Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Met-iquette: the unspoken rules of the Moscow Metro

I have heard it said that it is only on the metro that you will encounter Muscovites adhering to any form of polite etiquette. In the streets, anything goes. But on the metro, you best follow the rules or risk the wrath of a cane-wielding babushka.

Because the metro-riding forms of etiquette are unspoken and assumed to be universally known, I had to go through a bit of trial and error during my first few months here. But gradually, through some intense observation, I think I finally have it figured out. So here it is, folks - how to behave on the Moscow metro, as delineated by one certain devushka:

1) When the train pulls up to the platform, wait to the side of the doors and let the passengers exiting the car disembark first. Do NOT try to jump on right away, because you'll be trampled by the mass exodus of people streaming out who are on a serious mission. Trust me, there is plenty of time for them to get off and for you to get on before the doors close with a whoosh! and the disembodied voice comes over the intercom: "Sleduyushaya stantsiya: Novoslobodskaya" (or Biblioteka imeni Lenina, or Mendelevskaya, or whatever station it is that's next).

2) Once you get into the car, move it. Don't dawdle by the doors, because you will invariably be shoved by the person behind you who sprinted down the escalator to make the train in time. Either get thee to a seat right away, or, if all the seats are taken, move to the back, grab a pole, and hold on for dear life.

3) Staring at strangers is perfectly acceptable practice. Although it may be considered polite in some places to avert one's eyes, here on the metro EVERYONE checks out everyone else.

4) Bring a book. It seems to me that Muscovites never go anywhere without a book to read, and e-books in particular are very popular on the metro. When you're not staring at the person across from you, diving into some Bulgakov is always a good way to pass the time between stations and to fit in like a local. Newspapers and magazines, however, are not so common probably because of their unwieldiness.

5) Engaging in public displays of affection/groping one's partner is also completely acceptable. As is accordion-playing.

6) Don't worry about falling into someone during a particularly jerky moment on the tracks. Even if your legs are braced and your arm is wrapped around a pole, its still almost impossible to keep your balance. And people know this. So when you inevitably fall into a stranger, he or she is much more likely to grip your elbow supportingly than freak out. That whole "personal space bubble" that North Americans have? Yeah, it doesn't exist here.

7) Don't even try to have a conversation while you're on the metro. Even if you're traveling with your best friend, everyone seems to tune out, read their books, stare, or close their eyes and drift off. Naps are also very common here. If your friend is used to the rules of the metro, he or she won't be offended but will do the exact same thing. You can talk and gossip once you get off - for now, enjoy the little nap!

8) Don't feel obligated to hold the heavy swinging doors that lead out of the metro open for anyone. In fact, most people seem to take a perverse pleasure in letting the door slam in the next person's face.

9) Smoking is a no-no. (probably the only place in Moscow where this is true!)

10) And lastly, if you're a male and you're lucky enough to get a seat in the car (remember, 9 million people use the Moscow metro daily), get up and offer your seat to a woman if she's standing. I know some women may have a problem with this, but I for one am a huge fan of chivalry and I think this unspoken rule is really sweet. And for the most part, EVERY man follows this rule, gallantly getting up as soon as any woman - whether she's a Maria Sharapova look-alike or a tiny wrinkled apple of a babushka - walks on.

Word of caution: when you swipe your pass,
pause for a second (even if this causes the person behind you
to have a mild conniption fit) to make sure the red light turns
to green. If you don't do this, you risk painfully injuring your crotch/
upper thigh region and humiliating yourself as a barricade slams open and
and a loud alarm goes off, alerting everyone's attention to you and thus
revealing yourself as the Russian equivalent of a yahoo from the Ozarks.
Just take my word on it.


  1. Awww, Devushka, you are too kind to us, male Muscovites! From the russian girls online I see mostly complains about those times that seats was not offered to them.

  2. Yes, my upper thighs are still stingimg from that barricade. Funny, I just read a similar warning in my Russian travel book. Too bad I didn't read it before. Its also too bad that I didn't read the words of advice regarding vodka drinking.

    PS Love the title of this post.

  3. you nailed the metro rules perfectly! Although, I haven't witnessed the males giving up seats too often, except to babushkas.

  4. simply wonderful!

    The 'personal bubble' -- it does exist, only it's very flexible and bounces right back :)

  5. Although I never rode the Metro (to the best of my knowledge, Vladivostok doesn't have one), I spent a lot of time on the bus, and men giving up their seats to women was very rare. I made a point of it because that's the way I was raised (and because I could see women liked it), but some of the younger women wouldn't take advantage of it. Older women were very grateful, though. Guys on the bus seemed to zone out and not pay a lot of attention to who was getting on. Probably because I was on vacation and not thinking of a million things to do with work, I was extra-attentive. It was worth it; I was a star, and all the old gals thought all Canadian men must be heroically polite.

  6. Mark - read this!! :)Written by a fellow Canadian male expat in Russia, I think you'll like it!


  7. I DID like it!! I'm always pleased as a Canadian when we rate well at anything internationally, and as a man I am delighted if we are viewed well in Russia, land of the loveliest women on the planet. Still, though, it's often hard to believe what you read. For example, I once showed my wife a dating site, run by an agency and featuring Russian women looking for mates. The promotional lead-in supplied advice for men looking to make contact, to wit; "...don't worry if you are a little overweight. Russian women do not mind a man with a big stomach, as it is a sign of his success..." Nonsense, quoth my wife. Russian women find the same stereotypical features attractive in men as do women everywhere, and washboard abs kick the spare tire's ass every time. True, empathy and being a good listener rate high, but that's also true everywhere.

    I found Russian women less materialistic and, as the site you linked suggested, proudly traditional. But the comments to that article interested me, too - the fellow who didn't rate Russian women on a par with Latinas quoted something like a dozen acquaintances who had married Russian women, and all but one had dumped their husbands as soon as they could after getting their visas.

    That might be a popular perception, but it doesn't square with my own experience. I know Russian women here who are married to complete tools who don't deserve them, and they stay and put up with incredible bullshit. One of them was a gymnastics teacher with an incredible figure and a face that could make you drive into oncoming traffic while you were trying to get a second look; her husband was nothing special (they don't live here anymore, that's why I say "was", but I presume things are still the same), and on the occasions I saw them together he was far from attentive. The chances of him ever attracting a woman like that again were somewhere between zero and hahaha.

    Anyway, I never noticed that Russian men were impolite to women, certainly not as look-through-you disinterested as Japanese men are on public transit. But getting up on the bus to give a woman your seat was rare, in my experience. Still, women are always dissatisfied with men from their own country, and have pie-in-the-sky ideas about what foreign men must be like. Except for differences in appearance (like skin and hair colour) and languages/accents, I think we're pretty much the same the world over. Canadians do have that politeness thing workin' , but that's true of both genders.

  8. Yes, I think its more than a little ridiculous to write that Russian women not only don't mind a "big stomach" but are attracted to it as a sign of success!! However, I do have to say that out of all the male ESL teachers who work for Language Link, at least 90% of them have Russian girlfriends now - all of them gorgeous - whereas these guys are not, shall we say, stereotypically good-looking. They are, however, American or British, and that seems to be a huge factor of attraction for Russian women.

    As for myself, I've learned to appreciate Canadian men more in my year away from Canada! You never know what you've got till its gone kinda thing, I suppose! :)