After almost three months in Russia, I am jonsing hard. I’m itchy, and uncomfortable, I can’t settle down. I need a hit. I need to score a fix, and I need it bad. I need to go to STAPLES for some office supplies. Being an office supply/organizational junkie in Russia is rather like being an alcoholic in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia: there just isn’t any satisfaction to be had. And I am the quintessential office supply/organizational junkie. I spend the kind of time in STAPLES that ordinary women spend in Bloomingdales, which I am sure shows in both my impeccable filing system, as well as my less than pristine personal appearance. What can I do? My idea of the perfect afternoon is to fire up my label gun and re-organize someone’s filing system, re-arrange their DVDs by genre and then in alphabetical order, or clean out desk drawers and color code the post-it supply.
To me, one of the great, unsolved mysteries is why the office supply craze hasn’t taken off in Russia, a country that, year after year, successfully defends its intergalactic bureaucratic paperwork championship title. Russia doesn’t have anything remotely resembling a STAPLES or an OFFICE DEPOT: nothing to give you that anything-is-possible-if-you-just-buy-43-folders rush, or a now-I-have-enough-label-gun-tape-for-the-whole-pantry chill. This is, perhaps, at the heart of Russia’s malaise and the grumpiness of its population, because I don’t understand how anyone can feel a sense of hope or control without the occasional purchase of a new blank notebook, a all-in-one highlighter and ballpoint pen, or a new set of 54 Sharpies in “adult” colors such as ochre, coffee, and teal.
If you are really desperate, Russian office and school supplies are to be found in dusty and dingy corners of bookstores, but it is to real office products what Russian-manufactured hooch is to Bombay Sapphire gin. If you need to put groups of paper together, your best bests are a flimsy two-ringed binder, which will be bandjaxed in three months, or a porous cardboard folder, which fastens with string ties, labeled “DELO” (“Project,” or “Matter.”) If you were to pour a glass of water onto this matter, it would disintegrate in three seconds flat. Or, you could take a chance on a chintzy Chinese stapler for which you will never be able to find the correct sized staples. Paper itself is sold by weight and has the absorbency of tin foil. The mind-blowingly expensive imported German products are better, but they have the disadvantage of being locked up behind grimy glass shelves, and good luck finding someone willing to open them up for and wait patiently for you to pursue at leisure. Pens, markers, pencils, and erasers are lined up inside the counter, and you have to elbow your way through a tough crowd of accountants, secretaries and guided missile Babushki to take a look. And, woe betitde you if you can’t say, “I’ll take the red and black striped pencil, fourth row, eighth from the back” in perfect Russian: you can forget about going home with any of them.
The biggest cultural difference, however, is filing. There is no vertical filing in Russia, such as is found in file cabinets with folders. It is this single thing, if you ask me (and no one ever ever does), which will continue to keep Russia out of the WTO. It’s just too much of a mindset cavern between our two cultures.
As a disciple of David Allen, author of the seminal work on organization, “Getting Things Done,” I have a file cabinet (which we had to special order from Finland) and I use hundreds of durable plastic hanging and file folders from STAPLES and a label gun from Brother, all of which I cart over in a suitcase from the USA, to keep our papers in immaculate alphabetical and organizational order. Finding a Cable TV contract (under “C” for cable) or the PUK number of our daughter Velvet’s mobile phone (under “M” for mobile phone) is but the work of a second.
“Nice for the tax police,” quips HRH, my “handsome Russian husband” who keeps his papers in the “DELO” folders in large plastic tubs from IKEA, “they will thank you for all that fantastic organization.”
This was an interesting psychological window for me into the motivations behind Russian organization, or lack thereof. I supposed, that if all the papers were stacked up in the porous, dusty “DELO” cardboard folders with the string ties, finding what you were after would be more like looking for a needle in a haystack, than just turning to “T” to find “Tax Return 2002” in my filing system. You’d have time to call your lawyer, or sneak out the back door, or, better still, fly to Guatemala before anyone found the relevant document.
But the thing I can never make peace with, is that every Russian, from the unsmiling Minister for Trade and Economic Development, Elvira Nabiullina, the Russian Government’s own Hermione Granger, down to the Concierge of our building uses, as their primary note-taking device, cheesy A5 leatherette diaries embossed with the logo of some large Russian State Run Monopoly, from a previous year. These drive me to drink.
“How can anyone take them seriously?” I asked HRH.
“Well,” he mused, “you get like thirty of them for New Year’s – they used to be quite in demand in the old days.”
“But they are so unpleasant, and impossible to keep good notes on…surely there isn’t enough space on each day to make a To-do list, or notes from a big meeting.”
HRH laughed heartily.
“Oh God,” he said, “no one actually writes anything of substance down. But you have to be seen to be writing. That’s the key.”
Where is my label gun? I need to label something….NOW. That will have to do, until I can get to STAPLES.
Photo by Jennifer Eremeeva. All Rights Reserved.
This article appeared originally in print in The Washington Post and Russia Beyond The Headlines, under the title "Office Depot DTs" in July of 2010.