Chapter 8: Laundry—Russian-Style
At Babushka Polina’s, in between the bathroom sink and a large bathtub was a strange apparatus for wringing out wet laundry. Soviet laundry, with a few exceptions, was done by hand in a bathtub, then air-dried, usually on a balcony. As typical of Stalin-era buildings, the balcony in Voronezh was rather tiny, big enough to place a backless stool, which Uncle Gennady used throughout the day to sit on while smoking. Next to the stool were three or four rows of ropes for drying clothes.
Frozen Sweat Pants, or Laundry Soviet Style
When I was at my own home, one of my most challenging tasks was helping my mother do the family laundry in our bathtub, by hand. Some lucky Russians had washing machines. My parents’ washing machine remained broken for many years. Unlike in Voronezh, my parents in Moscow did not have a laundry wringer. After we washed all the laundry in our bathtub, we then filled the tub once more, for rinsing it, and after that, we wrung out that laundry.
We squeezed the laundry very hard because there were no dryers. To this day, only a rare Russian family owns a clothes dryer. Most Russians pin their clothes on ropes inside their apartments for drying. In the warm months—a short period of the summer, we air-dried our laundry on the balcony. Most of the year, however, we dried our laundry inside our apartment.
Throughout my childhood in Moscow, many ropes hung all around our apartment. The ropes were mainly in our living room, which doubled as my parents’ bedroom. We displayed all of our pants, sweaters, shirts, stockings, and underwear for days in the living room. If you squeezed the laundry well, it took several days to dry inside one’s apartment. The harder you squeezed it, the sooner it would dry. If you did not squeeze it well, it would drip on the apartment floor, and eventually, on your neighbors’ ceiling underneath you. I am proud to say that as a child, I was a good laundry squeezer. Thanks to my piano lessons, at age ten, I was already developing strong hands and could decently squeeze the wet laundry. By age twelve, from squeezing laundry weekly, my hands were so strong, I felt that I could probably strangle someone if I needed to. In part, due to the laundry, in my early teens, I felt like a superhero.
Then, one day my father came in from work and spoiled my heroic laundry attitude. “If you know physics a little bit, you don’t have to squeeze it all that hard,” he said. “Squeeze it a little, then put it out on the balcony.”
“In the winter and freezing?!” I questioned him.
“Yes,” he said. “Why do you think Mom and I dry clothes in the winter on the balcony first and then bringing them inside?”
“I have no idea,” I argued. “Your sweat pants looks pretty frozen to me when you bring them inside. They look like icicles! How can they possibly dry if frozen?”
“That’s exactly the point!” my father said, scientifically raising his finger. “By freezing the wet laundry first on the balcony, we, therefore, greatly reduce the time the clothes need to dry inside.”
That’s how we lived, freezing our underwear on the balcony in -35C weather, and then hauling it all back inside our apartment, to display it for a few more days, pinned on ropes, inside. Most days of the year, except for the summertime (when clothes could be dried entirely outside), our living room looked like a giant spider web: strapped with ropes crisscrossing each other—for us to eventually enjoy a pair of clean pants, shirt, or a sweater.
Sweaters took the longest to dry. The logistics of Soviet laundry was one of the primary reasons Russian people preferred to wear the same clothes day after day, week after week, without washing them. Therefore, we smelled.
In Russia, even today, it’s quite common to walk around and see the balconies full of ropes with very personal laundry items, secured by pins: big men’s pantaloons, or trunks, hanging for the entire community to see, bras, panties, shirts, and skirts, as well as children’s clothes of various sizes.
Voronezh Balcony, 1976, when I was three, shows the typical way that Russian people dry their laundry.
For drying the larger laundry items, women in Voronezh used the shared courtyard. My favorite time of the day was when the Russian babushkas came down the stairs with their iron buckets full of fresh laundry and unfolded their linens over the community ropes in our playground! The linens smelled fresh. Neighbors trusted that no one would dare to take their sheets and linens when left outside for hours.
