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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Russia: Just Like Any Office

For the first time in more than 20 years, I've been working in a large office. I'm by no means an expert: I've only been in it for the past six weeks or so. But already I've learned more about what's happening in Russia than is truly comfortable.

An awful lot of people, one way and another, work in offices; giving and taking orders; moving up, making out, lying low. But offices -- at least this is how it seems to me -- are not really places for work at all. They're simply places that make you busy: they provide the illusion of work. If I need to do any real work, I go home to do it, uninterrupted by telephones and coffee and gossip, not to mention the constant exchange of how-abouts and what-if-we's.

The other thing I've noticed about offices is that when an office enterprise is going through a period of change, or is otherwise beleaguered, it seems to bring out the worst in its employees. At the best of times offices are hotbeds of minor intrigues, of attractions and kinships displayed, and then either accepted or rejected. Alliances are formed; minor empires-within-empires are built; information is passed between groups quickly or slowly depending on some interior group calculus of admiration or respect.

But when times are bad, then the enterprise comes virtually to a halt -- and all of these subdominant, everyday hierarchical maneuverings become the actual business of the office. Doors are closed rather than open; people gather together secretly in knots, jockeying for influence and position. The gossip becomes malevolent; relationships become fragile. Blame-dodging and paranoia -- in the sudden absence of any clear future or focus for the enterprise -- are the order of its day.

At the root of all this is competition, of course: competition for survival or for continued influence. When times are good, when an office is well run, this individual competitive drive is something shared collectively by the office group; it's bent to a common purpose. But when times are bad, when there's little leadership from the top or sense of direction, the atmosphere quickly becomes poisoned. Everyone in the office is suddenly in the game only for himself or herself. The deputy chiefs eye each other warily; the minor executives consider possible alliances; the secretaries become spies.

As a person coming in from the cold, as it were, of self-employment, perhaps I notice all this more than those who have worked in offices for years. They simply, perhaps, take it all for granted: the routine establishment of hierarchies and pecking orders; and the dissolution of the group into warring individuals when there is no common sense of enterprise and no clear source of authority at all.

I, on the other hand, am (still) profoundly shocked by it. And I can't help thinking that it's somehow basic to the behavior of humans in groups -- something to do with the hormones, perhaps, or a belated echo of life among our half-brothers, the chimpanzees. And if this is so -- if it is indeed generic to our species -- then I can't help thinking too that it provides a sort of microcosmic insight into what is happening in the Kremlin.

For consider this -- as they used to say in the thrusting current-affairs-speak of my first days in British television: A year and a half ago, one of President Yeltsin's top aides (dismissed by him, as so many have been since) announced that "everyone around him has long given up on The Boss." And one must assume, after the no-show episode at Shannon Airport et al., that this situation has gotten no better since. The Kremlin office-apparat, then, is without any authority at the top. It is simply getting larger and larger as more and more of those who speak out against the president are drawn into its endless domain of (as it were) expense accounts and fancy office furniture. We have to believe, then -- on the basis of my modest parallel -- that it is today a huge Byzantine stew of fragile alliances, endemic distrust and responsibility-dodging. The ship of state is not going anywhere. The captain is locked in his cabin while the crew plays a game of one-upmanship.

I'm not sure if my analogy between the Russian government and office politics can really hold water. But the history of Russia -- the rigidly defined hierarchies of its central bureaucracy and the paranoid power-jockeying that is built into the walls of its most important citadel -- suggests that it is indeed like a Western office-complex, only much, much more so. In any case, I shall be looking round my new and strange office-environment with renewed interest from now on. And I shall report from the Kremlin-office front when there are new revelations.