How To Occupy A Queue, In Russian

If you think this is a post about just standing in line, then, with all due respect, you have never been to Russia.

At the same time Russia is developing and so is the queue situation.  You have heard of the bread lines which seem to have been replaced by the baffling queues at Sberbank ATM machines.

But much of the red-tape lines around Russia have been replaced by the “United Document Centers” . These sanctuaries of administrative sanity, will challenge your view of Russia’s world-famous bureaucracy.  They are clean, allow you to take a number for a low-stress wait for your turn, and if you are missing a copy of a document, they will take care of it for you on the spot, instead of rudely sending you to the back of the line, all while clearly and calmly explaining the situation to you.

Indeed, these bureaucratic oases will take care of auto paperwork, some insurance, apostilles, tax forms, and much more.  The first time I visited a United Document Center, I was so blown away at how nice it was, I almost raised a white flag and handed in my American passport. At the same time, I am also a little afraid that Russia is losing some of its bureaucratic charm.

Indeed, this newfangled, yet super-sane, “take a number” system is now infiltrating the likes of the tax authorities, the immigration office, and much more.  But, when you least expect it, you can still find yourself suddenly in a Traditional Russian Queue.

  • You will need to quickly survey the line and identify what type of queue you are in.
  • Decide which Queue Occupation Strategy (QOS) you will employ.
  • And hone your Russia Standing In Line Skills (RSILS) in the process.

It is true that in some circumstances you will simply stand to wait your turn in a sequence.  However, this is not always true. The more correct word is “occupy”.  Because in Russia, one does not simply stand in line.  One must occupy the queue.

Situations, Standards, Skills and Strategies of How To Occupy A Queue, In Russian.

These happy citizens have occupied a “Take Your Number” queue.

Queue Situations

1.  A Line.  Sometimes it is possible to Stand In A Line, In Russian.  However, it is crucial to ask the person who appears to be last in line if they are last.  I can not emphasize this enough.  Always ask the person who appears to be last in line, “Are you last?”.  You might be surprised to hear the person who appears to be last in line as they expound on the huddled masses who have mysteriously and only in a virtual sense occupied the queue behind the person who appears to be last in line.  If the person who appears to be last in line is indeed a genuine last person in line it is customary to state with some relish, “Then I will be behind you!”.  This creates a sense of camraderie and also forms an inseparable union together with the person who was just formerly the last person in line.  Together you will be a formidable tag team of epic proportions as you gang tackle anyone foolish enough to use any Queue Occupation Sequence Shortening Strategies.  Yea, they are the line cutters.  But more about them later.  Because it is important for you to learn how to become one.

Multiple Simultaneous Queue Occupation Strategy Situation

2.  Many Lines In One Place.  I am talking about train stations and banks.  Do not be deceived my friends, for you do not want to become a “many lines in one place” simpleton.  The Many Lines In One Place is a virtual minefield of technical and lunch breaks.  I think technically all breaks are used for the same thing.  Also, please bear in mind that all train stations use Moscow time.  I think that sentence was supposed to be “all train stations in Russia use Moscow time”, but probably some outside of Russia also use Moscow time.  In any case, this explains why train station workers in Khabarovsk eat lunch at 10:00 p.m., technically.  The trick is to calculate how long it will take the ticket lady (no, I’m not sexist, it is a lady) to make tickets for the 15 people in front of you and if in fact that is enough time before the dreaded technical break.

3.  Huddled Mob Queue.  I am speaking of institutions of public service.  There is one institution of public service that I attend at least once annually.  The queue forms its sequence as much as two hours before the doors open.  After that, it’s only 3 or 4 more hours, 5 tops, before you reach your final queue destination.  Upon arrival, ask “Who is last?”.  However, in institutions of public service this is not enough.  There are at least 4 queues forming in this huddled mob.  So, the proper question is:  “Who is last for cabinet 3, desk to the right?”.  I am not kidding.  There is nothing funny about sequencing oneself in the wrong queue as your hours be a-wasting and you are not getting any younger.  A couple years back I was in front of a huddled mob outside the Kazakhstan consulate in Moscow.  When I walked up to this study of Cro-Magnon behavior, I decided to throw out a different question: “Who is first?”  A weary cry of someone who’s rib cage was surely being crushed against the closed door weakly called back, “I am”.  “Good!” I said, “I will be in front of you!”  The mob turned and I swear some of those who had sequenced themselves in the outer edge of the mob shaped queue began to brandish pitchforks.  The fortunate/unfortunate crushed yet first sequence person shouted, “Why should you be first?”  I yelled back, “Because I’m an American!”  Half of the mob started yelling and half started laughing.  Two young Mormon missionaries with red faces stared at their shoelaces.

