Form A Line?

Alan Broach Issue: Section:

Form a line?

In this latest of a very occasional series of articles on the joys of living in Moscow I want to turn to Russian attitudes to forming lines (queuing in English, English). When you first come to Russia you might form the opinion that Russians’ attitude to forming a line is based on the scrum that forms outside Macy’s on the morning of a big sale. You need sharp elbows, no sense of shame and a low center of gravity. However, when you become acquainted with the peculiarities of the way things work here you learn that there are certain unwritten rules, some of which seem to have emanated from the dear old days of the Soviet Union. As in most things in life, much depends on the circumstances.

The Bus Stop

Forming a line at a bus stop is strictly forbidden. Usually there are a number of stops in very close proximity so people hover anxiously between them trying to guess which bus will come first. When the bus arrives it’s every able bodied man and woman for him/herself. Pushing, shoving, kicking, biting, anything goes. If you are mad enough to stand back and let an old lady on first, people will eye you suspiciously. Forget everything your mother taught you and have fun.

The Metro

In the metro the line is usually to get on the escalators. There is no “line” as such and people will definitely try to push through but everyone is so jam packed in there is little option but to go in order, using what is known as the “penguin walk”. You shuffle forward using very short steps with lots of swaying of the shoulders. If you watch the crowd doing this for long enough you can get a feeling of motion sickness. When you eventually get on, stand on the right if you don’t want to be mown down. Another joy here is the lady with bright orange hair who occupies a security booth at the bottom of the escalators. She has a microphone and loves to scream unintelligible instructions at a volume akin to an AC/DC concert.

The Airport (and other places)

At boarding and passport control Russians do form lines. However, there is a secret. A husband and wife (we do this) will take different lines. We then see which line is moving faster and, at the last moment, the one in the slower line moves to join the one in the faster line. Sometimes whole families do this. So you think you are almost there when 6 kids, granny and granddad join Mum in your line. Objecting to this is frowned on.

Collecting Official Documents

A relic from the glorious Soviet past methinks. If you are somewhere where the line might take hours (or days) it is quite acceptable to ask someone in the line to hold your place for you while you go for lunch or a beach holiday in Turkey (used to be Egypt, now Turkey). This can sometimes get a bit confusing as you will hear people ask “who is the last person” and people can forget but generally it works quite well.

Theatre Cloakrooms

All Russian theatres and restaurants have cloakrooms. Obviously at a concert or play the line to leave or collect your coat can be long. The secret is to scan the front of the line. If there is someone you know (or even vaguely recognize) it is quite acceptable to jump the line by joining them, chatting happily. Again objecting to this is frowned upon.


If there are modern style check outs, people form a line. However some people put a couple of items on the check out belt (thereby reserving a place) and then run round the store buying everything else they need. This is frowned upon and you will be severely spoken to. In old fashioned shops where you pay over the counter it’s a total free for all. Shout, push, heckle, do whatever you can to get served. Wait in turn and you will die of starvation.

Marshrutka (minibus)

Strangely this is the one place where the line rule is strictly obeyed. Minibuses are an integral part of Russian life. You work out where it is going, get on (usually a very small seat), pay the driver $1 and when the bus is full it leaves at speeds approaching the Starship Enterprise at max warp with a strong tail wind. When you want it to stop you bellow at the driver and he may slow down enough for you to jump off. Only for the brave. The strange thing is that the line to get on Mashrutki is very strictly observed (cf Buses, see above) . No spotting a friend, no joining a spouse. Everyone lines up one behind the other.

Finally, Russians do like to join a line when they see one. Recently at the metro station next to my office (Belorusskaya) there is a line most mornings which starts at the bottom of the steps leading out of the metro (odd) winding round a corner and going nowhere. Intrigued I asked an elderly lady in the line what she was waiting for. She said she did not know, she saw a line and thought she would join it. If at the front there was something interesting she would partake. Reminded her of the days of that nice Mr Stalin. I asked around. Rumours that there was a cheap but tasty pie shop nearby proved false. Eventually I discovered the line is for tickets to be the studio audience on a popular chat show. I hoped the old lady enjoyed it.








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