Let Me Take Your Coat… Or Else
Text Isabelle Hale
Well, it’s coat-wearing season in Russia, and we all know what that means – mandatory coat-checking. As any becoated museumgoer who has been stopped by a guard and sent back to the garderob [coatcheck] can attest, unpeeling and surrendering your coat to the authorities is an inviolable part of Russian culture. Certainly, coat-checking accommodations exist in museums and restaurants in other cold climes the world over, but elsewhere their services fall into the category of choice – not requirement.
In Russia, however, foreign visitors and local expats alike are acutely aware of the tyranny of the coat-check attendant, the matron (typically) who is entrusted with the task of overseeing the proper observance of this national custom of coat-checking and enforcing the codes of behavior that go along with it.
For example, while your fancier garderob may be equipped with hangers, hooks are more common at runof-the mill facilities, especially those of Soviet vintage. It is therefore essential to make sure your coat is equipped with a loop – fabric, chain-link, leather, etc. – in the lining at the neck for easy hanging. To violate this behavioral norm is to commit a cultural faux pas and to risk irritating the coat-checker – not to mention derailing the coat-checking ritual.
Sometimes the enforcement can be extreme. Consider the experience of an unlucky graduate student living in mid- 1990s Moscow who awoke one morning to find, not unlike Ivan Yakovlevich in Nikolai Gogol’s The Nose, that the loop in the collar of his coat had torn. At the library that day, the coat-check lady refused to take the coat. When the unsuspecting student insisted, citing the burly guard at the reading room door who would not allow him in with the coat, she finally took it to a hook and angrily punched it clear through the lining where the loop had been.
Kinder responses are also possible. With his coat hemorrhaging down feathers for several days, the same student encountered a different garderob matron (or was she a guardian angel in disguise?) at a different library. This one took pity on him and his unfortunate outerwear. At the end of a hard day of research, he retrieved his coat to discover the hole mended and in its place a sturdy loop hand-sewn firmly into the neck of the garment.
While the benefits of not having to lug your coat around with you indoors are clear, in Russia the custom of coatremoval upon entering the great indoors has evolved into a highly ritualized – and unfl outable – observance. Keeping your coat with you – let alone on you – is simply anathema.
In a country where coat-wearing is a way of life, the etiquette of checking your coat has become a highly ritualized observance.
Why is that?
The complex answer seems to flow from a pervasive, immutable dichotomy central to Russian culture, that between outside and inside. While the Russian love of nature runs deep (see “A Day at the Dacha”, Passport’s September 2008 issue), the sanctity of the indoors does as well.
The border between the two realms – the outside and the inside – is strictly marked, and a series of rites accompany passage from one to the other. In public buildings, it is oft en not one but two sets of doors that signal the boundary. Apartment buildings may have the transitional space of the pod’yezd [entryway], which, although technically indoors, might as well not be. Instead, it is the apartment door – which is, strangely, oft en upholstered – that serves as the dividing line. On one side is a cold, dirty, harsh world; on the other is a warm, scrubbed, domestic space where one is clean and safe. At the threshold, all vestiges of the outside and everything that has come into contact with it must be removed: Outerwear and shoes must come off. Sometimes street clothes are exchanged for “house clothes.” It is at this point that the ubiquitous, all-important tapki [slippers] appear. Often extra pairs of tapki are kept on hand for guests.
Just as a perfect separation must be maintained between the contaminated outside and the pristine inside of the apartment, so must it be preserved upon entry into a cultural venue or restaurant. Th ese interiors may serve as surrogates for their domestic equivalents where entertainment and dining more regularly occur and, as such, must remain unsullied. Anything that smacks of street taint must be banished, left at the door, never to touch the purity of the inner sanctum. In a way, then, the cultural insistence upon coatremoval signifies a deep-held respect for hearth and home.
So checking your coat comes down to a question of civilized versus uncivilized behavior. After all, the ability to take off our coats is what separates us from the animals. Perhaps this explains the contemptuous look one frozen expat received from a couple of coat-check devushki when she declined to hand over her coat upon entering a chi-chi central Moscow restaurant on a recent chilly evening.
Or maybe not. Perhaps Russian coat-checking culture is as deep and inscrutable as the Russian soul itself, proving once more the enduring truth of those immortal Churchillian words: Russia is a coat-check tag wrapped in a pair of mittens inside a coat pocket.