When we think of institutional tyrannies, few come close to matching the system of concentration camps in the Soviet Union: the Gulag. They operated from 1918 until after the Soviet Union collapsed in December 1991. It took time to close them in 1992.
In his book, To Build a Castle, Vladimir Bukovsky provides one of the finest descriptions of institution-jamming ever recorded. He organized it.
What you are about to read is like nothing you have ever read. I have spent over 45 years studying bureaucracies in theory and practice. I have seen nothing to match it.
Bukovsky spent well over a decade in the Soviet gulag concentration camp system in the 1960s and 1970s. He was arrested and sentenced in spite of specific civil rights protections provided by the Soviet Constitution – a document which was never respected by the Soviet bureaucracy. But once in prison, he learned to make life miserable for the director of his camp.
He learned that written complaints had to be responded to officially within a month. This administrative rule governing the camps was for “Western consumption,” but it was nevertheless a rule. Any camp administrator who failed to honor it risked the possibility of punishment, should a superior (or ambitious subordinate) decide to pressure him for any reason. In short, any failure to “do it by the book” could be used against him later on.
Bukovsky became an assembly-line producer of official protests. By the end of his career as a “zek,” he had taught hundreds of other inmates to follow his lead. By following certain procedures that were specified by the complaint system, Bukovsky’s protesting army began to disrupt the whole Soviet bureaucracy. His camp clogged the entire system with protests – hundreds of them per day. He estimates that eventually the number of formal complaints exceeded 75,000. To achieve such a phenomenal output, the protestors had to adopt the division of labor. Bukovsky describes the process: “At the height of our war, each of us wrote from ten to thirty complaints a day. Composing thirty complaints in one day is not easy, so we usually divided up the subjects among ourselves and each man wrote on his own subject before handing it around for copying by all the others. If there are five men in a cell and each man takes six subjects, each of them has the chance to write thirty complaints while composing only six himself.”
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