An International Queue of Belarus Visa Hopefuls

Queue Standards, Skills And Strategies

1. Throw Out Your Understanding of Personal Space.  If you can tell me what a good Russian word for privacy is, I will hire you as my translator.  With that aside, allow me to assure you that as you Occupy The Queue, In Russian, your personal space does not extend beyond your epidermis.  Indeed, if you are not in physical contact with the person sequentially in front of you in the queue, then you are not occupying the queue and stepping in front of you is completely and culturally acceptable.  Sadly, this has caused me some shame in fast food establishments in my motherland as I forget where I am.  There, those  Americans with their white sneakers, big smiles, and “how are you’s”, spread out all over the floor of Bojangles, in what they call a “line”, but what is more like some riotous study of the chaos theory.  I step right up to the cash register and the smiles and “how are you’s” quickly turn to Operation Shock and Awe, and I put my theoretical tail between my legs and quickly retreat.  Honestly, an aircraft carrier could have easily slipped between the cash register and the so-called first person in line.  In Russia, do you feel like an outsider?  Go stand in a line.  You will get over it.

2.  “Just Ask”.  This is the oldest trick in the book, which is why I don’t recommend it.  The main reason you need to know this trick is so that you’ll be ready for it.  Without fail, there will be 10 or 15 people who “just want to ask a small question” at the front of the line.  And as long as the train ticket lady has her computer open, might as well make the ticket, eh?  Be ready for this, comrades.  When you see someone who is intending to break the sequence of the queue ask sternly, “Where are you going?”  When they say, “Just to ask”, you need to quickly fire back “All of Moscow (or “Siberia”, depending on where you are standing in line) just wants to ask.  I just want to ask.  This is why everyone is here.  Get to the back of the line!”  Since you have already established camaraderie with fellow Queue Occupants, come up with your own catch phrases to rouse up the crowd.

3.  Make A List.  This is especially useful for lines that are 4 hours long and longer.  Inevitably, a lively discussion will develop about who is behind who.  Take out a sheet of paper and begin to write down names and where they are in line.  This will make you the person in charge.  This is useful.  Use it to your advantage.  You will earn respect.  You will be the Queue Occupation Captain, and in so doing will be almost guaranteed not to lose your sequence.  The other side effect of making a list is you can confidently tell someone that they are number 127.  This will make the room less crowded as some will understand that they were created to Occupy Another Day.

Hungry Lunch Queue Formation

4.  Multiple Queue Occupation.  This is standard fare at railway stations, in Russian.  This is how it works:  you walk up to a line, ask if that person is last in line, then you say “then I will be behind you”, pause for 30 seconds, get a look on your face that expresses that you just remembered that you were supposed to attend a wedding outside the train station, but forgot, tell the person that you will be right back and could they please hold your place in line.  Then repeat this scenario in the neighboring fifteen lines.  Then step back and watch which line is moving the fastest.  It’s shocking how loyal the people who are virtually in front of the line in front of you will hold on to a place for you.  Have a conscience though:  extreme measures should only be used in extreme situations.  Which brings us to Strategy and Skill #5.

5.  Bring A Baby.   Better yet, bring a crybaby.  I can neither confirm nor deny whether this blogger has brought children to Huddled Mob Queue situations to provide express results.  There is no quicker route to the soft heart of Mother Russia than through the presence of representatives of the future.  There they sit quietly reading, now playing, now hungry, now needing a toilet, now throwing a temper tantrum, and now at the front of the line.

5.  The Appearance of Importance.  Just walk through the front of the line and through the door as if You Are The Only Person In The Universe.  If questioned, by Queue Occupants, about your intentions it is best to throw a puzzled glance that says, “Can’t you see that I work here?”  Or say, “I am from Ivanov”.  That is an old one, but no one will dare to ask who is Ivanov.

