The Moscow Metro is an undisputed marvel, one of the greatest transportation systems ever created. I would wager it’s quite possibly the only public transportation system to be classified as a tourist attraction. Just have a look in any reputable tour guide. On any given day, you’ll find tourist groups from around the world standing in line to rub the lucky foot of the bronze dogs that decorate the walls of “Ploshchad’ Revolyutsii” or eager visitors taking photos of the elaborate mosaic portraits that line the ceiling of “Mayakovskaya”. But, just as Moscow is not at all indicative of the rest of Russia, the Moscow metro is far from the standard of public transportation for the rest of the country.
In most areas, “marshrutkas” are the primary mode of public transport. These are not buses, at least not the ones you might picture driving along the streets of Chicago. “Marshrutkas” look like getaway vans with extra seats bolted in the back. Personally, the first time I saw one, my mind immediately jumped to the first scene from Silence of the Lambs. You know, where the serial killer tosses the woman into the back of his sketchy white van.
The first time I rode a “marshrutka”, I was headed from my apartment to the university that would be my affiliate for the duration of my Fulbright. After surveying a map multiple times to ensure that I had chosen the correct side of the street, I waited for the right numbered “bus” to pull up, and when it did, I simply gaped. It was PACKED. Think of a water glass that has been precariously filled above the rim—one strong tilt and the whole glass spills. People were quite literally pressed up against the windows, and yet more continued to shove their way aboard. Everyone near the doors had to get off to let those who wished to exit pass. Deciding to follow their example, I hesitantly pushed my way onto the bus and flattend myself against the rear door.
The cost to ride the “marschrutka” in Nizhny Novgorod was 20 rubles, but the current crowd, in my mind, rendered payment a fantasy. Yet, my fellow squished passengers seemed determined to make the effort. I watched in astonishment as they scrambled, with unnatural movements, to find the necessary coins and pass them up front. I wasn’t even sure where these coins were headed or from what mysterious place these thin pieces of paper that looked like raffle tickets originated. After all, I had never really ridden buses. Rather than finding the answer, I stood with my hands at my sides and shrugged my shoulders. Not bothering to pay, I hopped off at the university stop.
That day I had a meeting with the international office to sign some paperwork and meet with an adviser of sorts who could answer my questions about living in Nizhny. I mentioned the “marshrutka” situation, noting that I wasn’t comfortable with buses and wasn’t sure how to go about paying.
“Well how did you get here?” the girl asked.
“But you said you couldn’t pay.”
“Yes, I just didn’t pay.”
Her eyes reached for her forehead and the next words out of her mouth were a near tangible mix of disbelief and dismay.
“Oh, that’s not good. You have to pay,” she mildly reprimanded.
“I know, but I didn’t know how!” I insisted. I could tell though that my words were not enough. I was a bit confused. Obviously I would pay should they have asked, or if I knew how. But I certainly didn’t feel guilty that I had received a free ride. Back in the suburbs, I always felt slightly giddy when I was able to ride the train from Geneva to Chicago without paying for a ticket.
My “advisor” at the university was far from the only Russian who was indignant when I told this story. Again, I found the reaction odd…to say the least. Russia is, stereotypically, a country rife with corruption. (Although like any stereotype, the reality is far from being that simple.) And, as far as I knew, I was paying my rent in cash for a reason… So why would anyone care that I didn’t hand my 20 rubles to the marshrutka driver?
As time passed, I rode the marshrutka more often, and I made an effort to pay my fare, regardless of how crowded it was. I then began to notice another strange pattern frequently occurring on these getaway vehicles. Because the buses were so crowded, often times the payments had to occur in an assembly line format. That is, you would pass your сhange to the seat in front of you and wait for your ticket to be passed back. In fact, if you were one of the lucky ones to be able to actually sit down in the front, it was pratically a guarantee that you would take upon yourself the role of collecting money and passing back tickets.
Of course, not everyone always had exact change. (I clung to those 10 rubles coins I received.) So what do you do if you have a 50 ruble or even a 100 ruble bill? Then, not only do you need a ticket, but you need your change..and it needs to be passed back to you all the way from the front of the bus. Initially, I wagered that anyone had about a 50/50 chance of actually receiving all their change, particularly the farther back they sat, but, as time went on, I noticed that, without fail, when someone would pass a certain amount of money to the front, he or she would receive the correct change and a ticket in return. I myself passed up quite a few 100 ruble bills and was always greeted with 80 rubles in return.
