We don’t often stumble across words in American English which come to us from the Russian language. But apparatchik is clearly one of note. I found it in a New York Times article, where the author had referred to people who watch over the shoulder of a government official, just waiting for him to make a mistake.
That’s a pretty good way of introducing the word. It’s a negative term as we use it today. The closest I could come to it in terms of other words in our language is that of bureaucrat, who some people see as someone who is an uninspired employee of government who just does the job and goes home every day. Having had parents who were both bureaucrats I see it a little less negative. Some bureaucrats are the substance of the work which gets done in government. The people at the top of the pecking order get all the publicity (negative and positive) but the bureaucrats…the apparatchiks…put in the hours, get their hands dirty, and provide the substance which is needed in order for the agency to function.
Unfortunately, bureaucrats can also be those who insist upon shuffling lots of papers, checking details, relishing in finding an incomplete application for something, or exercising a false sense of importance by rejecting your hard work and sending you back to the end of the line. For some reason, I think of the Department of Motor Vehicles when I try to imagine this functionary. They are frustrating, and it often seems that a minor change in a word or a number on an application would suffice, but the bureaucrat insists that there isn’t time for that. You must leave the line, go to another office or another desk and complete some seemingly senseless task before returning to the already-long line to get your papers reviewed again. I suspect we’ve all been there at one time or another.
In the Russian context, the apparatchik is a person who gets paid to do the dirty work. Sometimes they are un-trained and incompetent in the particular tasks for which they are employed, simply being shuffled around the government to fill out tasks.
The Times article used the term in the sense that the particular person in government they were reporting about needed a group of apparatchiks hanging around, looking over his shoulder, like someone needs a case of the shingles. In the days of Soviet intrigue the apparatchiks could be unscrupulous, nasty and dangerous. They were frequently employed as internal spies, supposedly weeding out weak links in the government for “discipline.” This negative connotation surrounds the word even today.
My inclination is to reserve the word for a special occasion. I wouldn’t want to throw it around casually, for fear of it losing its significance. But I’m convinced that someplace along the way the opportunity will arise to employ the word in a piece I’m writing.
Illustration Credit: 188.pair.com