Above all, remember patience is a virtue and it’s more about the journey than the finish line.  Brush up on your times tables (5 people in line X 5 minutes per person= lunch break).  Bring a good book or something to crochet.  Use the time to get to know the fascinating Queue Occupiers around you. Make new friends.  You can go quickly alone, but together you can go farther.

Is there a Queue Occupation Situation, Strategy, Skill, or Standard that I have failed to blog?  Comment below!



  1. Though moderately insulting around the occupation joke, still pretty hillarious and sad at the same time, because all of this is observed with pinpoint accuracy.
    By the way, in such cases “privacy” is actually translated as private space (личное пространство), and it is a term most people under 60 understand pretty well. Whether they choose to be compliant is an entirely different matter. Moving away half a step doesn't always help, so you can choose one of the several tactics. 1. Be a better person and tolerate the lonely cold person trying to cuddle ypu from the back. 2.Express your irritation with different degrees of emphasis. 3. Be a worse person and take half a step back, stepping on the person's toes. Be sure to tread moderately, because if the step is too light, the person is likely to miss the drift, and if too heavy – it can qualify as an excessive self-defense and start a squabble. 4. Turn your head and slightly cough in the direction of the person standing next to you. Worst case scenario – you'll be told that sick people should stay at home, but it is still one of the most efficient ways…


  2. Thank you for only being moderately insulted. My native land also shares a long history of occupation skills.

    I like the “cold lonely person cuddling” comment. Turns out everyone trying to buy train tickets are engaging in a group cuddle.

