If the Tsarist Russian state was very bureaucratic, the Soviet State was even more so. Stalin capitalized on the Russians' traditional view of language and signs in general (be they icons or political posters) as primary. Language (the document) determines reality, and not vice versa. This situation has a host of corollaries. Lacking a document means that one does not exist in some important sense. Anyone who was arrested and executed, particularly if he was an "enemy of the people," could become a nonperson. His existence could be expunged from the record. Photographs were retouched to show the new reality (see the new book The Commissar Vanishes, by David King). Names were changed: when Trotsky became an "enemy of the people" anyone with that surname could become a victim; many changed their names (this in spite of the fact that "Trotsky" was itself the Revolutionary name of Lev Bernshtein, so anyone with the real surname was not a relative!). When Beria, head of the NKVD, fell into disfavor, the B volume of the Soviet Encyclopedia had already come out. Subscribers were sent an expanded page on the Bering Straights and instructed to paste it in over the article praising Beria. The enemy ceased to exist!

The most important documents in Soviet life included the passport, the propiska, and any membership cards. An internal passport system was instituted in 1932 to restrict movement. Passports, which were issued only to urban residents (passports were not issued to all citizens until 1974), were required when applying for a job or housing, getting married or divorced. Another requirement was the propiska or residence permit. One had to be officially registered at one's place of residence with the passport section of the local militia. It was particularly hard to obtain a propiska in Moscow. To get the propiska one has to demonstrate that one has housing, and to be registered for housing, one has to have the local propiska. Residence permits were also required in order to get a job.

Membership cards were important documents for the elite. Membership in the Communist Party or in official organizations like the Writers' Union had to be produced to gain access to the elite institutions: special restaurants, special stores. Until the last days of the Soviet Union access was denied many buildings (special guards were on duty at the doors) unless one could produce some kind of document to impress the gatekeeper.

Because documents were so important, losing one's passport was tantamount to committing suicide. The saying "Bez bumazhki my kakashki!" [Without a paper we are doo-doo!] expresses the same idea as Bulgakov's formulation, which has today become an aphorism in Russia: "Raz net dokumenta, netu i cheloveka!" [No document, no person either!]

Perhaps this logical inversion can be illustrated with a curious example from the late 20th century. In order to have a sex-change operation in Russia even today, one must first go to the passport office to change one's official sex. Only after this can the operation take place to bring one's body into line with one's legal sex.