The Russian Zen of Standing in Line 

Daniel Brooks

The way a country stands in line can tell us a great deal about its culture and history. 

Often, when I am standing in line in Russia, I feel that those around me are restless. Concern seems to be in the air. If two people are in line together, one of them might stand in another line nearby. That way, perhaps two or three minutes can be saved, to perhaps lesson the burden of being stuck in a traffic jam later on. Maybe the cashier, or bureaucrat, at the head of the line might pack up and go to lunch. Or someone at the front of the line won’t have exact change or forget to weigh their vegetables. Perhaps the line has too many pensioners in it who might complain at length about the high cost of bread and oatmeal. Anything can go wrong. 

The opening of McDonalds on Pushkin Square in 1990

In Soviet days of yore, standing in line was a necessity, caused by the widespread shortages of goods and services. As a result, the Russians have developed several strategies to reduce the time spent waiting on line. Someone might stand in two or even three lines at the same time. It’s possible to leave a line and come back to it later on. A line might be avoided entirely, if it somehow can be jumped. These practices might be named the Russian Zen of standing in line. My apologies go out to actual practitioners of Zen. The things described here are probably the opposite of Zen. Nevertheless, it has a nice ring to it.   

If a line is long, a place can be reserved in it by agreeing with the person in front of you (not behind you) to hold your place for a few short minutes. Then you can go off and do something else, such as stand in another line. While you are waiting, someone you have never seen before might show up and reoccupy their place in front of you. Stopping them is not an accepted practice. As long as someone reserves a spot in line, they can come back and claim it, especially if that person is a pensioner. 

Russians will often form a line long before they need to. This is another holdover from the Soviet era when lines would appear before a store opened up to get first shot at buying valuable things. This phenomenon persists today. It can be experienced outside Russia at airports. If you see people in a long line at a departure terminal, before an announcement has been made to board a flight, they are in all likelihood Russians.  I recently flew to Moscow from Amsterdam. A long line formed at the gate about a half hour before boarding began. The KLM representative tried several times, in English and Russian, to convince everyone to sit down and relax a bit. No one did. Observing this patient line of people, I saw that most of them were carrying large bags from the duty-free shopping area and plenty of carry-on luggage, presumably stuffed with goods bought at Schiphol airport. The line had formed because of the need to stow away all those goods in the overhead bins, before anyone else could. It was a fear of a shortage of space, caused by an excess of cheese.   

Queing to buy a new iPhone model in Moscow, 2017

Recently my wife and I took a flight from Malaga, Spain to Moscow. We arrived at the airport early. Three long lines had formed at the Aeroflot counters long before anyone had appeared to register the passengers. My wife and I left for a cup of coffee and when we came back, the lines had lengthened. As registration began we could not seem to make much progress in the direction of the check-in counter, no matter how hard we tried. Earlier, several passengers had reserved their places in line and had disappeared somewhere into the depths of the airport. They would return just in time to check in their bags, in front of us. Several groups of passengers had one person standing in each one of the three lines. Our line was designated for those who had registered in advance. It was moving faster than the other ones. As the people in the other line saw the speed with which our line moved, they would join the member of their group standing in our line, in front of us. This caused a lot of excitement. No one complained except the one foreigner in the line, namely this writer. Just as our turn came to finally check in, a family of four showed up from out of the blue in front of our good selves. I said that we weren’t in Russia yet and please, allow us to finally check in. They looked at me as if I didn’t know the first thing about proper etiquette. Among Russians, complaining about the Zen of standing in line is frowned upon.

The most extreme line I have ever seen was at the Russian migration office about four years ago, well before the Migration service underwent several reforms. At the time, I needed to extend my residency documents. I found my way to a shabby Russian government building where my documents needed to be submitted. It had a small hallway with a door at the back of it, leading to several offices where the inspectors sat, behind their own tightly closed doors. About forty people were nervously milling around in the hallway, having long discussions. There was no place to sit. Some of the people in line were poised next to the door leading to the area where the inspectors were located. The tension was palpable. These were the applicants who had made it to the front of the line. The moment of truth was upon them. 

I tried at first to occupy a place in the line, but no one provided me any help or sympathy. Finally, I explained to a young guy, who turned out to be from the Ukraine, that I was a foreigner who needed to understand what was going on. He took me aside to explain the rules. The names of the people standing in line had been written down on a piece of paper, held by a volunteer who was also waiting to submit an application as well. This piece of paper formed what was known as a ‘live line’ (‘zhivaya ochered’).  As each person got to the front of the line, a name was crossed off of the list. 

There is an expression in Russian which is ‘trust but verify’. That’s what everyone was doing. They trusted one another to abide by the list but were constantly verifying that they actually took their proper place in line. It was a tense atmosphere, in part because every morning, before the migration office opened up, a line would form outside the building and the ‘live’ line would reconstitute itself from the previous day. Whoever had the list would need to impose some kind of order on everyone else. Sometimes the person holding the list would sell it to an outsider who would show up and go first. Or someone would pay the person holding the list to put his or her name ahead of the others. Many varieties of funny business were going on. A Ukrainian friend offered to provide this service to me. He said he had been waiting in line for a full week. For a fee, he’d wait in line a week longer.   

This system no longer troubles foreigners applying for residency and citizenship in Moscow. A new migration office has opened in a place called Sakharovo where chits, with numbers on them, are provided and applicants are given a day and time to submit their applications. The practice of a ‘live’ line has been done away with, at least in this instance.

Lines are often the outcome of our belief that they exist for a good reason, even when they don’t. Once, while on vacation in Alaska, I decided to stop by the side of a two-lane road to stretch my legs. As is often true in Alaska, the view was spectacular, of a marshy area and a range of mountains in the distance. As soon as I stopped, another car pulled up behind me and stopped as well. The driver looked off somewhere with his binoculars. After that, about a dozen cars pulled over and peered off in the same direction. Several people took pictures. I asked one guy why he had stopped and he said it was because everyone else had pulled over. The line was there for no reason, whatsoever.

In Soviet times, forming a line would often happen due to the same phenomenon. Someone would stop at an ice cream stand that had no ice cream. Several people would form a line and wait, only to find out it was a false alarm. 

After the wall fell and the USSR broke up, lines would form for something new, such as when the first McDonalds opened up in Moscow. I remember being astonished at the sight of people lined up for a city block or more on Pushkin square to buy a Big Mac and a Coke. People would sell their place in line, if you wanted a hamburger right away. This was line standing at its most bizarre. 

The Soviet days are gone but not forgotten. Some habits haven’t died out. When a line needs to be formed, the Russians will ask, “who is last”. This is a useful expression for any foreigner learning the Russian language (“kto posledny”). Often, in a government office or a bank, everyone keeps an eagle eye on each other while standing in line. It forms a bond between people. That bond, however, is gradually ebbing away. Many offices and banks provide chits and one’s place in line is displayed on an overhead screen. No need to worry about someone crowding the line in such places. It’s one of the ways life improves but in the back of my mind, it causes a kind of nostalgia. There is something to be said for a pensioner leaning over and nudging you from time to time, making sure you don’t miss your turn, when it finally and inevitably comes.