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Marshrutka Culture
Text Isabelle Hale

tiquette on various forms of transport — from taxis to buses to airplanes — can differ from place to place. While such differences may not present a particular challenge in some cities, in Moscow, the behavioral norms one encounters on modes of transport can leave the uninitiated with scars.

To begin with, there’s touching down on the tarmac for the first time. Once the “fasten seatbelt” light is turned off, the air traveler is ready to collect his or her belongings from above and below the seat and head to the exit. But ovine visitors to Russia who naively take their cues from the fasten seatbelt sign may miss the deplaning boat while more culturally adept passengers flood the aisles long before the plane has come to a complete stop.

The etiquette of allowing those sitting in front of you to enter the aisle ahead of you does not apply to the typical Russian plane, where it’s dog-eat-dog to stake your claim to a piece of aisle real estate. And if you haven’t spent the last hour of the flight sharpening your elbows, then you may well be a rotten egg — the last off the plane, even if you started out in the second row.

Deplaning tardiness has repercussions once you enter the arrival hall and tackle your next challenge: passport control. Here lines play no role as a mob of people moves asymptotically closer to the officials’ glassed-in booths.

Once you’ve made it out of the airport, you might think you’re home free. Not so fast. There’s Moscow driving habits, which take their toll on both passenger and pedestrian, and of course the incessant jostling on the crowded metro.

But there is one place where the rules of behavior are altogether different, salving the frazzled Moscow traveler with a through-the-looking glass experience. It is called marshrutka.

A marshrutka is a minibus that makes regular stops along a prescribed route that usually begins and ends at a metro station, where you’ll often see a herd of the yellow (or sometimes white) vans discharging passengers or waiting to begin a new circuit. Marshrutki are privately owned and run by individuals or companies and serve points that are otherwise hard to access via Moscow’s other forms of transportation. Sometimes they follow the same route as an existing bus or trolley but simply provide speedier and more frequent service.

Specializing in the medium-sized distance that is a short ride but a long walk, marshrutki can be hugely convenient. They usually have laser-printed signs pasted in the window announcing the fare (anywhere from 15 to 30 rubles a pop) along with the stops and terminus (some drivers will make unscheduled stops along the route upon request). And the numbered routes have sprouted up like mushrooms after the rain following Moscow’s geographical and economic expansion.

What distinguishes these communal taxis most, however, is the behavior and atmosphere that reigns inside. For the duration of the ride, the 12 to 18 passengers (there can be anywhere from 11 to 16 seats in the back, plus a couple of coveted spots up front next to the driver) form an instant collective before parting to go their separate ways. Although the physical condition of marshrutki can vary widely from plush, white affairs to the grungy yellow minibus with a “for sale” sign in the window (call 978-2012 for details) that serves the office park where I work, the spontaneous, ephemeral collective that always constitutes itself invariably follows the same unwritten and highly civil rules.

Because marshrutki have no tickets or fare cards as the metro and trolley do, riders are bound by the honor code to pay the fare. While the driver can be observed keeping tabs on his haul with the aid of the rearview mirror, there is no formal control as each passenger passes cash to front. There is a tacit understanding that the person closest to the driver will collect all the money and make change before delivering the handful of bills and coins to the driver. In this way, no matter your profession, you can take a turn as cashier in the morning on your way to work. (Of course, if you received your mathematics education in the United States as I did, then the prospect of all that arithmetic on the fly is terrifying, so upon entry, you’ll immediately head to the rear of the van and settle in the spot furthest from the driver.)

Another feature of the marshrutka environment is “Marshrutka TV,” programming shown on monitors that fold down from the ceilings of more and more marshrutki. Even though the marshrutka I take to work lacks a door handle (be sure to mention that when you call to ask the price), it recently acquired a fancy fl at screen TV. In addition to advertisements (“The person sitting next to you could be your next client!”), Marshrutka TV shows soothing scenes of giraff es loping across the Serengeti or tables laden with sumptuous-looking fruit. It also provides bits of culture and trivia. So besides fostering the sense that you are sitting in your living room watching the Discovery Channel, Marshrutka TV does seem designed to strengthen group identity (Fyodor Dostoevsky was born in Moscow this month in 1821!) and promote pride in the collective experience (Apparently, at the North Pole, the sun is not visible for 186 days out of the year, a fact handpicked to soothe the Muscovite’s soul in November).

While the interesting phenomenon of marshrutka civility is not entirely explainable, identifiable factors like a fare-paying procedure that is simultaneously informal and formalized certainly contribute to it. Whatever its basis, it works. Even though marshrutka-mates rarely exchange addresses at the end of the ride, the fabric of marshrutka culture seems to be stronger — and more civil — than on other forms of public transport in Russia or anywhere.

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