I hoard slippers—the thin-soled, terry kind that many hotels include in their amenity packages. My house is full of them, some still plastic-wrapped. Shoes that will never be good for anything but indoor wear. Yet to me, they are simply too precious to leave behind.
I grew up in the USSR, where tapochki—indoor slippers—were worn habitually. We changed into them when we came home, leaving the dirt of the outdoors at the entrance. We carried them to school where our fellow students stood guard at the door posted by the principal with the sole purpose of checking our bags for smenka, the change of footwear. Museums provided containers of felt mules by the entrance for visitors to don over boots before entering the halls. And we knew that when we visited a friend, we would be expected to take off our shoes and wear the slippers the host owned just for that occasion. Walking inside a home—any home—while still wearing outdoor shoes was bad form.
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The origin of the habit is mysterious, but tapochki occupy an important part of the Russian psyche. The pragmatic benefits are obvious—casting off outdoor shoes keeps the floors and rugs clean. But the real benefit is symbolic.
A decade ago, a monument to Oblomov—the titular character of Ivan Goncharov’s famous novel about a lackadaisical Russian nobleman—was installed in the city of Ulianovsk. The monument features Oblomov’s couch, with his slippers underneath it. Created by a local welder, the mules celebrate the novelist’s ability to infuse personal objects with a symbolism that captured the Russia of his day. In the novel, Ilya Ilich Oblomov spends most of his waking hours in his robe lying on a couch and doing nothing. The novel had political overtures; it was published two years before the abolishment of serfdom in Russia and has been credited by some as a portrayal of general apathy among the Russian nobility. Oblomov’s robe, the couch, and the slippers represent the hero’s indifference to life outside his home. But they also symbolize the domestic space, the feeling of leaving the worries of the world at the door, and the safety and comfort that only one’s abode can offer.