Who lines them up at the Kremlin?

Anatoly F. Dobrynin, the former Soviet Ambassador to the United States, was pictured Wednesday on the front page of the Communist Party newspaper Pravda, standing between Foreign Minister Eduard A. Shevarnadze and Defense Minister Sergei L. Sokolov. Mr. Dobrynin's photograph, in a Kremlin lineup in honor of President Bendjedid Chadli of Algeria, confirmed for observers here that, as a newly appointed Central Committee secretary, he has replaced Boris N. Ponomarev as chief of the international department of that 307-member body....

- International Herald Tribune,

March 28, 1986

THOSE readers still awake and those fewer still with any interest in Kremlin political infighting may on occasion have pondered the Byzantine intrigues in the Kremlin and the rise and fall of various apparatchiks. But have you ever stopped to wonder who decides who will stand where and, more interestingly, who tells the Romanovs, Grishins, Tikhonovs, and Ponomarevs, when the end is near, that they get to sit below the salt that evening? After all, with such constant shifting, it is obvious that someone must be putting out the word. Diligent research has produced a number of theories and opinions, which I am sharing in the hope of stimulating scholarly examination of this critical question.

One theory says such choreography is the charge of a senior protocol assistant to the general secretary. His job is to visit Politburo members before each function to give them the word on where they stand. (``Excuse me, Comrade Ryzhkov, you're in the No. 4 slot this afternoon.'')

A Pentagon intelligence analyst believes he's cracked the system: The Soviets make saucer-size decals with facial photographs of all Politburo members. An hour before the heavies arrive at the scene, an aide, using a chart he has been given, sticks these decals to the point on the floor where each member is to stand.

A football buddy from college, now at the RAND Corporation, has his own version. He believes Gorbachev himself - `a la Vince Lombardi - assembles the Politburo before game time and chalkboards everyone's position.

Yet another Kremlinologist friend, this one in the bowels of the State Department, takes the reasonable view that, shifting winds being what they are in Moscow, no bureaucrat worth his salt mine wants to be the one to deliver the bad news. But thanks to the KGB's success in technology theft, a solution has been realized. The day's pecking order is first programmed into an IBM PCjr; then, the protocol czar has only to enter the description of the coming social event, push RETURN, hook up the voice synthesizer and modem, and, quicker than you can say, ``Communism Equals Soviet Power Plus Electrification of the Whole Country'' (Lenin), each delegate gets his post position by disembodied (and presumably untraceable) phone call. (There is a mail variant of the above, but it lacks the technical elegance of the computer approach and is also subject to the vagaries of the tardy Soviet postal system.)

My brother, who has spent far too much time working on Capitol Hill, puts forward the ``Cloakroom Theory'': A Politburo meeting is scheduled for the afternoon before the public appearance. While the comrades are busy inside steering the ship of state, our friend the protocol droid sneaks into the cloakroom and slips into each man's coat pocket a sketch of the lineup for the next day. (I tried to point out that this theory falls apart in the summer, but my brother insists he has never seen Gromyko without an overcoat, regardless of the season.)

What with Gorbachev's shifting key officials the way George Steinbrenner changes managers, Politburo bench-warmers must be hard pressed to keep track of the daily changes in the pecking order. Those analysts who are following Gorbachev's push for adoption of Western economic techniques suspect that a stock market ticker has appeared in the office of each Kremlin don; then each member can sit and in real time track the bulling and bearing in futures of various aspirants. Each is then prepared at a moment's notice to take his assigned place atop Lenin's Tomb; and, who knows, the bosses may grow to like the game and start investing on the sly with some of the seedy capitalists on Wall Street.

Another of the cherished status indicators of astute Kremlin-watchers, of course, is the obituary pages of prominent Moscow dailies. Presence or absence, as well as rank order, of Politburo signatures appearing under these eulogies is a sure indicator of current standing. One suspects that the appearance of these touching tributes serves less to honor the dear departed than as a covert system for disseminating just that rank information that is the subject of this investigation.

The Soviet types at the State Department have assigned a high priority to answering this urgent question (chiefly because they can't afford to be scooped by the military attach'e in Moscow). Perhaps they also feel it will provide them with a key to anticipating Kremlin power struggles and predicting how they will come out. But then there's the disinformation crew, who say that the whole business of shifts in Politburo lineups is just a charade to divert attention from the real central question of Sovietology: Is it true that Raisa Gorbachev is going into partnership with Yves Saint Laurent to open a boutique on Gorky Street next spring?

Donald Alexander is a US government official and a free-lance writer.

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