Subway: a silver lining of the COVID-19 quarantine in Moscow

VARVARA KOBYSHCHA AND KSENIA SHEPETINA

The text is based on the data collected within the project “Everyday practices of public health: (Non)Following sanitary rules at Moscow public transport during the coronavirus pandemic” funded by Russian Foundation for Basic Research and the bachelor thesis of Ksenia Shepetina defended at the Faculty of Social Sciences of HSE University. The main body of the research data consists of interviews with Moscow passengers (39 by July 2020) of various age (from 18 to 52), occupations, socio-economic backgrounds, and attitudes towards the virus who kept traveling by public transport during the quarantine in April-May. The interviews cover their mobility experience before and during the pandemic, as well as the broader context of their everyday life in this period. Additionally, some of the participants provided travel diairies, registering their own and others’ mobility behaviour, sensations, and emotions. The second part of the data costists of the video observations recorded in Moscow subway and buses in the last two weeks of the quarantine.

The crowd. When the quarantine measures were introduced in Moscow in April 2020, the city mayor reassured the citizens that, despite all the other restrictions and the rumor about the subway, it was not going to be closed. Generally, his explanation was based on technical reasons; he claimed the subway system would collapse if it stops running even for a short period of time. This news brought some relief because, in the view of many citizens, the whole city and their own lives would collapse if the subway is ever put on hold.

 As other old underground systems, Moscow subway is much more than just a transport infrastructure that makes urban routines possible. Being initially built as a soviet palace for people, over the years it became filled with collective emotions, sensations, practices, and its own mythology: from the legend about the second (secret) subway to the famous dog-sculpture at one of the central stations that passengers touch for luck. At the same time, citizens’ relations with the Moscow subway have always been controversial. Despite its speed, reliability, scale, and aesthetics, passengers get exhausted due to the close physical copresence of the crowds of people. Before the pandemic, on average 8.5 million people travelled by subway during each weekday. The current Moscow policy aimed at the limitation of car-mobility and the large mass-housing estates growing on the outskirts of Moscow contribute to the increasing pressure on the subway system. Commuting times can be meaningfully filled with work, online communication, or leisure activities and, thus, time spent travelling csn be compensated. But for majority of our research participants, corporal copresence and contact with strangers, which is coupled with the lack of control over the personal boundaries and movements, remain an unavoidable and the most problematic part of their mobility and daily routine on the subway.

Komsomolskaya station on a usual weekday. Photo from “Moscow ghetto…” (accessed 21 July 2020)
Komsomolskaya station during the quarantine in the second half of May 2020.
Screenshot from the collection of video data.

Disappearance of the crowd. In April, Moscow government introduced the pass-system allowing only work-related mobility of “essential” employees and two trips for personal duties per week for everyone else. At the lowest point,  subway usage dropped to 16% of the average pre-pandemic level. When the subway became almost empty, passengers suddenly realizsd that this also did away with its main disadvantages. The disappearance of the usual crowds not only got rid of the usual physical discomfort, but also eliminated the other risks associated with the subway, such as terrorist attacks, pickpocketing, and potential conflicts with aggressive and drunk people. In “normal” times, high human-density meant subway passengers to felt constant tension, navigating through the underground space filled with people or trying hard (with varying degrees of success) to ignore the others and physically, or at least emotionally, distance oneself from the surrounding people. 

Being in the subway crowd usually means searching for an opportunity to escape unpleasant smells or noises and to get away from marginalized others (such as intrusive musicians, homeless people, football fans, “suspiciously-looking” individuals). When the quarantine was introduced, almost none of those pre-pandemic irritants were relevant anymore.

At the height of the pandemic in Moscow, those people who continued using public transport perceived the subway as the safest of all the public spaces that were available at the time. It was a place of calm and security, so long as it gave enough space for all the passengers to maintain distance, take a seat, and not touch the handrails or doors. For those who were concerned about the virus transmission, increased space and greater possibilities for  movement constituted to a more positive experience. Passengers acquired significantly more control over what was happening around them. Compared to other public places like supermarkets, similar opportunities to be alone or at least separated from other people were difficult to achieve. With the exceptions of the more expensive supermarket chains, generally stores provided much narrower spaces, rarely implemented any actual means of distancing, and did not strictly enforce mask-wearing. Depending on the area of the city, other public transport, and especially buses travelling within remote districts, could also be packed with people.

Even outside the quarantine context, Moscow subway is often considered as a highly regulated space where, despite all the minor incivilities, people predominantly performed very disciplined and “civilized” behaviour. To explain this point, our informants juxtaposed the subway with the more chaotic suburban trains, that bring (presumably) lower status residents of the neighbouring regions to their jobs in Moscow. Under the quarantine, this positive reputation of the subway was strengthened.

Signs for social distancing in Moscow subway. Photo by a research participant.

