Spring 1996 (4.1)
A Short Story (1932)
Satire on Soviet Bureaucratic Practices
by Mir Jalal (1908-1978)
Mir Jalal standing on the balcony of his apartment in Baku. 1970s. Courtesy: Ambassador Pashayev.
Mir Jalal (Pashayev) was one of Azerbaijan's most gifted short story writers when it came to satirizing Soviet bureaucracy. A professor of literature at Baku State University, he wrote hundreds of short stories during his spare time. Seventy of his books are in print. Some have been translated into French, Czech, Persian, and German. A few in Azeri and Russian can be found in the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C. Two are in English.
"Anket Anketov" (first published in 1932) ridicules the bureaucratic system of maintaining "personal files" for all employees. By poking fun of bureaucrats who held some of the lowest status positions-bath house managers, back scrubbers, cleaning women and accountants-the author distances himself from criticism and attacks he might have received had he written about bureaucrats in more powerful positions.
We publish "Anketov" here in English for the first time because of the insight it provides into living and working conditions during the Soviet period and because of its continuing relevance to modern life. Despite the independence of the Republics of the former USSR, the Soviet practice of maintaining "personal files" is still very much part of the contemporary work place. Readers may access another of Mir Jalal's bureaucratic spoofs, "Dried Up in Meetings," which we originally published in 1993.
One of Mir Jalal's sons, Dr. Hafiz Pashayev, serves as Azerbaijan's First Ambassador to the United States (see Diplomatic Interview, page 54).
From the first day that Anket Anketov 1 was appointed as Chief of the United Bath Houses, people stood outside his door waiting to make their appeals to him. Sometimes, there was a long queue-someone complaining about his boss, someone asking for a raise, someone wanting to change positions, someone seeking permission to study at the university, someone quarreling about uniforms, someone wanting to take a vacation at a health resort.
Anketov felt the weight of so much work and such great responsibilities with so few to assist him especially since he was new to the job. Many had thought he wouldn't be able to handle the position and had opposed his appointment. When Anketov learned of the resistance to his appointment, he wondered what to do. "Let them go ahead and complain," he concluded. "It's clear that we've inherited the likes of such people from capitalism. We'll just have to get rid of them. I'll take care of them."
And so the first thing Anketov did was to gather all of the bath house managers together and demand that they bring him their "personal files." 2 "Yes, Sir!" they replied as they pulled up their chairs to sit down. But Anketov would not let them take their seats.
"Yes sir," is not the same as "Here they are, sir." Just bring me your files. I need them in hand-now."
"But Comrade Anketov, if we leave right now, what will happen to our meeting?"
Anketov puzzled over the question awhile. He opened his arms as if he wanted to embrace something and with a calm voice said, "Without knowing what's in your personal files, what's the use of even meeting, my son? Shouldn't I know who I am dealing with?"
All of the managers stood up and hurried out to gather up their personal files. Some went home; others to their offices. Some brought private business cards and hurriedly started writing out their personal biographies.
When all the personal files had been collected on the table, Anketov apologized in front of the managers. "Comrades, I want to get to know you better. That's why I'm asking you to wait outside my office." As he spoke, he bent down and began looking through the files and reading through the names, "Mmmm...Mursal Hadiyev. Born in 1911. Father, blacksmith..."
Anketov underlined "blacksmith" in red, circled it and put a question mark beside it. He started thumbing through the rest of Hadiyev's files very carefully.
In the meantime, the managers stood out in the hallway waiting. Finally Anketov's secretary appeared and announced, "Murad Ahmadov can go home now. Mursal Hadiyev must bring us his father's certificate. The rest of you, come in please."
But Ahmadov couldn't understand what was happening. "Comrade, what are you telling me? Let me speak to him about my affairs. What does he want? Why is he wasting my time?"
Hadiyev joined in with Ahmadov, "What does he want to know about my father? He's been dead for thirty years. Even his bones have disintegrated by now!"
The secretary began to laugh. "Why are you saying such nonsense? The Chief doesn't want your father's dead body. The angels will take care of it. He simply wants to know who your father was!"
Hadiyev sighed, "Let him take a look at my file. 'Blacksmith.' It's written there, 'My father was a 'Blacksmith.'"
Anketov did not keep the managers long. He gave them strict orders to prepare all of their staff's personal files and have them ready in three days. When the managers left, Hadiyev entered Anketov's office. Anketov was bent over the folders, re-arranging them. Raising his head, he glanced over at Hadiyev's empty hands. "What do you want?" he asked.
"Me? I don't want anything. But your secretary said you wanted a certificate from me."
The Chief ran his fingers through his hair and reached for the files. "What's your surname?" he asked.
As soon as Hadiyev replied, Anketov located the folder and began opening it. "I've read your file carefully from top to bottom. There are some questions that I need to discuss with you."
