Magazine April 6, 2020, Issue

Bureaucracy’s Gentle Yoke

Outside a DMV branch in San Francisco, Calif. (Robert Galbraith/Reuters)

When the Marquis de Custine visited Russia in 1839 he passed through customs at the fortress of Kronstadt, and wrote one of the first and most acidulous descriptions of modern bureaucracy in action. Each traveler was treated as a defendant, guilty until proven otherwise. One set of officials asked questions, others translated the answers from French (the language of diplomacy) to German (the language of Russian bureaucrats since Peter the Great) to Russian (the language of Russia). There was “a profusion of little superfluous precautions”; the men who administered them were “machines, burdened with souls.”

Cross an ocean and a century

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