The Soviet Union was a bureaucratic nightmare.
Even the smallest task involved piles of paperwork and forms to fill out.
In modern-day Russia that is still the case if you want to get clothes dry cleaned.
“The woman behind the counter takes a huge stack of papers,” said Elder in an interview with Marco Werman. “She starts examining your clothes with the diligence of a doctor devoted to internal medicine.”
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Marco Werman: What’s that saying about how it’s the little things that make life worthwhile? Well, sometimes it’s the little things in life that can drive us crazy too. Just ask Journalist, Miriam Elder, about her dry cleaning.
Miriam Elder: It takes forever. It’s insanely expensive and you just leave in a bad mood because you don’t even understand what you’ve been doing for the past hour of your life.
Werman: Miriam Elder is based in Moscow for Britain’s Guardian Newspaper and she wrote an article about the challenge she faced trying to get five sweaters dry cleaned in Russia’s capitol.
Elder: Well, first you have to find the dry cleaner which is inevitably hidden in some shop or in some courtyard. You find the dry cleaner, there’s somebody waiting there, you wait at least 15, 20 minutes, until they’re done with the previous customer, and then you start laying your clothes out on the table, and immediately what happens is, the woman behind the counter takes a huge stack of papers out with a thousand different boxes that can be checked and she starts examining your clothes with the diligence of a doctor devoted to internal medicine, so every single piece of thread, every single button, every single catch, every single anything is just examined with the utmost care. Normally this would be fine, but it takes forever. I don’t know, eventually 45 minutes later, I kind of enter a daze usually, but 45 minutes later roughly, you have handed in your dry cleaning and half your salary.
Werman: Right, giving new sense to the phrase ‘taken to the cleaners’, and to make things worse, on a recent visit you lost your ticket. That’s just one of the ten commandments in any dry cleaning place, so how does that play out in Russia?
Elder: I immediately kicked myself when I knew that I had lost it. I mean this is something you just can’t do. The thing is, you know, you have a president here and a leadership here that’s constantly talking about modernizing the economy and modernizing society, but at the end of the day most people are dealing with handwritten notes and stuff, so she couldn’t just look it up in the computer and say, ‘Oh Miriam, I’ve seen you before and here’s your name and I’m going to give you your clothes.’ Immediately she demands my passport and begins writing down like every page of my passport, the stamps, the registrations, and I then have to sit there and basically compose an essay about the clothes that I had handed in. It was the busiest time ever in Russia. We’d had presidential elections, we’d had protests, I was working like crazy. I could barely remember what I ate for breakfast, let alone what I’d handed in to dry clean a week prior.
Werman: Now you’ve had two comments at The Guardian Newspaper website in regards to your story about dry cleaning in Moscow. A lot of people saying that you’re giving Russia bad name. How do you respond?
Elder: Some people take it really personally, as if I’m out there to attack Russia. It has nothing to do with that. This is something that I live through over and over and over again. It was almost a cathartic experience to write about.
Werman: And is it just dry cleaning? I mean where else does this kind of bureaucratic existential nightmare play out?
Elder: The right way to phrase that question would be, where does it not play out. It really, it’s absolutely everywhere. I mean, try buying something in the supermarket and it’s spoiled and you want to return it. It’s just not even worth the effort. To get a working permit here, you have to do everything from an age test, which I guess a lot of countries require, to like a Leprosy test, I mean six different examinations, six different stamps, it’s endless, it’s absolutely endless.
Werman: Now Miriam, your dirty little secret shall we say, literally, is that you don’t get your clothes dry cleaned in Moscow anymore do you?
Elder: I don’t. I’ve stopped and every time I go back home to the states, I have a relatively empty suitcase that’s just filled with dry cleaning and I bring it all home. I’m not the only one that does this. It’s a lot cheaper, it’s a lot faster, and it takes all of five minutes.
Werman: Miriam, thanks a lot.
Elder: Thank you.
Werman: Miriam Elder is a Moscow based Journalist with London’s Guardian Newspaper. There’s a link to her story on our website, theworld.org.
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