I don’t think I will surprise anybody if I tell you that the Soviet bureaucracy was a daunting, horrible, unmanageable affair. It existed as a way of income redistribution because you were supposed to offer bribes for every little slip of paper you needed (and you needed them to do pretty much anything.) In this way, people who were lucky enough to have the rubber-stamping privileges could augment their paltry incomes.
When I arrived in Canada at the age of 22, I was shocked to discover that North American bureaucracy was also a daunting, horrible, unmanageable affair. It was even more so, since it couldn’t be obviated through bribes. It existed as a force of nature that couldn’t be coaxed or persuaded to listen to reason.
As soon as I came to Canada, I applied to McGill University. I had done 4 years of university studies before, but I didn’t want the university to give me transfer credits. I was planning to start a new program and do it from start to finish. Still, since the university asked for my Ukrainian transcript, I dutifully provided it together with a notarized translation from Ukrainian made in Canada by a Canadian translator. I’m from Ukraine, you see, which means that all paperwork in my country is done in the only official language of the country, namely, Ukrainian.
In a while, a bureaucrat from the admissions office asked me in for a meeting.
“We can’t process your file,” she said. “You need to provide the originals of the transcripts in Russian.”
“Why Russian?” I asked. It could have just as easily been Chinese or Yoruba because these three languages are equally not used for official paperwork in my country.
“Because we don’t have a person who can understand this,” she snickered and threw the Ukrainian papers in my general direction.
“This is Ukrainian,” I explained. “My country’s only official language. Our universities don’t give out transcripts in the official languages of other countries.”
“Well, then we can’t process your file because nobody understands the original in our office.”
Montreal has a huge Ukrainian community, so I suggested that we contact any of the community leaders to confirm my transcript. The most ridiculous thing about the situation was that the transcript was irrelevant since I was not asking for any transfer credits. The bureaucrat refused to do that.
I knew at that point that if they accepted me, I was going to become one of their best students ever. I was right. I later became a straight A, Special Honors, Dean’s Honor List, and every award under the sun kind of student. Years after I graduated, the Department of Hispanic Studies was papered with articles with the photos of me receiving awards from ambassadors and consuls of Spanish-speaking countries for my academic excellence.
So I was sitting in front of the bureaucrat practically in tears, incapable of understanding why I was being denied acceptance to a university because my country’s official language was not the one they approved of.
Suddenly, a woman who was passing by the bureaucrat’s table (and who later turned out to be a Full Professor and a very respected person on campus) stopped and asked,
“Why is this child crying?”
I explained the situation. The woman took my transcript, read it and confirmed to the bureaucrat that it said exactly what my notarized translation purported it said. The bureaucrat was afraid of contradicting her, and I was accepted to the university. I was also awarded transfer credits which made it impossible for me to take all the courses I wanted.