Another Story About Totalitarianism

My previous story from back in Ukraine about the effects of totalitarianism was very successful, so here is another one.

In the 1990s, computers weren’t ubiquitous, and college class schedules were made on paper and posted on a huge cardboard piece on the wall by the Dean’s Office. In Ukraine, we didn’t choose our classes. Each group was assigned the classes and given the schedule each semester.

So before the beginning of one semester, I went with my group to copy the schedule from a big cardboard poster. Of course, when you do this kind of work by hand, errors creep in. It turned out that somebody in the Dean’s Office had made a mistake and scheduled two of our courses for the same time slot on the same days.

What does a normal person with no experience of totalitarianism do when something like this happens? What would you do? You’d go to the Dean’s Office to tell the people there that they made a mistake, right? Everybody is human, mistakes happen, no big deal.

But when I suggested this to the group, everybody was incensed.

“You are going to get us all into trouble!” people hissed. “If we go, they’ll think we are complainers and trouble-makers!”

“I’m not suggesting we make trouble,” I tried to explain. “We are going to say very politely and respectfully that there’s a mistake in the schedule and please rectify it.”

“Please don’t do this to us,” my best friend begged. “You aren’t even planning to show up in class. If you complain, the Dean’s Office will hate our whole group but you won’t be here to suffer the consequences. You will let us all down.”

It was true that I rarely showed up for anything that wasn’t a final exam, so I agreed to stay out of this. The group decided to choose one of the courses in the time slot and pretend that the other one didn’t exist. I tried pointing out that not fulfilling your course load for the semester would create more trouble than informing the Dean’s Office about the mistake but the terror of saying anything negative about the authorities was too strong.

The funniest part was that, apparently, the professor whose course the group had chosen to ignore was equally terrified of the authorities. He never mentioned to the Dean’s Office that not a single one of his students ever came to class. The poor bastard showed up for his scheduled class twice a week and. . . just sat there. He never went to find out what was happening.

As you can imagine, it all came out at the end of the semester. Everybody caught hell. Our group couldn’t do its scheduled state exam at the end of the year. We fell behind other groups, and there was a lot of confusion about when we were going to graduate. And it all happened because people had absolutely no idea how to treat people in authority – even the tiny, insignificant authority of the ladies in the Dean’s Office who made schedules – as fallible human beings and not incomprehensible, irate and distant deities.

6 thoughts on “Another Story About Totalitarianism

  1. ” You’d go to the Dean’s Office to tell the people there that they made a mistake, right?”

    Okay, Ukraine is weird (or is it post USSR countries?)
    I remember in the 1990s when similar things happened and they got deal with within a week or two.

    Nobody, even first year students, was especially afraid of office staff. Our schedules were made in the department not by the Dean’s office which was in a separate building in a different part of town but students and staff did have to go there to report various types of problems.
    Office staff (esp the dreaded Dean’s Office) might be brusque and no fun to deal with (knowing how bureaucracies function and how to deal with people in them helped… a lot) but no one avoided them. No one ever suggested (not have I heard from those around at the time) that it was especially different from the 1980s…

    I think in the situation you described some student or a group of them would tell the instructors and they would get it sorted out (if the instructors hadn’t figured it out for themselves).

    Liked by 1 person

    1. The scariest people in the USSR were secretaries, shop assistant’s, and nurses. The scariest, nastiest, meanest, and angriest. We weren’t afraid of the police. We were terrified of the lady at the grocery store who had the power to humiliate you and treat you like shit.


      1. I find this very strange. During apartheid people were terrified of the police. Once they lost their fear of the police it was simple enough for criminals to beat the lady in the grocery store and take whatever they wanted.


      2. “scariest people in the USSR were secretaries, shop assistant’s, and nurses”

        AFAICT in communist Poland….
        Employees in grocery stores had to be treated…. delicately but lost all their power by 1991 (earlier actually).
        With secretaries it depended… There were some very formidable characters (secretaries to powerful people esp) and some offices (more than individuals I think) had reputations for rude, abrupt behavior but people weren’t exactly afraid of them and any fear was gone by the 1990-91. There’s also the fact tha many people still don’t know how to approach people in offices to get what they want and start unnecessary arguments. But overall… I find Polish bureaucracy a lot easier to deal with than the American variety (and no, I’ve never paid a bribe or anything like that).
        Nurses were mostly no big deal before or after the change.


        1. My sister went back to Ukraine in 2006 and store assistants / waitresses were still as horrid as back in 1982. Nothing had changed. I’m very curious to see how it is now.

          This is a funny topic because I’ve noticed that in Canada the only place you can find extremely rude service staff is at the ultra expensive stores. Everybody else is very sweet but those rich people stores are horrid. It’s as if rich people loved to see their own nastiness and condescension projected back at them.


  2. The more I read things like this the happier I am that I have found this How Totalitarianism Works 101 blog of yours that is cleverly disguised as being about feminism and art etc.

    So just to confirm – if you want to control the whole system and be the new (nice, benevolent) Stalin, you find dirt on the secretaries and blackmail the hell out of them while making friends with the nurses, yes?

    Liked by 1 person

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