Readings — From the June 2017 issue

Lord of the Files

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By Alexander Zinoviev, from Homo Sovieticus, a novel that was originally published in 1985 and is included in Boredom, an anthology that was published in January by M.I.T. Press and Whitechapel Gallery. Translated from the Russian by Charles Janson.

Soviet people are trained to write Reports about everything. It is an indispensable element of the Communist organization of work. Monthly Reports, Quarterly Reports, Yearly Reports, Five-Yearly Reports. One old Bolshevik on the books of our institute wrote a Report about his entire life since the revolution. Three thousand pages in very small type. He trundled his epoch-making Report around to the Party office in two battered old shopping bags and asked the officials to study it and draw lessons from it. The Secretary of the Party bureau entrusted me with this noble mission. In half an hour I wrote my Report on the Report of the old Bolshevik without even looking at it. In the years of Soviet power (so I wrote in my Report) he had consumed so many tons of bread and porridge, drunk so many kegs of vodka, written so many secret denunciations and made so many oral ones, sat for so many years’ worth of time at meetings and stood for so many years in lines. “You are laughing at him,” said Secretary. “No, I’m crying,” I said. “What shall we do?” asked Secretary. “We’ll write to the author on official paper telling him that his manuscript has been transmitted to the Secret Division of the Central Party Archives,” I said. “Why on official paper?” asked Secretary. “So that the author can frame it and hang it on the wall next to the fifty or so official testimonials that he has received in the course of his inordinately long and stupid life,” I said. “But why to the Secret Division?” asked Secretary. “So that he won’t torment us anymore with his reminiscences,” I answered. “But where does this go?” asked Secretary, motioning toward the battered shopping bags that contained the priceless experience of the life of a whole generation. “To the dump,” I said. “Go ahead,” said Secretary, “and then write me a short Report about what you’ve done.”

We usually write Reports not to provide a summary or to extract lessons but by virtue of certain higher, mystical considerations. Therefore, as a rule, we put all we’ve got into them, so that it’s practically impossible to sift the truth from invention. And indeed there is no need to do this. Nobody reads our Reports anyway. In my Quarterly Report I once wrote that I had discovered ten new elementary particles. I did this with the purely cognitive intention of checking my theory of Reports. The Director of the section sent for me. I was on the point of thinking that my theory was mistaken, but I needn’t have worried. My Report, Director said, was too short. Would I add a couple of pages? I made a demagogic declaration: The value of a Report, I said, lay not in the number of pages but in what, according to the Report, had been done. “Read what I have done,” I pleaded, “and compare it with what the others did.” “Don’t try to fool me,” said Director calmly. “Do you think the others have done less than you?” And so I added a couple of pages to the Report in which I communicated the news that I had discovered a method of converting the contents of Moscow’s trash cans into first-class foodstuffs. “Well done,” said Director, “the man who can write a good Report is a good worker.”

But don’t imagine that the Report is a superfluous bureaucratic operation. It is a powerful way of integrating people into the Communist system. The important thing is not the contents, just the fact that the Report exists.

We Soviet people are also trained to take a creative approach to everything. I remember, in this connection, a very instructive event. Our spies in the West stole the drawings of a machine-tool that was intended for very complex and sophisticated operations. At the same time they picked up the machine-tool’s component parts. A special group was formed to get the hang of the machine-tool. The higher-ups were interested in it because the machine-tool was necessary for tank production. They ordered the group to approach its task in a creative and innovatory spirit and in the most economical manner possible. And they certainly innovated. At the first assembly of the machine-tool they found that five of the components were superfluous. The machine-tool worked without them. Once more they took it to bits and put it together again. Now there were ten unnecessary parts. And still the machine-tool worked. Once more they dismantled and reassembled it. Twenty parts too many. But the machine-tool worked.

Somebody voiced the proposition that, after five more dismantlings and reassemblies, the machine-tool would work without any components at all. What a discovery that would be. The members of the group looked suspiciously at this super-economizer. They reported to the management that, as a result of the creative approach, the group had substantially simplified the excessively complicated construction of the machine-tool. From then on the machine-tool began to perform the most elementary and crude operations. After a month it broke down completely, and for good. But by this time the government had lost interest in it. Western firms had begun to sell us parts of tanks ready-made.

When they had sent me here, the responsible comrades from the Organs ordered me, among their other parting words, to adopt a creative approach to my mission. As a Soviet man I understood the real meaning of this farewell: Sit quietly and don’t make a nuisance of yourself. And as regards creativity, that is needed only for the Report. The worst possible Report is more interesting than the greatest conceivable achievements if it’s executed with expertise not in the matter that the Report is about but in the really important matter, which is the technique of writing a Report. Here my real life is boredom and gray depression in comparison with a whole heap of things I could say about it. You can imagine what would happen in this world if we all began to write Reports about our sojourn in the other one.

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