There is a book by a Russian named Vladimir Bukovsky called “To Build a Castle-My Life As a Dissenter” which is a riveting autobiographical story about Vladimir Bukovsky’s twelve years in the brutal prison system of the old USSR. He was sent there for performing poetry that satirized the Soviet regime and for being a dissenter. In his book Bukovsky documents how he fought and won fighting against the brutal Soviet Gulag system. It is a fascinating story with ramifications for our own time.
In my lifetime, the very definition of brutal institutional tyrannies was the Soviet Union’s concentration camps called simply “The Gulag”. To imagine that one young man could bring down such a system as a prisoner was simply beyond my imagination until I learned of Vladimir Bukovsky and his story.
Bukovsky spent over a decade in the Gulag system in the sixties and seventies. His arrest and conviction violated the Soviet Constitution, but the Russian communists never followed that document anyway as it was just for show. The Russian Constitution offered many specific civil rights and yet the country became a totalitarian dictatorship anyway. The outlook for Vladimir Bukovsky as he entered the gulag system in the 1960s was bleak indeed.
The Soviet functionaries of its bureaucratic machine were dedicated rule followers and Bukovsky found that the prison bureaucracy had to respond to written complaints within thirty days. This administrative rule governing the camps was instituted for propaganda purposes but it was nevertheless a rule that the prison bureaucracy had to follow, and here Bukovsky found the Achilles’ heel of the system. You see, any prison camp administrator who did not follow that 30 day rule risked punishment himself if his violation was reported by an underling or noticed by a superior. The camp administrator simply could not risk failing to respond to a written complaint and so Bukovsky became the most prolific generator of written complaints in history! Then Bukovsky taught hundreds of other prisoners in the gulag to do the same. They were able to file hundreds of formal complains a day. The load on the prison bureaucracy became overwhelming.
“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.” ~ Vladimir Bukovsky
These formal complaints were addressed to prominent men and organizations in the Soviet system. Each of these targets of a formal complaint had to respond to the complaint within 30 days. “In the Soviet Union, all well-known individuals are state functionaries”, wrote Bukovsky.
The prison bureaucracy had a three day time deadline in which they had to forward on the complaint. If they failed to do so, then they risked punishment and loss of any bonus that might have otherwise been due to them. In the end, the system had to use every last employee to help with the paperwork assault, but there was no way to keep up.
Getting the complaints out was an overwhelming task, but the responses had to be recorded in a special record book. In fact, all complaints had to follow a very complex route of travel and be recorded all along the way. The local prosecutor’s office was involved as was the Interior Ministry, and these offices could not keep up with the massive paperwork flow any better than the prison bureaucracy could. In time all sorts of different bureaucracies found that they were missing deadlines and in danger of reprimands and lost bonuses. Since in any system different bureaucracies are always at war with one another, this paperwork avalanche and missed deadlines became a weapon for ambitious functionaries to use against other functionaries in other departments and eventually the entire bureaucratic system of the Soviet Union found itself drawn into this paperwork war. There was no department or institution in the USSR that was not involved in this massive complaint war. The complaint idea spread far beyond Bukovsky and his group to a large portion of the prisoners in the gulag system. Bukovsky says in his book that he believes that the entire Soviet bureaucratic machine was near collapse when the Soviets finally capitulated and agreed to many specific demands by the prisoners to improve life in the gulags. In 1977 they deported Vladimir Bukovsky.
Vladimir Bukovsky had won. He won by using the rules of the system against the system. it took teamwork, division of labor, dedication, perseverance, and strength of character but the Russian prisoners of the gulag beat the system. As the U.S. becomes more and more like the USSR, we need to keep in mind the strategy of Vladimir Bukovsky. Every system has a weak point and that means that every system can be brought down. Not every system will yield to a paperwork war but If you can spot the weak point in the system, you can exploit it and beat the system. You can win.