The Bureaucracy: Defining Moral Boundaries in Literature from the Soviet Union

An extensive bureaucracy is one of the identifying features of the modern nation state. Distributed government administration allows for those factors which drive the state to function smoothly; without it, enforcing legal codes and economic policies would be impossible. During Stalin’s reign, the USSR’s rapid growth necessitated an expeditious rollout of a bureaucratic system to control the strict regulations that accompanied collectivization, the growth of transportation systems, and the massive prison and labor camp programs. This expansion put bureaucrats in positions of great power, with little oversight. Soviet literature is saturated with dissident literature, created by authors frustrated by both the structural abuse of the working/peasant class, and by the inhumane treatment of the clandestine Gulag system. In systems where those in positions of power are given such autonomy, the question of how superiors act when they hate their inferiors comes up often. “Berries” and “Story of an Illness” are two stories that demonstrate the moral boundaries of the government workers who detest their inferiors, while “Bees and People” serves as a warning against pushing those boundaries.

Varlam Shalamov’s “Berries”, published in 1970, is a (likely autobiographical) tale of exploitation within the boundaries of bureaucracy within the Gulag system. In the story, the narrator and his comrade deviate from their task of collecting and hauling wood to collect berries. The story opens with the narrator being accused by a guard of being a Fascist, for ‘jamming sticks into the wheel’ of the Motherland. The narrator counters the insult, leading to the guards becoming very angry and threatening to shoot him the next day. The next day, the normal boundary is moved two yards closer, preventing the protagonist and his comrade from collecting from the ripe berry bushes and luring them to cross. The narrator’s friend violates this boundary, and is immediately shot twice in the back. The most interesting facet of the story is how the guards go about punishing a prisoner they do not like. Despite having no apparent supervision, they never deviate from what would be considered reasonable treatment of a prisoner. In other words, their moral codes are the only barriers from simply shooting the narrator and saying he attempted escape. As Leona Toker describes, “Seroshapka’s shooting of the man who has “crossed the line” does not merely exemplify the guards’ attitude toward the value of the prisoners’ lives; it also suggests that there is still a residual moral “line” (likewise arbitrary) that Seroshapka himself does not cross: according to the rules of his game, he still cannot shoot the prisoner who has not gone off limits…”[1] This story reveals a shared understanding between the guards and prisoners: the rules are the rules. Violation of the rules will be dealt with at the guards’ discretion (likely with as much force as possible), but punishment will not occur without a violation, even if the prisoner is tempted into that violation.

Zoshchenko’s “Story of an Illness” reveals a very similar relationship, with the guard-prisoner relationship replaced with that of a patient and several workers. In the story, the protagonist checks in to a hospital with typhoid fever, only to be quickly appalled at the lack of attention paid towards patient comfort. His complaints compel very negative reactions from nurses and orderlies, who constantly threaten his health both verbally and through dangerous “mistakes”. The subtler verbal threats come often in response to his criticism, such as “Really, patient, such subtleties you notice; I don’t see how such a nosey one can recover.”[2] The next step up in his mistreatment is the deliberate humiliation of the narrator, such as giving him pajamas that are far too large and bathing him in the women’s room. The most severe backlash is the deliberate prolonging of his stay, by making the “mistake” of feeding him from a sick child’s plate, ‘missing’ his chart, and telling his family to collect his corpse. Within the hospital system, there is not quite as much autonomy for orderlies and nurses as in the Gulag system. However, under the guise of medical care, there is certainly room for “mistakes” to happen and mistreatment to occur. In this system, the nurses seem to have even looser moral boundaries than the Gulag guards. They deliberately get him sick, knowing full well that complications could kill him. They go after his family as well, and have no right to treat him as poorly as they do (whereas Gulag prisoners are believed to have committed crimes). Overall, “Story of an Illness” demonstrates a situation in which nurses abuse their position of power, with no clear moral line drawn.

Zoshchenko’s “Bees and People” serves as a warning of revolt when the moral boundaries are pushed too far. In the story, Ivan Panfilich fetches bees for his collective farm, but his train’s engineer attempts to abandon the narrator and his hives. The bees begin attacking passengers and bureaucrats, and the train is forced to return to collect the bees. On the surface, it is hard to see how the boundaries are being pushed too far. The conductor is simply trying to stay as close to schedule as possible. The personification of the bees is what highlights the abuse, as Ivan says “They’re perishing. They haven’t had anything to eat or drink and they can’t feed the little ones.”[3] Despite Ivan’s polite request, the stationmaster shows no sympathy. The bees’ retribution is swift, as they not only attack passengers but especially target the stationmaster, telegrapher, and stationmaster’s wife. Ivan’s brief monologue spells out the threat to the bureaucracy: “Bees absolutely will not stand for being pushed around by indifferent bureaucrats. You probably treated them the way you treat people—and you see what you get.”[4] The thinly veiled metaphor explains that pushing the moral boundaries further, so far as to have indifference towards starvation of those who can’t help themselves, will inevitably elicit a violent and successful response from the masses.

The three stories very greatly in their solemnity, ranging from an autobiographical experience in a labor camp to a satirical story about bees. All three stories, however, accurately convey the bureaucratic exploitation of the Russian people and lack of moral character shown by the institutions of the USSR. The very real issue of the exploitation of prisoners and peasants at the hands of the government was a common characteristic of the Soviet system. However, without the individual perspective provided by these writers, it’s impossible to know the variation of oppression in different circles. In the end, Zoshchenko’s warning of peasant revolution was never fully realized, as Stalin’s death and the Soviet Union’s collapse largely mitigated government repression.

[1] Toker, Leona. “Toward a Poetics of Documentary Prose–From the Perspective of Gulag Testimonies.” Poetics Today, vol. 18, no. 2, 1997, pp. 187–222., www.jstor.org/stable/1773432. [2] “Story of an Illness.” The Baffler. N.p., 17 Mar. 2017. Web. 20 Apr. 2017. [3] Brown, Clarence. The portable twentieth-century Russian reader. New York: Penguin, 1993. Print. Page 235 [4] Ibid, Page 238