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What is an Apparatchik?

An apparatchik is a dedicated, often unquestioning, member of a political organization or government bureaucracy. Rooted in Soviet history, the term evokes images of a loyal functionary entrenched in the machinery of state. These individuals are the cogs that keep the system running smoothly, but at what cost to personal ideology and societal progress? Reflect on the role of such figures in modern governance.
L. Burgoon
L. Burgoon

The Russian word apparatchik previously meant a government official in the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR). Since the break up of the USSR and dismantling of the government there, the word has come to mean an obedient bureaucratic. The term apparatchik suggests that someone is a “yes man," that is, he follows orders blindly. Although a Russian colloquialism, the term has became a part of the worldwide lexicon.

Apparatchik is a compound of the Russian words apparat and chik. Apparat is translated into English as apparatus and is used in this context to mean a government organization. Chik means agent.

A map of the Soviet Union, with the star, sickle, and hammer that appeared on its flag.
A map of the Soviet Union, with the star, sickle, and hammer that appeared on its flag.

The Communist Party in the USSR used apparatchiks to carry out government orders and its agenda. The officials were expected to tow the government line, maintain order, and squash any rebellion in their districts. Some of the bureaucrats had legitimate roles such as overseeing government agencies. Others were merely figureheads appointed to positions because of their loyalty to the Communist Party and had little to no expertise. This allegiance often gave the apparatchiks lifetime employment as long as they didn’t betray or be perceived as betraying the party’s teachings or orders.

In addition to steady employment, the USSR rewarded an apparatchik in other ways. He had more freedom than his fellow citizens to move around the Soviet bloc. An apparatchik may officially have drawn a low salary in keeping with communist principles, but could also expect kickbacks. The official might also have received better housing and permission to educate his children outside of the USSR. This all played into the USSR’s control of an apparatchik who knew that the luxuries could be taken away if he stepped out of line.

The word apparatchik has not gone out of use since the USSR dismantled in 1991. New regimes in former USSR nations employ apparatchiks or the equivalent to carry out government orders. Russians, however, still use the term to describe inflexible government officials who appear submissive or who block democratic reforms. Communist parties in many countries also continue to call certain officials apparatchiks. This is not considered an insult, but merely denotes a position of responsibility within the party.

Most other modern uses of apparatchik are of a disparaging nature. Political operatives insult opponents with the term, i.e., suggesting that party officials blindly follow orders from the top without critical thought. Opposing politicians frequently accuse the other side of filling government positions with apparatchiks to wield control and tamp down dissent. The word often is employed near election time to dissuade voters from supporting certain candidates.

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    • A map of the Soviet Union, with the star, sickle, and hammer that appeared on its flag.
      By: axellwolf
      A map of the Soviet Union, with the star, sickle, and hammer that appeared on its flag.