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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Disabled Can Still Count on Avoiding Lines

Isn't it good to know that there are things one can still take for granted? That winter will come early this year and the city won't be ready. That people will let a disabled person cut in line. Russian people, anyway.

A friend sprained her ankle last week, a couple of days before she was to catch a plane to Calcutta. A sprained ankle may not be the most serious injury ever incurred, but the prospect of negotiating the Sheremetyevo customs line in a wheelchair seemed daunting. "Have no fear," I said. "People will be screaming, 'Propustite invalida!'" ("Let the invalid through!")

Now my friend, being a foreigner, was not convinced. Foreigners who, say, use public transport in Moscow have not generally come to think of Russians as gentle people concerned with the welfare of strangers. An American who has spent just a few weeks in this city complained to me that Russians tend to be very nasty about doing good. When he rides the metro with his 5-year-old, he finds, he gets angry looks from people who get up and march off demonstratively so his daughter can sit down. Elsewhere in Europe the child would likely be smothered with baby talk before she got her seat; in the United States she'd be ignored. But in Russia she is resented and obeyed like a heavy-handed but fair boss. The father should be grateful he can't understand the discussion that precedes his fellow passengers' show of politesse: "Young man, give your seat up! Can't you see there is a child here?" (Elderly women who see it as their duty to impose the rules of the metro generally pick me as the target of this sort of remark, probably because, as young men go, I don't look very threatening.)

An early post-perestroika joke portrayed the degradation of the new generation this way: "Young man, get up!" says an elderly woman to one of two young boys occupying seats on a bus. "Don't do it," his friend cautions. "I know this trick: If you get up, she'll sit down."

So when we arrived at the airport, we discovered that the flight to Calcutta coincided with the departure for Istanbul. The line of bag-laden, businesslike young people snaked well out of the customs area. It would have taken us a good two hours to get to customs. I gingerly approached the end of the line and said, "Would you kindly let us through?" From that point on it was like the parting of the Red Sea. I walked in front, holding my friend's crutches, mumbling something polite; another friend wheeled the injured party behind me. We got to the front of the line in about 30 seconds. But there, at the last barrier before the customs check, a group of Britons stood firm.

Turning away from me, one of these representatives of that highly civilized country said to her companions in English, which she assumed I wouldn't understand: "I'm not falling for that wheelchair trick!" Just then a mean-looking New-Russian-in-the-making pushed me out of the way with the growl, "Propustite invalida!" Noticing that I was the crutch-bearer, he looked at me apologetically and then glowered at the Britons. They quickly moved out of the way. And people say young people aren't as polite as they used to be.

Masha Gessen is a staff writer for Itogi.