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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

A Life in Cloaks, But No Daggers

It is a familiar sight. Every time you enter a theater, concert hall or restaurant, they are there: Moscow's trademark garderob babushkas, waiting to check your coat or scold you when you've lost your plastic tag. For the past 24 years, Maria Kalinkina has been one such garderobshchitsa, in charge of one of city's myriad coat checks. The job is not as simple as it appears, though: To get it, Kalinkina had to be hired by a special state bureau that services hundreds of coat checks throughout the capital. For nearly half a century, the Kombinat Garderobnogo Obsluzhivaniya, or Coat Check Service Center, has been the saving grace of the city's pensioners and invalids, providing extra work for those who need it. Founded in 1945, the centers were designed as a workers' cooperative to provide jobs for those who were disabled by injuries suffered in World War II, said Sergei Shishkov, the current deputy director of Moscow's center. Today, the center has over 200 clients, including such reputable establishments as the Pushkin Fine Arts Museum, the Tretyakov galleries and a number of the city's well-known colleges. "Many companies choose to sign contracts with us," Shishkov said, "The coat check business is very complex and involves substantial amounts of money." The center takes complete material responsibility for the checked coats and is responsible for refunding the owners for any stolen items. There are a number of thefts every month, Shishkov said. "There is nothing easier than to trick an old person," he added. According to the center's lawyer, Yelena Samsonova, the most recent item stolen was an expensive polar fox coat, for which the owner demanded compensation of 1,500,000 rubles ($833). Although the garderob personnel are responsible for items under their care, the center often ends up paying the bulk of refunds because of its employees' small salaries, Samsonova said. But despite such "production costs," the center is doing profitable business, Shishkov said. The Moscow Aviation Technology Institute, for example, pays the center a monthly fee of over two million rubles ($1,100) for servicing its three coat checks. Kalinkina, who works her usual 12-hour shifts at Tuberculosis Hospital No.1, is one of over 2,000 people hired by the center, almost all of whom are either pensioners or disabled. "I have to work because I'm supporting two handicapped sons," said Kalinkina, 79. After retiring from her main job at a military plant in 1970, she took up her current employment as a source of extra income. Today she earns about 40,000 rubles ($22) a month plus a pension of 60,000 rubles. During her quarter-of-a-century employment with the garderob center, Kalinka said, she has been awarded two medals for superior labor in addition to receiving a cash bonus for her 70th birthday nine years ago. She has never had a single garment stolen while on duty, she added proudly. Kalinkina, a fragile, timid woman who shyly admits that it is hard to make ends meet with the money she makes, is nonetheless appreciative of her job, saying that "everybody has been good to me and people here are very kind." "We try to be attentive to our employees," said Alla Vyatkovskaya, the center's staff manager, noting that most of the workers have been awarded with medals and honorary titles. And because many of the center's staffers are elderly, Vyatkovskaya said, the company often provides financial support for its own workers' funerals