09 January 2009

Life in the Archive and the Best of MTBE 2008

I never intended to become an archive hound. I didn’t dream of a life in which I would spend months with stunning views of office furniture and crinkled pieces of moldy paper illuminated by fluorescent lights.

But, as of yesterday, I have now visited twenty separate archival sites trying to track down the biographical details of the odd band of characters I am studying for my dissertation. And I’m soon off to peek into number 21, which I am promising myself will be the last new archive I set foot in until I become a doctor.

At least I get some good stories out of all these visits. Like this one, the winner of the Best of MTBE 2008 poll (winning 57% of the votes, beating out my ruminations on racial violence in Russia, which only received the approval of 43% of those polled), re-posted for your reading pleasure. For those of you still feeling the post-election crash, it may bring back halcyon memories of the primaries:

14 March 2008

The Chain-Smoking Archivist:
Another Tale from the Guts of Moscow’s Memory Machines

Every day I come to Latoya Dzhozefovna* with my request slips filled out to the limit, hoping to get as much work done as is possible in my limited time in Moscow. Some days I get everything I order and other days nothing shows up and I go home. Most days the documents come in, just one or two items light.

At first I made a note of the undelivered items and worked on what I got. Being a fresh face in the archive, I certainly didn’t want to rub anyone the wrong way just as my research was starting. Then after a couple of weeks, I would quietly re-order the items that didn’t show up upon their first summons. Again, some came, some didn’t.

(Seasoned Russianists may fear the beginning of a discussion of uncertainty, the enigma of the Russian soul and avos'. Not today and not from me, dear friends.)

Two months later, I had a growing list of documents I wanted to read but seemed resistant to the ordering process. I still wasn’t sure, however, if I was ready to challenge the system. And I had plenty of other work.

Then, out of the blue a disheveled archivist—let’s call him Tito Dzhozefovich—walked up to my desk with his unruly mane of grey hair and an untucked plaid shirt. He verified my identity and told me to come to his office when I had finished my work for the day. Accustomed to not talking to anyone all day, I was slightly jarred by this interaction. “Yes, yes, after I finish, I will come to your office,” I said, forgetting to ask for pertinent information like his name or the whereabouts of his office.

My predicament was already apparent to me as I watched Tito shuffle out into the corridor. But not knowing his name, I found myself unable to yell and stop the disappearance of my document-delivery connection.

“Archivist!” “Comrade!” “Mister!” “Citizen!” They all sounded a little off as I previewed my language options in my head. I even considered “Uncle!”

I sat perplexed and depressed that I still can’t properly function in Russian. He closed the door behind him.

I finished my work and returned my materials to Latoya Dzhozefovna, asking her, “Do you happen to know where’s the office of the archivist who came to talk to me?”


“The old guy who came to talk to me,” I replied, arching my brow a little since it was obvious that she was being coy; nobody else had been in the hall since he left. “I’m sorry, Latoya Dzhozefovna, I don’t know his name.”

“The little man? That’s Tito Dzhozefovich,” she said, before telling me where his office is.

I practiced possible conversations in my head as I made my way down the hallway, though I had no idea why Tito wanted to see me. Knock-knock, da-da, and I stepped into the office. A creeping vine covered one wall and a poorly-rendered Marx looked down at me from a portrait across the room. Two desks and several auxiliary tables were covered with stacks of folders and books. In the corner closest to me was a small cassette player with a huge box of tapes next to it. Amongst them were Duke Ellington, Ravi Shankar and Shostakovich.

In this room, Homo sovieticus was alive, if not well.

Tito's officemate, Jermaine Dzhozefovich, introduced himself and explained that Tito was on a cigarette break.

“Will he be long?”

Glancing over at the other desk, Jermaine said, “Shouldn’t be too long, he didn’t take his glasses. Sit down.” I sat down and said, “Thank you.” A foreign language can make one very polite and compliant.

Jermaine got back to his work for about thirty seconds before looking up at me and querying, “What is this surname Штайнвей in English?”

“Steinway,” I said, “like the piano.”

“What piano?”

“Oh, it’s a factory for pianos in the West.”

As usual, I couldn’t help laughing over exactly how stupid I sound in Russian, even to myself.

Jermaine simply replied, “Write it down in English letters.”

I did. And then Jermaine decided to try again with a different subject, “What do you think about Obama and Clinton?”

“What do you mean?”

“Who exactly do you think will win?”

“Hard to say. I would rather Obama be President, but it’s too early to say. We’ll have to see who gets more support.”