"You wrote here, 'My father was a blacksmith.' But there are many types of blacksmiths."
Hadiyev interrupted him, "He was a typical blacksmith; he shoed horses and oxen."
"It's not a question of the horses or oxen," Anketov remarked. "It's a question about their owners. Did your father shoe the animals of wealthy exploiters or did he shoe the animals of poor people?"
Hadiyev began to laugh. "Whoever gave him money-that's whose animals he shoed!"
"But surely, during the period of the bourgeoisie in which your father lived and worked, rich men had much more money than poor ones."
"Of course, the richest men had a lot of money."
"Aha! You see, the money your father earned came primarily from exploiters. Tell me, is it so or not?"
"What? Is what so?"
"Is it true that the richest people had a lot of their horses shoed?"
"Yes, it's true."
"That's enough. You may go."
Hadiyev hesitated, "I don't understand why you're so interested in my father's being a blacksmith. If it's because you have some animals that you'd like shoed, please tell me."
Again Anketov did not look up from his files. Placing his left thumb on Hadiyev's surname, he took his pen and wrote very awkwardly.
"You are not allowed to have the job. Take ten days at your own expense and try to clear your parent's social position."
Anketov made a note of this but said nothing directly to Hadiyev. Possibly, he had not even heard Hadiyev's last words, because he was so absorbed with the personal files, forms, autobiographies, characters certificates, diplomas, explanations, and applications. Anketov was greatly convinced that everything depended upon those folders. If he could only manage to keep them in order, everything would be under control and there would be no problems. And so that's how he busied himself from early morning till late night. He would sit in his office, reading files from beginning to end, top to bottom. To entertain himself, he used to arrange the files in order, just like the positions of their owners. If he disliked someone, he would take that file and place it at the end of the line. If he liked someone, it would go to the front.
If anyone had been listening Anketov unable to see what he was doing, they might have thought he was dealing with five or six kindergarten children. He would lift the files up into his arms, and set one down on this chair and another on that chair. Sometimes he even talked to them as if they were real human beings. The files started taking on a life of their own. They were categorized as good workers or bad workers. The real people - the bath house managers, cashiers, attendants, and cleaners-were merely shadows of their files. A file's neatness and accuracy came to symbolize that its owner was honest and pure. If on the margin of some file, it was written "fired," that person would disappear like a phantom.
There were times when a manager would come and inform the Chief that one of his workers had become ill and was in the hospital. Invariably, Anketov refused to believe it. Immediately, he would go looking through the folders until he found the name and then he would say, "I beg your pardon, he's safe and sound, working at his job."
Sometimes he didn't even have to open the file to recall it. He would simply look off into the distance, imagine the correct number of the file, nod his head and say, "That man's doing a great job."
It was then that the secretary would try to bring him back to reality, "Hey, hey, Comrade Anketov, Gurbanali has been in the army for the past three months. He sent you a letter from a remote region where he works as a sanitation worker and here you're saying he's doing all right on the job!"
Anketov got angry but then got control of himself, "Stupid, can't you understand? His personal folder is right here in front of your eyes. Where could he go without his personal folder?" What right has he to step aside? If he went anywhere, his personal folder would follow him to the appropriate place."
Bored with such explanations, the secretary walked out, not wanting to pay any more attention to him. It was useless to try to deal with Anketov anymore because he was so absorbed by those files; they meant everything to him. If anybody did anything, thought anything, reminded him of anything, Anketov immediately wrote it in the designated folder where it would remained as a permanent record. In order to evaluate someone's work, it was enough to bring that person's file to him.
In one of the meetings, Anketov stood up and said, "Comrades, we have a tradition here in the bath houses which is really quite absurd. I'm referring to the "Complaint Books." Every passerby stops and writes down something, but we don't know who has originated the comment-a friend, enemy or someone neutral 3. I propose that those who have complaints bring their personal files to us before hand. They write and write but we don't know into which personal folder to file their complaints.
But Anketov's boss, the Head of the Municipal Department, interrupted him, "Comrade, don't be so foolish. If you do that, you won't be able to hear the voices of the masses and learn their opinions. You have to understand that the "Complaint Book" is the voice of the people-the customers' opinions. It is a record that will remain forever."
Anketov blushed deeply. Embarrassed and ashamed, he asked for permission to speak. With quivering lips, he confessed, "I've made a mistake. Now I realize it. I take full responsibility. But please, I beg you, don't write about this incident in my personal file." It was Anketov's way of trying to protect his own reputation and keep his own personal file free from any damaging comments.
Sometimes managers came to him complaining, "Comrade Anketov, the workers want you to come see them, see how they work...."
And he would immediately pull out the workers' files. "Which worker is it? Let me see." Then he pointed towards the filing cabinet. "All day and all night, I'm watching them. What more do they want?"
