Moscow metro can be intimidating for a newcomer, particularly if, like myself, it is a newcomer from the pedestrian-only, queue-friendly Edinburgh. Surviving the rush hour in the metro requires turning on the jungle mode: you need to push people around, overtake them on the right, squeeze in front of them on the escalators, storm with them the already full carriages, all the while caring very little about the elderly ladies in front of you (most of the times you have to choose between pushing the aforementioned lady or having your backpack shut outside of the carriage). Needless to say that despite my greatest efforts I too have to turn on the jungle instinct from time to time, even though a part of me rebels against that, squeezes something within me and says ‘That’s not right!’.
Until recently I thought that I had it all under control, that it is a local convention one needs to adopt in order to survive and that it has no influence over me. A few days ago, however, a thing happened which made me think that the survival in the metro is in fact a huge replica of the Stanford experiment, which only proves how easily people (including me) can be turned into monsters.
You know how the inhabitants of all capitals in the world look down at the visitors from the provinces? Moscow is no exception. I have started becoming the same. I cannot help getting annoyed when people stop right in front of me because they don’t know how to change the line or which exit to take or they really want to read the not-very-legible signs, or when they occupy half the carriage with their bags and suitcases. Having spent some time here I already know where I’m going, and I’m always in a rush. The nice part of me tries to tame the “muscovite” being born within me, to a largely positive effect (depending on exactly how much late I’m running).
A few days ago, however, a horrible thing has happened. On the face of it – nothing extraordinary. A visitor didn’t know which exit to choose to get from the metro station to her destination and was trying to find it out by asking the passers by. She did, however, choose a very unfortunate spot – she was standing with her huge bag in a very narrow passage next to the escalator to a different line, where no-one could stop, even if they wanted to. She was also asking, in a very aggressive manner, about the most obvious thing of all – Gde Kreml? (Where is the Kremlin?). Nobody stopped. No one even looked at her. Her voice was becoming louder and its pitch was getting higher each time she repeated her question, until it reached the tone of complete, desperate, helpless frustration. She was shouting to people, she needed help, and no-one heard her. I was going to that escalator. I didn’t help her either. I wasn’t in any particular rush, but I had my own business to attend. I heard her saying something when she was right next to me, but I didn’t understand what exactly she was saying and I didn’t want to stop in the busy passage. Then, when she repeated her question, I thought she must be crazy not to know where the Kremlin was. I fully understood what I had done only when I was descending on the escalator, disappearing underneath the platform, when I heard her desperate plea. Of course she had the right not to know where the Kremlin was, after all I have also just arrived here and still remain ignorant of many geographical details of the city, and she had the right not to know how to look for it in a better way – maybe she has poor eyesight and couldn’t read the – almost illegible – signs and maybe, stressed by the solitary journey to a strange, hostile city, didn’t even think about the problematic spot she had chosen. She tried the best she could to achieve whatever it was that she wanted to achieve and that was clearly very important to her and I, for a brief, but noticeable moment thought that I had the right to judge her just because I knew where the Kremlin was. Who hasn’t found themselves in a similar (albeit arguably less spectacular) situation, trying to gain attention that was not being granted to them, fighting, equally unskilfully, for what was very important to them? I certainly have. The truth is that I had no more right to ignore the woman in the metro platform that the ignoring side had to ignore me.
The daily struggle for your little chunk of living space in the means of public transport requires you to toughen up. There is very little space for mistakes when you’re running late at seven in the morning and you really need to get on that next train. It’s difficult to be nice when everyone is pushing you around, probably wishing that you didn’t have one limb or another so that you couldn’t put it so close to their face or feet. In the Stanford Experiment the participants forgot that they were not guarding real prisoners who have committed real crimes, but that they all were just playing a game, pretending to be someone they were not. In the metro struggle it is sometimes easy to forget that we are all playing a game of getting home in the least inconvenient manner possible, that it is not a jungle in which someone inevitably needs to be eaten in order for someone else to survive. Dear friends, relatives and strangers who are reading this, please don’t let me become a Stanford guard.