I should have been more careful with my word choice, as Jermaine immediately took my use of “support” to mean financial support. “But Clinton has the money and connections, true? She is like our Medvedev. Your America is not so different than Russia, it’s all about money and ties. That’s why I will vote for Zyuganov to protest against these liberals!” (Note to American readers: liberal in Russian parlance doesn’t carry the dirty baggage of being some soft-on-crime, bleeding-heart reformer; rather it connotes a filthy, money-grubbing, treacherous, soulless hack who bows to Washington and Wall Street.)

Okay, clearly Jermaine had some things to get off his chest. But I was a little taken aback at the immediate connection of Medvedev and Clinton as two politicians entrenched in the political machine and in the deep pockets of global capital. I’m not completely sure, but I think Jermaine was working on some SAT-esque analogy of Zhirinovsky : Medvedev : Zyuganov as McCain : Clinton : Obama. But before I could say anything further, Tito came back from his cigarette break.

“I have many folders you have ordered but I do not think you really want them, there’s nothing in them, so why bother to process them?”

At this moment, I experienced the classic “I have no idea what to say in any language” feeling.

“May I see them?” I tried, hoping with one pithy question to circumvent whatever conversation Jermaine had in mind and to actually get the documents I requested.

“Look, sit at my desk and read all the files, they are just one or two slips of paper each. No reason for the paperwork. I’ll go take a cigarette break,” said Tito, grabbing his glasses and leaving me with a pile of huge bookmarked folders.

The little slips of paper included details on a former Ghadar Party member living in Soviet Georgia going on a hunger strike to protest the unfair persecution of his ex-wife and various Asian migrants gone “missing” in the late 1930s. I scribbled my notes and told Jermaine to thank Tito for me since I had no idea when he was going to return.

A few weeks later, Latoya told me to go see Tito again. Of course, once I got to his office there was no Tito, just Jermaine typing up a guide to some old files. “Is Tito Dzhozefovich in the office today?”

“He should be. I think he’s just out for a cigarette. What is this McCain about? Why do Americans choose a militaristic Russophobe?”

“Don’t even start! McCain is a nightmare. Did you hear about his song about Iran?” I exclaimed, hoping to cut him off at the pass.

“What song?”

Uh-oh. Now, how was I going to get across “Bomb-bomb-bomb, bomb-bomb Iran!” in Russian?

“He sang some song about bombing Iran at a conference. A complete nightmare,” I reiterated.

“But perhaps he will bring about the end of your empire.”

Maybe in English I would have gotten into the problems I have with this “the worse, the better” brand of lefty optimism. Maybe not. Definitely not in Russian.

“Perhaps. We live, we’ll see.”

When you hit bottom, reach for a Russian aphorism. I usually favor, “People make plans and God does as he will.” But I wasn’t sure if it fit this situation exactly.

After a few moments of silence, Tito came by to instruct me to make a full list of all documents I wanted because he was tired of getting the maximum for me every day. “Let’s just finish this work. How long are you here for?”

“Until June.”

“Oh, well, all the same, we should just get this work done.”

I came back a couple of days later with a printed list of a couple hundred folders. You can guess where Tito was when I walked into the office.

Jermaine started, “What is your Clinton doing now?”

“You mean how she couldn’t properly pronounce Medvedev?”

“What? She couldn’t say Medvedev?”

“Yes, it was a big story in the American press. What are you talking about?”

“How she’s gone crazy. Pure female hysterics. A black man has stolen her treasure and now she wants everyone to cry for her. Pure female hysterics.”

“Oh, I think it’s just politics—it always gets emotional toward the finish. For everyone.”

“You really don’t think it’s a racial question?”

I looked at Tito’s desk. His glasses were nowhere to be found.

*All names have been changed to Russified versions of members of the Jackson family.


Thanks to all who voted in the poll. I swear, I’d try to write up more of these stories but, generally speaking, American archives just aren’t as much fun as the Russian ones. I mean, the folks yesterday tried: asking me to submit two forms of ID; mis-instructing me on how to order materials; forcing me to walk across a campus to pick up a laminated guest ID (for a one-day visit); re-instructing me in how to order materials; having a ridiculous digital photography rule (first flag the folder; then, before returning it, ask the attendant to page the head archivist to examine your materials to decide if they can be shot; wait five minutes for dude to show up; take photo after archivist makes a crack about his tedious job; return the folder; repeat this entire process every ten minutes); and then losing my driver’s license.


Anonymous said...

losing my driver’s license.

Well, you won't be needing it now that you're known there, will you?

Buster said...

I hope that they feel the same way at the airport...

Lyndon said...

Thank you for reposting this. I had the pleasure of (literally) laughing out loud for a second time at the line "In this room, Homo sovieticus was alive, if not well."

Happy new year to you and good luck with the diss.

PS - the anti-spam word is "grants" - hopefully that is a good omen for all academics and wanna-be academics.