The Nobel Prize in Literature 1970 was awarded to Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn "for the ethical force with which he has pursued the indispensable traditions of Russian literature".
Solzhenitsyn is, as Adam Mars-Jones puts it in The Guardian: “a writer with few equals for his industry, capacious memory and the passion of his convictions.”
But he’s also cynical and funnier then hell. To demonstrate, I will set aside all the magnificent research and literary virtues and virtuosity comprising the novel August 1914 (set in Russia, the beginning battles of World War I between the armies of Russia and Germany, and premonitions of the Russian Revolution of 1917) and extrapolate a critique of large organizations.
This won’t come as news to anyone who has worked in large bureaucracies or organizations, either at headquarters or in the field (knowing in your hearts that what’s going on back at headquarters is total bullshit). But there is no little satisfaction in having a Nobel prizewinner pointing it out.
Solzhenitsyn shows organizational relationships, the tension between headquarters and the field, and the bureaucratic “cultures” that demand conformity to authority, where “‘look both ways’ [is] the rule for all on the hierarchical ladder.” and the power of rumor is treacherous.
Here’s an example: Solzhenitsyn describes an upper echelon type as a “colorless, indecisive, but painstaking major general [who] had never been on active service. He had served for many years in one staff job after another, more often than not ‘on special duties,’ and had been a general for eight years.”
Who among us, with bureaucratic time served at whatever level, hasn’t seen these “special duties” desk jockeys, with little or nothing to do of any consequence, trying to fill out their work days by making regulations for situations they’ve never experienced or jobs they’ve never performed? People, who as Solzhenitsyn continues to describe, “valued above all else undeviating observance of regulations and punctuality in collecting and dispatching directives, instructions, and reports.”
This behavior, of course, results in pervasive CYA actions, and Solzhenitsyn is all over it: “Provided he acted in accordance with regulations, directives, and instructions a man could suffer any setback or defeat, retreat, be smashed, flee in disorder—and no one would blame him for it. Nor need he rack his brains trying to find reasons for his defeat. But woe betide him if he departed from instructions, used his own head, took some bold initiative—he might not even be forgiven his victories, and should he suffer a defeat he would be chewed up and spat out.”
Take for example the person who “had suffered only two real disasters in his military career: failure on one occasion to produce a piece of paper when it was asked for and an unfortunate misunderstanding with an influential person.”
OMG! Failure to produce a piece of paper! Pissing off a higher-up! Two of the biggest sins in all bureaucracies.
These executive suite minefields result in a leadership style which, according to Solzhenitsyn, is “distinguished by aversion to any sort of methodical work, absence of any sense of duty, fear of responsibility, and total inability to value time and use it to the full. Hence the sluggishness…the inclination to act mechanically…”
Distinguished. The sarcasm isn’t just dripping, it is flowing. And the sluggishness breeds incompetence, which in too many bureaucracies and large organizations, is perversely rewarded.
For example, Solzhenitsyn writes about one recently promoted person on an upward trajectory, a newly appointed Chief of the General Staff: “He had held that position only four months, and the main effort so far required of him had been to prevent the war from failing to break out. That done, he had intended to remain aloof from subsequent menacing developments...How could he bring himself to refuse what was undoubtedly a great advance in his career?
More sarcasm: to prevent the war from failing to break out. And for that dubious accomplishment, a promotion. Indeed, how could the individual’s ego permit any other conclusion?
This nuttiness at headquarters then translates to the battlefield, the escapades and fails of the armies involved. Solzhenitsyn describes leaders devising obtuse plans “to pin down the Germans (who were not there to be pinned) on the coast, so as to prevent them from reaching the Vistula (which was not what they were trying to do).”
“Friendly fire” usually epitomizes the ultimate in military (organizational) incompetence, and Solzhenitsyn doubles down in his description of such incidents, in one case adding: “Again, no one was alarmed: Russian troops often opened fire on their own side.”
Of course it’s not just the Russians. The dysfunctional memes are everywhere. Solzhenitsyn describes German army attacks that “ended in absurd failure, with nothing working out as expected. More than once…wheeling squadrons were mistaken by [their] own infantry for Russian cavalry, fired upon, and scattered. [German] artillery opened fire on [German] infantry.”
Outcomes? Solzhenitsyn wraps it up with this piece of analysis: “So then, on 28 August, everything necessary had been done on the Russian side to ensure the enemy’s triumph and his revenge…”
Again, he’s writing specifically about armies, but it applies to large organizations and bureaucracies everywhere. Everywhere. I don’t care if you are in a buttoned up vertical highrise or the disruptive campus fun houses of high tech, human nature is what it is. “Bad people always support each other—that is their great strength,” Solzhenitsyn writes. There are few exceptions.