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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

ESSAY: Dull Days No More Down at Labor Exchange

A few years ago, the only place on our quiet street in the southern Moscow suburb of Tsaritsino that used to draw crowds of strangers to its doors was the Pinetree Bathhouse. Nowadays, the main object of pilgrimage into our part of town is found next door, where the district labor exchange is located.

For decades the staff of this organization sat around contentedly drinking tea, and the only occasional interruption was when someone who had just been released from prison had to find employment somewhere. But since 1991, when unemployment acquired official status, things at that backwater beside the bathhouse have changed.

One late afternoon shortly before closing time, I went into the office to meet the staff for an article I was thinking about writing. Or rather I forced my way in using my elbows.

"I've been here since 8 o'clock this morning and I'm afraid they are going to slam the door in my face now," sighed one woman huddled in a white sweater as she neared the front of the line. "You have to get here at six to be sure of being seen."

The jostling people can be divided into two main groups: those who want to find work there and then, and those who want to be registered and apply for welfare benefits. There are of course some who receive benefits and who genuinely hope to find employment later.

If there are no vacancies going, those who have stood for hours on end in the stuffy premises can expect to qualify at least for the minimum monthly welfare allowance of 84 rubles. I would not be so bold as to advise people how best to spend this money. The people "sentenced" to this sum are usually young first-time job seekers like high school graduates and people who must be registered within six months of officially becoming unemployed, so that their other entitlements like pensions remain unaffected.

The luckier ones may come away with the maximum allowance of 75 percent of their last salary - limited to no more than the average Moscow wage, currently about 1,900 rubles - which is paid out for three months before it is reduced in a few abrupt stages to the unhappy 84 rubles.

You won't find any fired bankers here, let alone any that come out with a job, but for teachers or mechanics it can possibly lead to work.

"And do you often get members of some strange or exotic profession?" I asked Svetlana Sterlikova, the office's head welfare payment specialist. "Someone from a long family line of chimney sweeps, say, who has moved to Moscow from Riga?"

She thinks hard. "Not long ago we had a man come in from the Surikovsky school for demonstrators of artificial poses, or an artist's nude model, if you like. Of course he had to forget about the romantic nature of his previous work. All he can do is retrain. So I guess one day a chimney sweep will show up here, too."

Since the welfare pot is far from bottomless, considerable effort is spent on sifting out those who want to cheat the system. The walls are plastered with posters reminding would-be fraudsters of the penalties for using fake documents. Since the office has a special department that spends all day checking out the piles of documents submitted to support claims, that's pretty straightforward. But what about those who work but still claim benefits? A veritable army of them exists, I was told.

"Well, anyone who wants to cheat the system will usually get away with it. But here, too, there are odd exceptions," Sterlikova said, and told the tale of a woman who came to the office and calmly presented her trudovaya knizhka, or workbook, for inspection before collecting her next welfare payment. It clearly indicated that she was still working, long after her unemployment benefit payments started coming through. There turned out to be a perfectly straightforward, if not honest, explanation for this discrepancy, however: She had simply handed in the wrong trudovaya knizhka from her collection. Many people like to have at least one spare one bearing different information for just such sundry purposes, especially since it's easy enough to buy blanks in underpasses and metro stations around town.

I was somewhat taken aback by the enthusiasm of the fraud department staff when I heard that in their lunch hour they often run over to the nearby market and scour the stalls for familiar faces.

Sometimes people are accidentally given away by their relatives. The inspector calls the person at home and a child's voice helpfully informs them that mama or papa is at work. Thanks very much.

Sometimes, said Sterlikova, the neighbors blow the whistle on false claimants, signing statements confirming that someone goes off to work when they are officially unemployed,

Brrr. I suddenly felt the cold wind of 1937.

There are those who ask not to be entered into any unemployment register when they come asking about work opportunities. These people gladly forfeit whatever benefits they are entitled to, just so long as they don't get branded as being unemployed. Surprisingly, it turned out that not so many people say they would do any type of work, as one might expect. Looking through the classified advertisements in the local newspapers, there are only a few such inserts there, which contrasts greatly with newspapers I recently read while in Kiev, where an unqualified plea for any work is pretty much the norm. This would appear to say that in Moscow we still have a way to go before we hit rock bottom, only I'm not so sure if that is cause for celebration or not.

Once again I headed back to the line. "... all in the same handwriting and in block capitals. And make sure you copy the specimen document carefully - I had to go back to my old workplace twice!" said White Sweater as she drilled the newcomers to the line on the procedure for getting documents from old employers confirming their salary. I had the feeling I had seen it all before somewhere, and then I remembered that it was the same runaround back in Brezhnev's time to get a foreign travel visa.

A gray face, gray hat and a child clinging onto the tails of a gray overcoat. "I am looking for work," was written on a sign hanging around the person's neck. This image was once printed in millions of copies of a certain children's book and was used to illustrate the life of a simple citizen of some abstract Western country. For me the irony is that I learned to read from that book. A couple of years before I went to school, I thought that the Gray Man, who was supposed to be an American-Italian-French unemployed person, was holding a newspaper in front of him, not a sign, and that the desperate plea "I am looking for work" was the headline.

Larisa Kosova is a free-lance journalist working in Moscow. She contributed this essay to The Moscow Times.