle.

And I suppose it would be agreed, except by superficial and optimistic journalists and their readers, that the ‘liberalization’ which took place in Russia after Stalin’s death did not register any advance in the positive political power of the ruled. The pays légal was still limited to a few hundred or a few thousand apparatchiks. The autocracy shifted from repressionist to concessionist tactics as other autocracies have in the past, but it remained an autocracy. And the ruling class consisted as ever of the cadres who got their training under Stalin. The characteristics of this class — philistine, hypocritical, short-sighted, bigoted, ruthless, totally indoctrinated with their own right to rule — do not change overnight. Though some may be better than others, they are a special breed. And it is in the internal struggle that we can really see what they amount to.

The apparatocracy may, like previous ruling classes, crumble in the face of crises it is ill equipped to deal with. But it is extremely tenacious, and meanwhile the politics of Russia consists of the moves and manoeuvres of its members. If the contestants were called Michael the Drunkard or Basil the Macedonian we would have no difficulty in making the emotional effort of understanding that their ways are not ours. Yet in Byzantium too there was also doctrine — filioque and so on — on the one hand, and policy — taxation, or the defeat of the Bulgars — on the other.

It is vulgar and regrettable that important historical crises should be decided by personal ambition, but it is also, unfortunately, true. Soviet sources themselves are perfectly explicit about the role played by personal ambition and malice in the struggle for power, though naturally only on the part of the defeated. After accusing the ‘anti-party group’ of the egoism and love of power, Kuusinen, in his speech to the 22nd Congress, said: ‘The main effort of the group was to remove from the Presidium of the Central Committee Comrade Nikita Sergeyevich Khrushchev.’ Or again, ‘Although the gingerbread was poisonous, Bulganin, being dissatisfied with his position in the party, nevertheless ran after it when it was promised to him’ (S.D. Ignatiev at the December 1958 Plenum).

Policy is bound to enter in, if only for the reason that a struggle for power cannot be conducted openly on the programme ‘We want your posts because we want to rule’. Doctrine is an element by which power can get a purchase. Stalin would have been thought a moderate at the time of the struggle against the Left Opposition, and was doubtless praised as such in the Western press. Having destroyed them, he was in a position to steal their policies and use them against the Right. Similarly, Khrushchev ensured Malenkov’s first defeat by sponsorship of ‘left’ policies, and then turned right himself. The struggle with the anti-party group in 1957 has almost always been misrepresented. In fact both the victorious and the defeated factions contained right- and left-wing elements. The tactics they objected to in Khrushchev were ones of style rather than policy proper: ‘The anti-party group — Malenkov, Kaganovich, Molotov, Bulganin and Shepilov — accused our party’s Central Committee and also Comrade N.S. Khrushchev of practicism and of being too engulfed in the practical tasks of economic construction. As is known, such accusations were also raised by the Yugoslav revisionists (I.I. Kuzmin at the 21st Congress, Pravda, 5 February 1959). A viewpoint shared by Molotov and Tito is scarcely one of policy.

This also reminds us that, since, as we have said, the group contained the ‘liberal’ Malenkov and Shepilov as well as the ‘reactionary’ Molotov and Kaganovich, it could be attacked in connection with almost any policy which later became popular. Malenkov headed the list at first, and Molotov was transferred to top spot when, and only when, Khrushchev was directing his main fire against remaining ‘conservative’ elements within the party.