The measures implemented in the subway were highly visible: train cars, halls of subway stations, and some platforms were saturated with signs for distancing. The new rules and additional information regarding the precautions against the virus were constantly repeated in audio and video formats. It initially caused stress for some passengers, obsessively reminding them about the global COVID-crisis happening above the ground and their personal problems related to it. But later such reminders became easily ignored. Moreover, unlike overground public transport, the subway invested in its media promotion and widely spread information about the additional disinfection measures that were being undertaken. Some of the research participants reported that they felt new and tangibly clean air of the subway produced by additional filters in the ventilation, others noticed that it became more unlikely to see a not so clean train with some bottles or papers left in it.

Social distancing, that is an always desirable but rarely available option during the non-quarantine commuting, became a huge bonus for all those people who could not afford or did not want to remain home – regardless of their attitude to the virus and the quarantine restrictions. Even those who were annoyed with the new rules, upset to be unable to work, or angry based on some conspiracy theory, could not deny the pleasure of traveling in the uncrowded subway. Some were also happy that their commuting time had reduced, as there was no need to queue for a train or change a line. Some enjoyed the new visual perspectives and the “cinematic” aesthetics of the subway that is usually hardly visible above the heads of all other passengers around them but revealed itself after the disappearance of the crowds. Some used this as an opportunity to loosen control over their personal front in public space, letting themselves learn foreign words out loud or even sign in the subway in an almost empty train.

To be honest, I enjoy it a lot when there is only few people in subway. I am making selfies to show my family and friends that I am alone in a train car. It is the first time when I can sing out loud while listening to music in my earphones. I am singing, I feel great. And it is very unusual and spooky at the same time, because it looks like a some kind of apocalypse. […] I also learn Spanish and pronounce words. First, there is a mask on my face, no one sees me. [Second,] no one hears me, because there is no one next to me. I can speak out loud, pronounce tongue-twisters. (Female, 44 y.o.; translated by the authors)

As mentioned earlier, anyone was free to use the Moscow subway twice a week to go to the location mentioned in their pass, and only the “social” cards of students and pensioners were temporary blocked. It meant that people actually used public transport for various purposes that were not only work-related. At the same time, during the quarantine passengers suspended their skills of social distinctions that are usually applied while travelling through the city by subway. “Normally”, our research participants can easily provide a categorization of the passengers at various subway lines, types of public transport, or urban areas based on the signs of socio-economic status of the people they see. However, the quarantine temporarily erased those distinctions, so our informants could no longer distinguish those who accompanied them in the subway. During this period, Moscow subway passengers perceived themselves as united by the new identity. They were the people of labour [trudyagi] who had to keep going to work despite everything. And even those informants who did not work expected the rest of the passengers in the subway to be ‘people of labour’. This concept combined the controversial feeling of both previlage and hard duty of the people who at that period, generally, could work but had to leave home and go to work. The amount of the ‘people of labour’ in the subway started growing in mid-May when the city officials permitted construction and production to reopen.

People on a Moscow subway train in the morning of a workday in the second half of May 2020.
Screenshot from the collection of video data.

The new crowd. One of our research participants temporarily lost their job and had to work at a delivery service during the quarantine. He travelled by subway to more than ten destinations per day, and eventually got the virus and suffered serious sickness together with his family members. He never believed in the effect of the subway ventilation filters and told his clients to wash the packages since he used the subway to deliver them. Despite the negative experience of this period, he finished the interview with a confession: he was truly terrified to think that the subway was going to be back to its “normal” overcrowded condition. When we asked what happened next, during his first post-quarantine trips in June when most of the passengers returned to the subway, he laughed and replied that – surprisingly – nothing happened. He found himself immediately immersed into the usual routine of his everyday mobility.

People on a Moscow subway train in early July 2020. Photo by K. Shepetina

So did the majority of Moscow citizens, regardless of their immune status and the statistics of active cases of COVID-19 in the city. Currently, the Moscow subway crowd consists of the two problematically overlapping social orders: “old-” and “new-normal”. The dominating order is maintained by the people who returned to the usual routine without any precautions or perform the anti-virus measures only in the exceptional cases when the passengers’ rule-following is controlled: in the first days of August the city officials claimed that “the citizens have become too relaxed” and issued thousands of fines for non-wearings masks in public transport, stores, and cafes, which, however, did not radically change the situation in transport. A minority of Moscow citizens (the city officials estimated them as 35% by the beginning of August) maintain the “new-normal” order mostly as the acts of individual behaviour or sometimes courage (keeping a mask on as long as possible even if it is too hot and hard to breathe). Occasionally, they may try to insert this order into collectively defined situations (requesting distance if there is enough space).

About the authors:

Varvara Kobyshcha is a researcher at the Laboratory of Urban Sociology (Faculty of Urban and Regional Development, HSE University, Moscow, Russia) and a PhD student at the University of Helsinki (Finland).

Ksenia Shepetina is a junior researcher at the Laboratory of Urban Sociology (Faculty of Urban and Regional Development, HSE University, Moscow, Russia).

The text is based on the data collected within the project “Everyday practices of public health: (Non)Following sanitary rules at Moscow public transport during the coronavirus pandemic” funded by Russian Foundation for Basic Research and the bachelor thesis of Ksenia Shepetina defended at the Faculty of Social Sciences of HSE University.

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