Commentary

Kremlinology 2.0 – Reading The Emperor’s Mind

Kremlinology is “…the art of observing, deducing, and guessing what is really happening within a secretive organization.” Or in someone’s mind.

Something is clearly wrong with your political system when the personality, childhood, mental health, hormonal balance, pet peeves, and secret grudges of the individual wielding power becomes of utmost relevance.

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We studied authoritarian systems extensively at university, especially the Soviet system that had been kindly exported by the Russians back in the days. In the early 2000s Kremlinology – “the study of the policies and practices of the former Soviet government” (Merriam-Webster) – sounded crazy and a laughing stock. Experts and analysts had been trying to read the emperor’s mind and drew conclusions from every tiny signal such as guest lists and official photos  – regarding the future of an entire country.

It should be a lot more transparent, right? They have to be predictable and dependable because owe that to their voters. They are there for us – not the other way around…

The practice of Kremlinology was laughable – along with many other undignified things oppressed populations were forced to do every single day – but it was also very sad. When the state has so much influence over people’s lives but said people have no tool to influence where the state is going, they will resort to such childish methods of gaining some (illusory) grasp of the future. What does the emperor think today? Whom will he favour? Do I make a quick fortune if I move into real estate or sell holiday vouchers? Who will become the next scapegoat? Who disappeared from official photos – signalling his impending fall out of favour – and is better to be avoided?

In an atmosphere like that having been close to the emperor once lends you credibility and people will listen to your old stories endlessly. Tell me more about when you and the emperor were still close. You can make a solid living out of it, provided you don’t try to cross him. You can even publish a bestseller – after due compliance with the censors. And everyone will try to guess the emperor’s next whim with you.

Reading about Castro’s life and seeing the infatuation with his mind and personality is really sad. An entire planet is fascinated and learning the (supposed) thoughts of one of its most despicable, violent and oppressive humans. You could do nothing about him, he had the power to destroy his country, he did it – so let’s study him. Along with Mao, Pol Pot, Hitler, the Kim dynasty, and whoever else ended and derailed more lives.

What we don’t do in the meantime is trying to learn the minds of healthy people. Non-aggressive people. People who don’t enjoy power over other people. People who therefore never make it to the history books – signalling to the next generation that they didn’t matter.

The American Interest bravely discovered that the study of secretive regimes is in vogue again – but didn’t go as far as to realise that the urge to read the mind of the emperor goes well beyond the borders of Russia (if any). I have seen it happening everywhere with inscrutable, authoritarian and unpredictable regimes. It is a daily occurrence even in Hungary where everyone is so exposed to the power of Orbán. They desperately try to guess his next move – based on anecdotes of his past and even psychological assessments by experts in the studio. Who is out of favour next? Which sector will be nationalised? Who disappeared from photos? What to read into Orbán’s weekly speech on radio? Do they dare to do this and that? (Yes.)

And it is because no one can get near him – and he still can get to everyone. The hallmark of a screwed up system.

But not just written-off places like North Korea and Hungary practice Kremlinology 2.0. I endured two years of the US election circus digging deep into the mind of Trump – and expect a lot more now that the loose cannon is set to take over the driver’s seat of the greatest accumulation of power on the planet. We may not even get a measly vote in the matter, but the person of the US president will influence us all. So let’s study his little mind. That’s the only refuge for the helpless and exposed.

Kremlinology and mind-reading the emperor has no place in a healthy society – and yet we are comfortable buying books about the lives and mind of dictators and put it under the Christmas tree. We cannot stop clicking on distasteful psychological assessments of these strongmen – because we are trying to reduce our own uncertainty caused by them.

And this is how you know that something is definitely wrong with the system.

But the real question is not how these violent, power-hungry liars and aggressors get elected. The real question is why there is so much power given to those in the driving seat. Who let that red button to be built that can destroy humankind? Who let so much economic power into the hands of politicians?

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Because the sheer existence of that red button will draw the most violent freaks whose little mind is tickled by the notion that they could push it. And that economic power will draw exactly the kind of people who want to tilt the playing field in their own favour.

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