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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

A Bureaucrat's Furnishings Tell the Tale

It used to be so simple. To be a well-equipped bureaucrat meant following a very simple code: hang the right portraits, buy the right table, display the right books in the cupboards and place the right number of telephones on the desk.

And now? Like everything else, it's chaos.

Here's a brief primer:

o How many chairs does he have? The most chairs I have ever seen in one office was 37, in a logging director's office in Arkhangelsk. Bureaucrats inevitably have long conference tables that are positively barricaded by a tight ring of chairs. Many bureaucrats then go a step further and line chairs up along the wall as well. To tell you the truth, I don't know what the chairs mean.

o Whose portrait does he hang? There is no secret to this as far as I can tell. Portraits of Lenin are still the most common and presumably mean the person leans toward command economics. Or it could simply mean that he has a crack in the wall and has nothing else to cover it. I have also seen portraits of Brezhnev, Gorbachev, Andropov, Sakharov, Czar Nicholas II and Stalin (in the office of the editor of the newspaper Bolshevik). I've never seen Khrushchev's. Democratic politicians have simply abandoned portraits as being far too vagarious, and have opted for large Russian flags.

o How many phones does he have? The most phones I have ever seen on one man's desk, six, was in the office of the director of a shoe factory in Penza. Though I was dying to, I did not ask him what they were all for. I had serious matters to discuss and I did not want to put him off by forcing him to admit that two of the phones were not connected at the other end. Four phones are common - one direct line to Moscow, one to the local exchange, one hot line to the immediate superior and one to the factory floor.

o What books does he keep? Again, no secret here. Collected works of Lenin and Marx were standard issue in the bureaucrat's office of the past. I can just imagine a factory director, faced with a difficult decision about whether to invest in a new piece of equipment, turning to Lenin for inspiration. These books, which are kept in a long cabinet against one wall, are today even more common than Lenin's portrait, presumably because they are more work to remove - and, of course, he would need something to replace them with. If a bureaucrat does not have a set of these books, it is a sign that he made an actual effort to get rid of them.

You may think my interest in bureaucrat's office furnishings is somewhat frivolous, but I assure you it is not. In an interview, a bureaucrat may play fast-and-loose with the facts, but his furnishings never lie.