Running in between the pieces of drying fresh laundry was one of our most enjoyable activities, even though we did get smacked by a few babushkas who periodically came out to check on their laundry. Those angry babushkas would chase us away, and we would run away. We waited for them to leave, and went back to running between the even rows of linens and enjoying the refreshing smell and touch of fresh laundry on our faces, hands, and shoulders. Babushka Polina, too, carried her linens down the stairs, from the third floor, into the courtyard for many years, for as long as she could carry something down the stairs on her own. Today, I am sure that laundry would get stolen, within minutes, if left outside. But Soviet culture was different. A lot of it was based on trust, which worked in many areas of social life, and the communal drying laundry was one example.
The traditional Russian laundry was mostly done by hand, with women leaning over a tub and scrubbing it in the same body of water, with a large piece of gray utility soap, which smelled strong and nasty and was hard to pronounce: hozyaistvennoe mylo. During my childhood, a myth spread that the soap was made of dog fat, which made it even harder for me to observe its use. Unfortunately, no other soap was available. We used the same utility soap for washing our hands, faces, and even our hair.
Babushka Polina would sit on a small wooden chair in her bathroom, in front of the tub, soaking that Soviet utility soap in the water or rubbing it right onto the laundry, then rubbing the laundry against a special iron laundry board. Each piece had to be rubbed onto that board, which resembled a huge metal grater. After she rubbed all of the clothes in the tub against the iron laundry board and threw out the dirty water from the tub, Babushka Polina collected new clean water to rinse the clothes.
My duty as a child was to observe her working, and on occasion, to participate in the wringing. To aid her with wringing the laundry, Babushka Polina had a wringing machine. It was manual, with two cylindrical shafts and a handle. Rolling the laundry between the two rubber tubes of the wringing machine was a bit easier than squeezing it by hand, but not by much. The last part of the process was to put all the family laundry in a metal basin and carry it to the balcony for drying if small pieces or down the stairs into the courtyard for larger pieces, such as linens.
Why did Soviet Russian women even need a gym?! Every household had a lot of manual workout routines for biceps and triceps, and other vital muscles. Maybe that’s why Soviet Russia didn’t have fitness clubs. Babushka Polina’s wringing machine worked all the muscle groups of the upper body. It was a hard task, but better than relying on your hands only. To work the leg muscles, just go down the stairs with all the large pieces of wet laundry in a large iron basin, then lift it to hang it on the ropes above your head, and you’re fit!
The laundry routine, though physically hard, seemed to bring Babushka Polina satisfaction. She had a proud look on her face with a mysterious half-smile of Mona Lisa, upon finishing a heavy load of laundry. As a child, I could never understand why Babushka Polina was smiling after having to do something as treacherous as the laundry by hand. For her, it was perhaps the internal comfort of knowing she had accomplished another heroic act, winning another battle in her life.
Babushka Polina never seemed to stop working, while at home. The apartment was always very clean, military clean—without any clutter. Everything was neatly put away in its place. Everything was accurately placed and had to stay in order. All tasks and projects were done in order. Everything was done in order: laundry, cleaning, cooking, and sewing.
Grandpa Andrey’s life was also full of routines. Projects were done in a particular sequence, from the mentioned folding and unfolding the wire of his electric shaver to packing his green military backpack preparing for his next gardening trip. All of my grandparents’ routines, no matter how hard or tedious, seemed to confer tremendous calming effect on my maternal grandparents. However, if something accidentally got out of order, it created panic.
Babushka Polina washed the floors daily, making our Voronezh apartment immaculately clean and free of any dust. The floors were shiny. Even when Babushka Polina wasn’t feeling well, she cleaned the floors every day. At the same time, she, of course, cursed but also made sure to battle the dust bunnies before they had a chance of appearing.
© 2020 Anya Stork. All Rights Reserved.