On day my fellow Fulbrighter told the tale of how one woman from the far back of the bus decided to pay her fare with a 1,000 ruble bill. That blue bill passed from person to person, all the way to the driver. Then, after a few seconds had passed, back came a thin paper ticket…and 980 rubles in change. I personally would never make such a daring attempt in the United States, even in my small town. Why was Russia different?
“Because you’re a human, and the state is not,” my friend told me. “You know what puzzles Russians most of all? That Americans or say Germans can inform on somebody. Like you know a guy doesn’t pay taxes, and you inform the authorities, like hello, my neighbor avoids taxes. Here, for example, if somebody gets a fine from the traffic police, he goes ahead and blinks with his traffic lights to the other drivers to inform them to be careful because the cops are near.”
In other words, it’s ok to deceive the state, but another human being? Not so much. I suppose there’s a reason I was never able to convince cashiers in Nizhny that I didn’t want those 50 kopeks in change….
“Well, think about it, if you were a Russian citizen, why would you trust the state with your money?”
I was sitting across from my friend at one of Russia’s most popular chains, modeled after American diners from the 50s. I felt like I was on the set of Grease…or a recent episode of Riverdale.
“You think you have this much money, and then the ruble declines and your salary suddenly shrinks. You think your pension is one amount, and then you find it’s way less because the government passed some new law,” she continued. These same thoughts were echoed by my family friends.
“I have a great job, but within just a couple months, I’m making a third of what I was making before,” a prominent lawyer told me, referring to the economic crisis that saw the ruble decline to almost 3x its original value at one point. And that’s not taking into account any changes instituted by the government, such as an increase in income tax or a decrease in pension payments.
That’s perhaps a part of the reason why most Russians choose to invest in property and cars, rather than say, the stock market or anything intangible.
In 2016, Russia’s prime minister Dmitry Medvedev made international headlines when, in a response to a question from a Crimean pensioner, he replied, “There is no money. But be strong. All the best. Have a good day, and good health.”
In fact, the pension problem in Russia became so severe that finally, after years of discussion, admist the happy atmosphere of the World Cup in the summer of 2018, the Russian government announced it would be raising the pension age—from 60 to 65 for men and 60 to 63 for women. While the increase is indeed necessary to avoid a complete collapse of the pension system, the fact remains that the overall life expectancy for Russian men is 67. In Novgorod, a city to the north of Moscow, the average life expectancy is only 62—three years before the official retirement age. The increase in the retirement age means that many Russians will die before actually receiving any money from the government.
It’s not surprising then that there are many working Russians who don’t even contribute to the pension fund—those working in the “gray” economy, self-employed Russians, those who make their living by renting out the apartments they’ve accumulated. Technically I have a Russian pension account, but I don’t actually believe I’ll ever see that money. So why would I contribute if I had a choice?
If you live in the provinces, you have an additional incentive to avoid any and all taxes, since you’re not likely to see any benefits from your contributions. Large portions of the region’s taxes are used for federal purposes, and the federal government spends the vast majority of its income on developing and maintaining the capitol.
When examining the big picture, it’s not particularly shocking— or ncessarily reprehensible—that Russians would try to avoid paying taxes or cut corners here or there to keep more of their earnings for themselves.
But for me, that still doesn’t explain the concurrent respect that is given to other citizens. I don’t necessarily believe that betraying the State but not your fellow citizens goes hand in hand. Why not pocket an extra 100 rubles when someone passes back change for a 20 ruble bus ticket? After three years in this country, I still don’t have the answer.
I will say, however, that despite the stereotypes, Russians, on the whole, tend to be an extremely generous group of people. They’ll gladly offer up their home and their time to help you when you’re ill, renovating your apartment, preparing a move, or faced with a personal tragedy. They won’t hesitate to offer you a loan should you lose your bank card or find yourself without a job. And gifts and food are always meant to be shared, in the home or at work.
Maybe the answer lies in the sense of camaraderie and equality that arose during the Soviet Union, the feeling that you must take care of one another. Maybe it’s the knowledge of one another’s shared struggle. If Russians are one thing, it’s tough. They know life is hard, so why make it harder for those those who are also just trying to get by?