Battle Stations: Among the Russians

I've always loved Russia, if only for the Russians. They're a people to whom pazhalusta (please) and spaseeba (thank you) actually matter, and even poorly spoken Russian will get you almost everything and everywhere. And there are few things better in life than to be the honored guest of a Russian. The host opens his heart and soul and "what's mine is yours" is more than a cliché.

Although I've been to Russia many times, I took my first trip to Moscow just last month. My prior love for Russia had come from the countryside: aimless wanderings in search of the people under Chekhov's mansard roof, Turgenev's sportsmen, or Pushkin's fog on the hills of Georgia.

But Moscow made me an urban fan. When I stepped into Red Square I could understand that Russia is a great nation in the word's true meaning and that the source of Russian pride is not misplaced. Young Muscovites were as stylish as New Yorkers and there was palpable energy on the streets. After a few days being spoiled by my Russian hosts, even the dirty metro seemed romantic and I began to find pleasant meter and rhyme in the exit signs: V ihod v gorod.

But while individual Russians are a delight, a large group of them is entirely another matter. Courtesy of a canceled Estonian Air flight, I was to witness the dark underbelly of the Russian soul. Over the next nine hours--the time it would take Estonian Air's crack representatives to get us off the plane and re-ticketed for other destinations--I would be treated to an up-close tour of the uniquely Russian phenomenon, the ochered, or queue.

Russian lines take on distinct forms that are not, in fact, lines. They are more elliptical in shape with cells within the larger unit each playing out its own small drama. It is much like being in the showroom of Best Buy with each television tuned to a different Mexican soap opera. Within cells of two or three persons, elbows are thrown, luggage carts driven over toes, and the raw cruelty of Darwinism is on full display.

It began on my flanks. I would turn my attention only briefly to the magazine I was reading, and dark shapes would appear in my peripheral vision. Wordlessly, they would infiltrate the queue and plant themselves directly before me.

From my days in Kiev, I thought I was sufficiently versed in Russian line lingo--stern utterances such as zdyess ochered! (there's a line here!) and ya stayu zdyess tozhe! (I'm standing here, too!)--but my Ukraine experience proved not up to the major leagues of Moscow. Muscovites simply ignored me. When I employed eye contact, the western technique of shaming, the Russians displayed total indifference. They'd achieved their new, rightful place in line, and any prior aggressiveness was now water under the bridge. A few even smiled when I made eye contact. Most ignored me and went back to loud conversations with their friends.

I don't mind a little bit of lawlessness, and I have to admit fascination (and a bit of admiration) for the strange ways of Russians. Many cut to the very front of the line without the slightest protest from any other passenger, and I was spellbound by the silent charisma of those able to manage the feat. But when you are standing in line for nine hours, Russian behavior takes on a different significance. I realized I might never get out of Sheremetyevo airport alive.

Despite my attempts to step up my level of aggressiveness there were always more people in front of me than behind. Something was amiss. I soon found myself at the very end of the line.

At the end of the queue I found other westerners. There was a middle-aged Italian businessman with no idea which line he was in. There was an elderly French couple who wanted to go to Prague. And there were a half-dozen Estonians who silently, patiently looked on. One of them acknowledged me when I rolled my eyes. "Are we ever going to get checked in?" I asked.

"It's a Russian thing," he shrugged. "I'm used to it." It's said Estonians are the ideal intermediaries for doing business in Russia. They're western enough to win Europe's trust, but their Soviet past enables them to smartly navigate the Russian system.

To the untrained eye it might have appeared the Estonians were standing idly by. But they had a plan. As I chatted with the man, I noticed the line was actually growing behind him. The Estonians did not push, shove, or swear. They had quietly formed a phalanx. In the absence of spears and pikes, they employed luggage trolleys and heavy baggage to defend their flanks and gain forward ground. In characteristic Estonian style they did not invite me to join their phalanx, though they seemed not to object to my presence. And so I remained. In another two hours I had my ticket.

If any of my fellow passengers are reading this, I'd like to convey my sincere appreciation. You may not know it, but you saved my life. Had it not been for your assistance, I might be still queued up Sheremetyevo waiting on a sign from God. But, as it happened, you got me home and added a new chapter to my Russian education.

I'm scheduled to visit Moscow again next month. When the plane breaks down again, I can only pray you'll be there. I'll look for you in the queue, ready to man my battle station.