Then one day the manager of Bath House #10 came in need of some workers. He needed a backscrubber for the woman's section, an accountant and two cleaning women. Since he knew Anketov's style of working, he had already prepared the applicants' personal files in advance and for security and secrecy, he had even sewed the applicant's papers inside a bag and brought them to the Chief himself. "The applicants are waiting at the door. Should we let them in?"
"What for? replied Anketov. I'm not interested in seeing what they look like."
"Maybe you'd like to speak to them?"
Anketov slammed down his fist on the folders. "They're all here in the files. These give me the best idea of who the applicants are. The manager left and Anketov began to take a look at the "applicants."
One of the personal files belonged to Nuru Nuruzade, a member of the Young Communist League (Komsomol). The manager was serious about hiring him as he had experience in accounting and during high school had received excellent marks in mathematics.
Another folder belonged to Nissa Ganbar. The Manager wanted to hire her as a backscrubber in the woman's section. Nissa deserved the job as she already had six years of experience in a bath house in Tbilisi. Sharabanu, an old women, wanted to be a cleaning woman as did her divorced daughter, Massma.
Anketov took the red pencil and wrote his decision on the folders. He rejected Massma as she had not brought a document describing her relationship with her former husband.
He accepted Shahrabanu and was very impressed with Nissa Ganbar's file and autobiography. He felt pleased to read, "She is the daughter of an ironsmith, none of her relations include anyone to be suspicious of, she is a housewife, and is enrolled in classes to learn how to read and write."
"I need an employee with such a fine clean record," he told himself. "She would be perfect to handle the accounts." The remaining position, he gave to Nuru and informed his secretary.
It wasn't long before the manager called to tell him that Nissa Ganbar would not accept the accountant's position. "She's right. She's illiterate and can't add two and two." But Anketov interrupted him, "She has no right not to accept. Wait a minute, I'll speak with her."
And with that, he hung up the phone, opened Nissa's folder and began cursing. "I had no reservations about you. I believed you and that's why I appointed you to the best position. Is this a joke? It must be. Don't go joking about such things. Now get to work!"
He closed the folder and placed it into the cabinet when suddenly the door opened and a young boy entered.
"Are you Comrade Anketov?"
Anketov walked around to the other side of the table busy looking for something. Eventually, he glanced up and replied, "And what if I am?"
"I've come to thank you. You appointed me as backscrubber in the women's bath house! Do you understand what you've done?"
"Whatever decision I made, It's final. The order has been written and you have to work there."
"Oh no, I don't. You must be crazy to give such an order!" the young man insisted. Anketov stared angrily at Nuru but said nothing. He opened the cabinet and took out Nuruzade's personal file. Incensed, he looked at the file and began writing, "You're fired! Go wherever you want to go!" Nuru grabbed the personal file from Anketov's hand.
"Be careful," Anketov cautioned. "Some of the papers might fall out."
"Let me see what you've written on my file," the boy insisted.
Nuru opened the folder, looked at Anketov's note and burst out laughing. "Who are you to fire me from the job?" With that, he began tearing up the Chief's note right in front of him.
No one had ever before dared treat any of Anketov's files with such disrespect-these, the files to which he had dedicated his entire existence. Such disregard was incomprehensible to a man whose every waking moment had been occupied and obsessed with managing pieces of papers, the embodiment of all his responsibilities. A deep sigh escaped from Anketov's lips as he suddenly fainted, collapsing to the floor in a heap.
1 Anket Anketov is a play on words. "Anket" in Azerbaijani means "application." Here the author follows a typical pattern in naming by doubling the first name and adding the Russian suffix, "-ov".
"Anket" was the most comprehensive record in one's "Personal File." It contained information collected over a lifetime which included: one's official name, date of birth, place of residence, parent's name and occupations, biographical statement, work history, nationality, ethnicity, class (collective farmer, worker or intellectual), educational history, party affiliation, list of awards and medals, names of elected positions, names of all immediate family members, names of people one lived with, military service (when, where, and in what capacity), whether one had traveled abroad (and if so, why and when), and whether one presently had any relatives living abroad. UP
2 In the Soviet Period, one's "Personal File" was a highly confidential document and followed an individual through his entire career. It included a person's Certificate of Residence, educational diplomas, Birth Certificate, photos, letters of recommendations and "anket" (See Note 1). At death, the "Personal File" was retained at the last place of work. This practice of maintaining a "Personal File" that follows one throughout his or her work career still continues today.UP
3 In the 30s, Soviet ideology classified people as "friend, enemy, or neutral." Often "neutral" people were known for trying to reconcile the differences between systems and were, therefore, often viewed even more suspiciously than "enemy." A popular expression during the Soviet period was, "Whoever is not with us-is against us." Such categorization, in effect, eliminated the possibility of any middle stance and viewed people in diametrical positions to one another: friend-enemy, only. UP
From Azerbaijan International (4.1) Spring 1996.
© Azerbaijan International 1996. All rights reserved.