Staunton, August 18 – The line has been a Russian tradition for more than a century. Under Nicholas II, Russians stood in line for his coronation. Under Stalin, they did so for his funeral and often for food, under Gorbachev, for McDonald’s and under Yeltsin, for humanitarian assistance, Igor Zalyubovin and Karina Bashayeva write.
And today, the two Snob journalists say, “lines haven’t disappeared, but they have changed. Now, [hundreds of thousands of] Russians stand for hours for spiritual nourishment” of various kinds ranging from various art exhibits to the display of church relics (snob.ru/selected/entry/128077).
They provide statistics on the numbers, the hours waited, and other details of these lines, but they fail to point to the most important aspect of this largest public activity in Russia, one far larger than any political demonstration for the regime or against it: the creation of a specific civic space where people can share ideas, information and rumors about what is going on.
As Olga Grushin described this phenomenon in her 2010 novel The Line, Russians are profoundly affected by lines independent of why they are standing in them, with the experience itself reinforcing their understanding of what is going on and how they should respond to it whether merely surviving or participating in what they may sense is a chance for change.
And thus they may begin to ask more than the two questions that Russians passing a line asked in Soviet times: “what are they giving?” and “who’s last?” Instead, they may ask more radical ones like those who stood in line for physical food in 1917 even though they are now waiting for spiritual sustenance instead.