Travel Reference
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official document she can review, contemplate, massage in her hands—seems inconceiv-
able. The intense love of documents is a thoroughly annoying relic of Soviet bureaucracy.
Russians themselves will complain about it and laugh at it, even as they keep on producing
and signing more documents. In an essay called “Political History of Russian Bureaucracy
and Roots of Its Power,” Maryanne Ozernoy and Tatiana Samsonova explain how ingrained
bureaucracy is in Russian culture. For one thing, a massive bureaucracy provided jobs—a
ton of them—and gave people a sense of “stability and predictability,” the feeling they had
found “their positions in the political system.” As much as various Soviet leaders abused
the bureaucracy, the institution was also respected, in its most ideal incarnation, as a check
on autocratic power. The thinking was, if all these agencies are in place, and documents are
signed and delivered to record everything that's done, how could a single leader at the top
manipulate society? Belief in bureaucracy goes back centuries, Ozernoy and Samsonova
say. And “national mentalities and psychological stereotypes” have become as “fully integ-
rated” in Russian culture as the bureaucratic institutions themselves. But this can play out
in truly absurd ways. A friend and fellow American journalist who was based in Moscow,
Miriam Elder, once wrote an account of her experience at a Russian dry-cleaning business:
You put your 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 look 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 the sweater soiled? Is it mildly soiled? Very soiled? Perhaps it is corroded? Yel-
lowed? Marred by catches in the thread? All this, and more, is possible. The appro-
priate 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 Ok-
sana Alexandrovna has spent examining it.
I wish Miriam were exaggerating. She's not. And so without physical tickets, Sergei
wants to leave extra time to navigate any potential inconvenience, which was impressive
foresight. We walk outside, onto a train platform that's a sea of chaos and smoke, as Russi-
ans are dragging roll-aboard suitcases with one hand and using the other to take desperate
final puffs of cigarettes before boarding. We find car No. 8. The train conductor—or pro-
vodnik —for our car is standing outside, dressed neatly in her Russian Railways uniform,
which includes white gloves and a fur shapka , or hat. Russians take their trains seriously,
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