    Okay… and you're hired. 🙂


  3. […] -At the doctor, dentist, etc.  The word on the street is that this can be the difference between a tooth repair and a tooth removal, for instance.   -At school.  This is apparently because capitalism is a part of the educational process.   -At the fire department/sanitation department/zoning department, etc.  It’s kind of like sending your less favorite acquaintances Christmas presents so that they won’t feel like they need to pay you a visit.   -The police/traffic police.  “Did you see that sign?” they politely inquire.   -And so on.  And so forth.   And so if you are planning on a visit to Russia and you have been “reading up” on how to blend in like a local, chances are, you are expecting flashing the cash to become a way of life.  But, I contest, that you might find yourself becoming quite disappointed because in 16 years of living in Russia, I don’t remember anyone ever asking me for a bribe.   Now, I’m not saying that no one ever hinted around about a gift concealed in my cloak, but I never remember directly being asked for a bribe.   So, here are my tips so that you never have to pay for a bribe while in Russia:   1) Become very American and become oblivious to hinting.  I remember a doctor once came to visit our children.  That’s what we love about Russia: the doctors still make house calls.  After chiding us for allowing our children to walk around inside our home with bare feet and shorts on in complete defiance of the chilling draft, she began discussing the rising costs of groceries and the fact that you can’t get out of the store without spending 1000 rubles anymore.  I watched in glee as my dear wife (How would King Solomon describe her?  Ah yes, “a graceful doe… her neck is like the tower of David.”) stood there and simply agree at the high cost of foodstuffs.  We never saw that doctor again, but we didn’t pay her anything on the side either.   2) Continue to be American and smile with what they refer to in Russia as “the square eyes”. You know: “the lights are on but nobody’s home”.  I have a friend from an Asian country.  One time when she arrived at a certain passport control, she was scolded by the border control officer that her passport only had 28 pages.  She didn’t get it.  And if you don’t either, there is a good chance you are a foreign person and they will pity you for your irreparable mental thickness and just let you go.   3) Make an Absurd Counter Offer.  One time many years ago I had a certain law enforcement officer ask me a question: “What are we going to do?”.  He presented me with this curious inquiry again and again.  I looked at him with the square eyes.  He pulled out the protocol and held his pen menacingly above it and asked yet again, “What are we going to do?”  I queried as to the amount that I would be fined for my alleged transgression.  “50 rubles”, he said.  I explained that although this amount was certainly within the boundaries of reason, paying it would take me half a day and I really didn’t have any free time.  “So, what are we going to do?” he asked.  “I have an offer!” I confidently stated.  “What is your offer?” he eagerly demanded.  “I offer that you let me go home now”, I replied.  I think the blend of bluster and idiocy provided an emotional roller coaster ride of sparring sorts that deep down inside we both enjoyed.   4) Play the Long Game.  If you’ve come to Russia as a goal-oriented foreign person on a time schedule, good luck.  Just kidding.  The word on the street is that you might not need luck if you can produce the cabbage.  If you know what I mean.  But if you’re in more of a “long term relationship” with Russia, like this blogger, and you understand that life is more about the journey than the end, then you can pretty much get out of any bribe situation.  Like the time I pretended to fall asleep on a chair in the middle of the night.  Or the time I handed them my documents and then went to my car to take a nap (It brings me great pain that I will never know the content of their conversation as I lay in my car pretending to doze away).  Eventually, I have found that I will be informed, in no uncertain terms, that they do not wish to ever see me again.  Because there are easier fish to fry, methinks.  Now granted, sometimes this patience might mean many hours, or even months, or years, depending on what you are hoping to achieve, but there is a special feeling to doing everything right and somehow outlasting your opponent in this extended game of cat and mouse.   5)  Expect Not To Pay Bribes.  You see, Hollywood’s depiction of the US and just about any other nation, including Russia, is equally fair all around.  It’s not entirely baseless, but it is grossly exaggerated.  So, if you come with the basic understanding Russia is not just one  giant boiling melting pot of criminal overlords, but in fact is full of folks just looking to live normal lives and provide for their families, you will not ever expect to pay a bribe.  And therefore making the square eyes will be easy, because you won’t understand any level of hinting. Again, in none of these examples did anyone ask for a bribe.  And the truth is, every single time that I remember being denied by a government official, my paperwork or application did indeed have an error.  Now, in my mind the error might have been incredibly minuscule, or the law behind the error might have escaped the boundaries of my limited understanding of basic common sense.  And perhaps I might have had an inner feeling that the official in question could have been more helpful to begin with to help me understand the error of my ways.  But none of this changes the fact that I had indeed transgressed the written law and therefore I must start over whatever particular process I was entangled in.  But if you never give up and keep on filling out the forms in triplicate and then eventually reach the end result you were looking for, the sense of accomplishment is like no other.  And you will have a sort of miniature Russian law degree in that particular area that you were working in, which although absolutely non-accredited, will give you real street cred with those who have yet to fill out said forms correctly. The other truth about bribes is, and perhaps this reflects somehow on my socio-economic class, that I have never seen a situation where a bribe would actually save money.  I remember one time we took our four children to the government dentist.  Because it is free and although the quality is lower than a private dentist perhaps, it is free, and it’s just baby teeth, right?  And we have four of them.  Kids not teeth.  In any case, after this thrifty dental visit, our neighbors asked us how much we paid.  Naturally, we had no idea what they were talking about because, as we told them, it was free.  “Oh no,” they said,  “you must pay something!”  When we inquired as to the amount, it turned out it is almost as much as you would pay for a private dentist.  Another time, I was in a super long line and met a young man who told me he was standing in line for the first time.  Until then he had been paying to not have to wait in line.  The amount?  Thousands of dollars.  Granted, the line was super long and I understood he had done this in a different region where the line might be even longer.  But maths would seem to indicate that if you were to take the sum and divide it by the hours it would seem to be an unprofitable business, even if you carry the remainder.  If you know what I mean.  This young man was sort of proud of himself, but I was just sort of standing there doing arithmetic in my head and questioning this young man’s educational background. And please, I beg of you, never offer a bribe.  That’s a bumbling foreigner thing to do, and I expect you will make a terrible mess of things and indeed you can get in real trouble.  And you will be shocked to see the reaction of the person you have made the offer to.  It’s kind of like a steroidal version of asking a Russian if they want something to eat.  They will say “no” because you don’t know how to ask. And isn’t it great that in the West there is no corruption or bribery?  There are just legal vacation packages for business partners and donations to political causes in order to help them know how to correctly represent the people.  But that’s different, right? The truth is, corruption isn’t a laughing matter and I’m thankful that my life, for the most part, has been happily free of real trouble with it, but I do know that’s not true for everyone.  And wherever your opinion falls in the conversation about bribery it’s easy to develop sort of a cavalier attitude about the whole thing, so you might do well to remember this mysterious morsel from good old King Solomon:  “Be not overly righteous, and do not make yourself too wise. Why should you destroy yourself? Be not overly wicked, neither be a fool. Why should you die before your time?” Just something to chew on the next time you’re waiting in line. […]


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