Another important deduction from this way of looking at things is that there is no necessary connection between policies. During the height of Khrushchev’s ‘liberalisation’ at home, in 1962, we get the Cuban adventure, a far riskier piece of ‘forward’ policy than anything of Stalin’s — and understandably condemned, even by the Chinese, as ‘adventurism’. What linked Khrushchev’s policies was their ‘style’, as the Russians say — large, risky initiatives, looking as if they could bring big results on the cheap. Temper, or personality, rather than coherent views, seems the common factor — a curious conclusion about a man who was widely taken as primarily just the locus of social forces. It may remind us of [George] Canning’s ‘Away with the cant of measures not men! — the idle supposition that it is the harness and not the horses that draw the chariot along’. This is to put it very strongly; yet in politics, in the area in which the actual decisions are taken that will determine the Russian future, does anyone imagine that things would have been the same if Molotov had come to power? And does anyone think that his accession to power was impossible, under some Law of History? Politics proper, moreover, is the realm of the accidental, the run of bad luck, the chance concatenation. The death of Hugh Gaitskell transformed British politics. So it has always gone, from the assassination of Lincoln to Kozlov’s heart attack. Accident is unpredictable, but its effects may not be. To put it at its lowest, if we neglect the elements of this level of Soviet phenomena, we will not understand the rest.

No one would deny that there are other drives than mere power in the Soviet politician’s motivations. Indeed, (as I wrote) in any struggle of this sort, ‘idealism, conviction, careerism, and factiousness form an inextricable blend’. And again: ‘it is virtually impossible to clarify how far the Communist leaders, or particular ones among them, are motivated by odium theologicum and how far by ambition, even in the struggle for power itself. This is more a psychological question than a political one.’ We do not need to discover the extent to which the other motivations are psychological ‘justification’. What we can say is that these qualifications apply to all political societies, but that the power motive is more obviously compelling or less adequately sublimated in some cases than in others. Napoleon had it worse than Lincoln, and Stalin than Attlee. And under Stalin, in the USSR, by a process of unnatural selection (as I also wrote), ‘a hypertrophied type has been bred in which the motives that are sufficiently frenetic even in a wild Western office or university have become a full-time, consuming passion.’

Kremlinology may be thought of, mutatis mutandis, as the Namierism of Soviet political history. In Namier’s special period of eighteenth-century England the political nation consisted of a limited number of men — those members of the nobility, the merchant and intellectual classes, and the squirearchy, who were interested in politics. He was able to revolutionize a study previously based on generalizations by examining the particular moods and opinions of numbers of those concerned. Similarly, in the USSR, the pays légal is a limited one. Until recently only the actions of very few people at the centre needed to be considered, and the bare record of the allegiances of minor figures was adequate. It is now suggested (for example, by Edward Crankshaw) that, since a larger number of people are perhaps being admitted to the oligarchy, the method is no longer applicable. The contrary appears to be true: what is now required is large-scale research into the background of the lower-level repositories of power.

For in speaking of Kremlinology as a sort of Namierism we must unfortunately qualify this by saying that on the whole it is an inadequately resolved Namierism. There is still too much that we do not know but could know with a good deal more effort. To take a single point: Namier got his results by investigating the politics and the political weight of comparatively large numbers of people forming at least a reasonable cross-section of the entire pays légal of eighteenth-century Britain. My book and most of the others in the field seldom descend, and never fully or effectively, below the Presidium, or at most the Central Committee. The provincial secretary level and lower, and even the detailed backgrounds of all the Central Committee membership, are simply impossible without far greater and more widespread time, effort and facilities.

When it comes to talk about Russian politics there is really no such thing as a non-Kremlinologist. Whoever remarked that the man who says he is not a philosopher is simply a bad philosopher was making a point which may perhaps be taken as applying in this case to the study of Soviet politics. But can results be obtained within the field itself? Yes. It was possible to give what proved to be a sound account of the June 1957 crisis before confirmation came with later revelations. Even without much in the way of deduction and extrapolation, assembly of known facts and statements often provides a clear enough picture of events, and one which sometimes goes usefully against false preconception, giving a desirable shock to lazy assumptions that Soviet politics are not so different from our own. It is true, indeed, that deduction — or even speculation, if carefully controlled — can give good results, and in any case better ones than those based on conservative assumptions about harmonious development. As to simple deduction, I may quote one of several cases from my own book. With no ‘inside’ information, but simply working from facts and probabilities of their interpretation, I wrote of the circumstances of Khrushchev’s Secret Speech:

The impression remains strong that, although some sort of intention to disavow the purges had developed some weeks before the congress, the precise tactics had not been decided on up to the last moment … all this confusion and hesitation followed by a decision must have taken place within the presidium … a group determined to press the issue regardless could possibly have threatened to appeal to the Central Committee, or even the Congress, with facts which the others were in no position to deny, and the Secret Speech, unopposed, may represent a very reluctant compromise.

