It goes something like this. You get to the dry cleaner. There’s a woman, let’s call her Oksana Alexandrovna, sitting behind a low counter, row upon row of clothes in plastic wrap behind her. She’s dealing with a customer. This gives you time to reflect. “Russia is amazing,” you think. “The changes this place has seen – 25 years ago, would I even be standing in a shop like this? The lady in front of me certainly wouldn’t have been handing in a MaxMara dress to clean. A true middle-class experience. In Russia. I’m living it.”
By now, about 12 minutes have passed. Oksana Alexandrovna is caressing the woman’s clothes. Much paperwork is exchanged. A stamp machine is placed on the counter. You wonder what is happening – but soon enough you will know.
Finally, it is your turn. You put six items of clothing on the counter. Oksana Alexandrovna lets out a sigh. This would be the point where you would normally get your receipt and go. But this is Russia. It’s time to get to work. A huge stack of forms emerges. Oksana Alexandrovna takes a cursory glance at your clothes. Then the examination – and the detailed documentation – begins. This black H&M sweater is not a black H&M sweater. It is, in her 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.
If only that were the end of this tale. Some time wasted, nothing more. But five days later, you must pick up said clothes. And that’s where the real problems can emerge. In between the dropping-off and the picking-up of the clothes, Russia had a presidential election. Riot police, troops and military trucks poured through Moscow. Protesters took to the streets crying foul, dismayed at the prospect of living another six years under Vladimir Putin. And I lost my dry-cleaning receipt.
This is the horror of horrors. Oksana Alexandrovna was not pleased. This meant more paperwork, more signatures, more stamps. The first thing demanded – my passport. “What does my passport have to do with my dry cleaning?”
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.
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