“We Await You, Merry Gnome!”

"Evolution of Soviet bureaucrat according to Darwin (adaptation of species). Enlarged bottom for sitting at meetings, and swollen belly for tea."Russian chinovniki are known for a lot of things–graft, ineptitude, oblomovism, and when necessary, zealous obsequiousness.  The latter is usually the only thing that seems to spur him off his perch, which is usually behind a desk, into some kind of action.  As any student of Russian history knows, the dynamic between the chinovnik and his superiors is usually one where the latter reigns down on the head of the former, often with a measure of force since this is really the only way to pull the bureaucrat out of lethargy.  Sadly, for the chinovnik this dynamic also entails that when he follows the often inept orders of his bosses, he, not the leader, gets blamed when everything goes to hell.

Being a Russian bureaucrat can be a precarious as much as it is a rewarding position.

Sometimes, the chinovnik takes preemptive action in hopes to satisfy the leader even if the latter is not looking to be satisfied.  And this when his act of overzealous servility can blow up in his face.

Take for example, the recent hilarious incident in Omsk where a preemptive measure to make President Medvedev “comfortable” led to the removal of a poster reading “We Await You, Merry Gnome.”  Some official deemed the placard offensive. For everyone else it simply advertised a children’s play.  As the Moscow Times explains,

The poster, which advertised a children’s play, was located on a street that Medvedev’s convoy was to use on the way to a local refinery, the report said. It was unclear exactly why the poster might have been removed, though Novy Region suggested that officials may have been afraid of offending Medvedev, whose height has been estimated in the media at 162 centimeters.

That’s a whopping 5’3″ for all you metrically challenged.  The effort, of course, has rightly been ridiculed across Russia’s blogosphere.

Unfortunately, I have yet to track down a picture of the poster.  I imagine it showing your typical gnome walking along with a sack strung over his shoulder.  Could he be bringing good wishes to his recipients? Not unlike a certain visitor from Moscow?

Now, I have a question.  Doesn’t the removal of the poster bring attention to exactly what the Omsk chinovniki wanted to avoid–that is, Medvedev’s gnome-like stature?  Isn’t their act of servility really a knock against his Gnomeness? Perhaps in this instance we should view this act as a weapon of the weak. Could the bureaucrat’s slavishness really be the source of his power? Something to ponder . . .

These questions also suggest that the chinovnik is smarter than he appears.  Which of course is highly suspect.  Nevertheless, he just might be, though his other actions belie (or shroud?) his genius. For example, as Novyi Region notes, in addition to removing the potentially offensive advert, Omsk officials put up some other Potemkin appearances like telling stores to not hang signs and have clean snow trucked in to cover the dirty flakes along the sidewalks.  All of this was done to “not offend the Presidential eye.”  Then there are the other examples of chinovniki from other regions looking to not offend visiting potentates.  In Kirov, officials paved a road over train tacks so Medvedev’s retinue wouldn’t have to brake or feel the uncomfortable bump.  In Leningrad province, bureaucrats put up a plaque to commemorate Putin, while their counterparts in Eastern Siberia made the town mosquito-rein for VVP’s visit.

As many already know, such gestures are not new in Russia, nor unique to it.  Yet, changing the landscape not so much as to impress but to not offend seems somewhat unique, especially when what is being changed is, well, benign to everyone else.

Perhaps this incident is also more proof that Russia has really never shaken its monarchistic habits.  As LJ blogger vl-titov reminds us, something akin to “We Await You, Merry Gnome” occurred under Nicholas II:

At the turn of the 20th century, during the reign of Nicholas II, the publishing house Sytinа ran afoul of history.  A calendar which depicted a rosy-cheeked peasant carrying four pigs to a market was declared offensive. At the moment this occurred, the calendar came out and was dispersed to stores, shops, and stalls.  The immense strength of the police was unfurled to eliminate the offending ill-fated etching.

The thing was that at the time the empress gave birth to four daughters.  And some genius saw a resemblance in the innocent picture.

History has recently repeated itself.


h/t Carl Thomson.