Corruption is a feature, not a bug

The difference between helpless Kremlinology and functioning institutions

According to the very reliable Urban Dictionary, Kremlinology is “…the art of observing, deducing, and guessing what is really happening within a secretive organization.” Or in someone’s mind. When you find your entire country trying to second guess the leader’s mind because nothing else matters, something is seriously wrong.

It is also a prime example of political helplessness.

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. In contrast, a working democracy (a political system that is meant to enable the citizens, not the rulers) institutions matter.

Try watching a movie about the White House or the Kremlin.

In a working system, committees, legal pathways, and other such annoying things matter. You may find the democratic process slow and frustrating, but it is a million times better than the “effective” and fast dictatorship. The fact that decision-makers can get in each other’s way should cheer you up. If it is not done by malice or corruption, it is the hallmark of a working system. It may be frustrating and unsatisfying, but politics is not a superhero movie. Politicians are not your parents wanting the best for you. They are dudes like you.

Politicians getting in each other’s way and slowing things down is one of my favorite things. In a calcified autocracy such a thing never happens. Institutions may exist but they are a joke. They certainly don’t delimit the overgrowth of power in just one hand. They don’t provide information or transparency. Just like the jilted elections, institutions in autocracies are just mimicking the real thing. (Plus, they are juicy positions for loyalists.)

You may complain that first world, democratic decision-making is opaque and difficult to follow – but you could follow it if only you’d bothered. You do have the right to ask for information, journalists are allowed to do it for you, everything has a paper trail. A dictatorship, on the other hand, is not transparent at all. You don’t even think about asking for public information, how your tax money is stolen, and journalists risk their lives trying to sniff around the powerful.

The other way to describe political oppression is seeing political helplessness in the population.

We studied authoritarian systems extensively at university, especially the so-called Soviet system that was kindly exported by the Russians back in the days. We have learned about the many way Soviet czars sent the message that someone fell out of favor. One of the methods was letting Pravda write trash upon a comrade – who read the paper and knew he was on his way out, better pack warm clothes because he is going to the Gulag. Another occult Kremlinologist knowledge was that whoever got the postal minister position was singled out for dismissal – or worse. Then there were the seating plans and people who disappeared from old photos with Stalin – when doctoring and spreading the new photos was a more elaborate affair than it is in the age of photoshop and Twitter.

Under Russia-exported autocracy before 1989, we were all little Kremlinologists – because that was all that was available. 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.

But it was just one of the many undignified things oppressed populations were forced to do every single day –  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 favor? 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 – signaling his impending fall out of favor – and is better to be avoided?

After 1989 the practice of Kremlinology became obsolete. For a while. Trying to read the country’s fate from “tea leaves” felt irresponsible. There must be transparency, we thought. Like we see in American movies. 

Today, Russia export corruptionism on top of feudalistic autocracy, but they call it a different name and they claim that it is anti-communist – so that it confuses lesser minds, like US Republicans. In the early 2000s the claim that Kremlinology might make a comeback sounded crazy. And yet it did.

Autocracy is the art of rendering your population feeling helpless. And starving them of vital information, keeping them on the toes for legal changes and your loyalists for changes in the favor of the ruler. These are crucial tools in the non-violent toolkit of an aspiring autocrat.

By 2019, the de facto practice of Kremlinology has returned. Nepotism runs high, so we have to look at friends and members of the ruling family as well as reading between the lines of spokesmen – also because they don’t give press conferences anymore, or when they did, it is heavily directed and never features unexpected questions. If someone accidentally manages to ask a normal questions (aka. one that checks upon the conduct of the powerful), it makes news. And then we get a video where the politician is walking away from the cameras. This is the new normal.

It also has amusing (if tragic) side effects, like people desperately looking for people to bribe, who then can lead them to politicians to bribe. Or people who try to proactively become favored by the regime – despite neither being related to them, nor needed.

In an atmosphere like this 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.

You may even get rich and accept bribes just because you are known to be close to the powerful. You don’t even have to deliver. Just like the powerful, his loyalists have no accountability.

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 realize 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. You are helpless – they have no limitations.

But not just written-off places like North Korea and Hungary practice Kremlinology 2.0. We have endured years of digging deep into the mind of Trump. We may not even get a measly vote in the matter, but 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. Institutions may be frustrating, and yes, people there can be corrupt as well. But cherish the time when lobbyists still have to buy votes. When votes are no longer up for changing, you are doomed.

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