Why does Miriam Elder’s account sound depressingly like the American Retail Medicine coming in the next year or two?
This black H&M sweater is not a black H&M sweater. It is, in Oksana Alexandrovna’s detailed notes on a paper titled “Receipt-Contract Series KA for the Services of Dry and Wet Cleaning“, “a black women’s sweater with quarter sleeves made by H&M in Cambodia”.
Next, there are 20 boxes that could be ticked. Is this sweater soiled? Is it mildly soiled? Very soiled? Perhaps it is corroded? Yellowed? Marred by catches in the thread? All this, and more, is possible. The appropriate boxes are ticked. But that is not all – a further line leaves room for “Other Defects and Notes”. By now, you have spent less time wearing the sweater than Oksana Alexandrovna has spent examining it. This process is repeated five more times. Except with that white cardigan that has 11 buttons. Why do you know it has 11 buttons? Because Oksana Alexandrovna has counted each and every button. Twice.
The process is almost over. Oksana Alexandrovna asks you to sign your name. Five times. She firmly stamps each page (for your detailed receipt has now run to two). You clutch the document, hand over 1,500 roubles (£32), say goodbye to that 40 minutes of your life, and go on with your day.
On the face of it, Moscow has most of the trappings of modern, European life. There are cafes, even non-smoking ones, where you can order a flat white. There are websites that will deliver your weekly supplies of hummus, fresh apricots and rich French cheeses. And there are dry cleaners which, in theory, will whisk your clothes away to some unseen locale and steam them spotless in the blink of an eye.
They key phrase here is, of course, “in theory”. In practice, daily life in Russia is an endless battle against shopkeepers and waiters steeped in the best traditions of Soviet-era manners (walk into a shop and the first thing you’ll hear is: “Girl! What do you want?“); those fresh fruits will probably be black by the time they make it through the city’s gridlocked, muddy streets. And dry cleaning – that’s a whole other experience altogether.
The Soviet Union was notorious for its endless form-filling and procrastination. Nothing much seems to have changed, as our Moscow correspondent discovered when she tried to get some dry cleaning done.
When I was growing up, “Doing things the Soviet Way” was the ridicule of the world, and especially of those behind the Iron Curtain, who longed for freedom from so many things, including the dead hand of bureaucracy.
How is it coming out way? It surely can’t be from anyone’s desire that it come into the US. Perhaps it is the depressing certainty that particular bureaucratic mindsets bring on exactly this sort of life.
I handed it over. She wrote down every bit of information, making sure to note my registration (every resident of and visitor to Russia must make police aware of their residence, a Soviet holdover that shows no sign of disappearing). Next, I was to write down descriptions of each item of clothing I had handed in. “Five black sweaters and one white one.” “Not good enough!” “The white sweater had 11 buttons?” “Please take this more seriously!” More signatures. More stamps. “You’ve stolen more than an hour of my life!” I yelled. Another passport check. “Give me my clothes!” Forty minutes later, I had them in hand. My nerves were somewhere else entirely.
The frustration stems not just from the loss of time but from the knowledge that despite Russians’ love of documents, stamps, identification procedures and painstaking handwritten note-taking, it all means nothing. The country’s endless bureaucracy spreads its tentacles everywhere. No good concerts in Moscow? “Just try filling out the forms to get equipment into the country,” one promoter told me (not to mention the bribery needed to get things through customs). Want to order a taxi by telephone? You will be asked a series of questions that appear to have nothing to do with the order. And 20 minutes later, you will be called and asked them again. Need to use an ATM? Get ready to press a half-dozen buttons (Which language would you like to speak? Which account would you like to use? Roubles or dollars? What size notes do you need? You want to take out more than $100? Then repeat the process again because every ATM inexplicably has a cap).
What it comes down to is the bureaucracy doesn’t work. Let’s say I stole some other woman’s clothes. Despite the forms and the stamps, the (double) passport check and notes, the woman would have no recourse. Court system? Busted. Police? Corrupt. I spent nearly two hours of my life filling out forms – in order, need I remind you, to freshen up some cheap sweaters – because that’s simply what has always been done
What is so seductive about this lifestyle, that we lust after it? Is it at all attractive, or merely gray and dismal?
It can be said that America’s run of good luck is due to a long string of great P.R. thanks to Cary Grant, John Wayne and Baywatch. The sun never set on an adolescent somewhere across the globe in a foreign land, lusting for this American lifestyle, synthetic and unattainable as most of the image turned out to be. Without Hollywood, no Bollywood.
Why is our future written in grey? In which great battle were we conquered, that we needed to submit?