Five years later, Khrushchev, reporting to the 22nd Congress, said:

Comrade-delegates, I want to tell the congress how the anti-party group reacted to the proposal to raise the question of abuses of power in the period of the cult of the individual at the 20th Congress. The proposal was violently resisted by Molotov, Kaganovich, Malenkov, Voroshilov and others. We told them in reply to their objections that if they resisted consideration of this question, we would put the matter to the congress delegates. We had no doubt that the congress would express itself in favour of the consideration of this question. Only then did they agree, and the question of the cult of the individual was reported on at the 20th Congress.

Is this really to be regarded as having been either obvious or unimportant?

Everything that we read among the revelations about the struggle tells us something, begins to define the nature of the Soviet polity: it is one where a police chief plans a coup d’état; where an army leader is accused of ‘Bonapartist aspirations towards a single-handed seizure of power’; where a Prime Minister throws his armed guards round the presidium; where gross insults are hurled between leading figures; where policies are launched not on their merits but to secure a power advantage, and condemned not on their demerits but in theological terms; where one former terror operative can charge his fallen Opponents with terrorism — but not secure their expulsion from the party; where the very party history is altered decisively from edition to edition. Kremlinology is an attempt to obtain now, when it can be most useful, the information about Soviet politics which is thought to be essential when it comes to writing a history of earlier years. If an adequate account of the past is found impossible without it, how can it be imagined that an account of the present can dispense with it? Without this information our interpretation of events is certain to be defective at best. It is true that we may not always be able to get enough data for our purpose, but surely we are bound not to reject the attempt to do so.

For the essential importance of Kremlinology is this. We do not know enough about Soviet politics. We do not know the alignments, the political forces and motivations which produce the great policy decisions and lead to the enormous and important shifts, reversals, initiatives of the regime. We can all predicate, more or less, the choices open to the Soviet government in a given field, but we have little idea of what will decide the final real action.

It is not that we can seek any finality, any data on which certain prophecy can be based. No more can we in any other country; but in most other capitals we can at least meaningfully discuss the forces at work, the party and factional alignments, the personal affiliations. In fact most political comment about the rest of the world is in such terms. When we attempt it for the USSR, we must either call ourselves non-Kremlinologists and just guess or intuit, or we must go to Kremlinology, which is merely the assertion that faction and divergence exist in Russia as in every polity, and the formal determination to discover or deduce as much as possible about it by a conscientious study of the relevant evidence. 



  • From Robert Conquest, Tyrants and Typewriters: Communiques in the Struggle for Truth, London: Hutchinson, 1989, pp.156-166.

I Told You So, You Fucking Fools

To the Editors:

In a footnote to John Banville’s review of Martin Amis’s House of Meetings [Executioner SongsNYR, 1 March 2007] I am quoted as having suggested, for a title for a new edition of The Great Terror [1st ed. 1968], “How about I Told You So, You Fucking Fools?” A few weeks earlier, in a TLS review of Zachary Leader’s The Life of Kingsley Amis (February 2), Clive James called me “unfailingly polite in controversy.”

Hard to reconcile the two views — except that the “I told you so, etc.” comment was actually made, and attributed to me, by the ever-inventive Kingsley.

This also gives me an excuse to join in the welcome to Martin Amis’s moving new book. I am particularly glad to read in his acknowledgments the tribute to Tibor Szamuely, who understood Stalinism better than I did. I remember saying to him that I could see why Stalin had Marshal Tukhachevski shot, but why did he do the same to his old friend Marshal Yegorev? Tibor’s answer was “Why not?”

Robert Conquest
Stanford, California

(NYRB, 12 April 2007 Issue)