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Александр Казаков / Коммерсантъ

Many Russians are continuing to ignore social distancing rules. A sociologist explains why.

Source: Meduza
Александр Казаков / Коммерсантъ
Александр Казаков / Коммерсантъ
Alexander Kazakov / Kommersant

During the coronavirus pandemic, being able to maintain social distancing in public spaces has become a vital skill. As it turns out, Russians are not coping with this very well. Meduza asked sociologist Andrey Korbut, a senior lecturer at Moscow’s Higher School of Economics who specializes in the sociology of every life, about the particularities of upholding social distancing in Russia.

There is a widespread belief that different countries and cultures have different ideas about the acceptable distance between people. There is even an entire science devoted to this discipline, known as “proxemics,” which researchers are using as a framework to establish the measure of these distances. In proxemics, it’s common to distinguish between “intimate distance” (between the closest of people), “personal distance” (in the context of everyday interactions, for example, with colleagues), “social distance” (in interactions with strangers), and “public distance” (in public spaces).

Researchers then discuss what distances are specific to different countries. In Russia, the acceptable length of personal distance is sometimes estimated at 120 centimeters (approximately four feet), which is noticeably more than in Western European countries, and the United States.

Does this mean Russians have “colder shoulders” than the French or the Italians? Probably not. Everyday social interactions are not subject to the logic of numbers. We don’t subconsciously calculate the distance between ourselves and someone we are talking to, in order to determine whether or not they’ve come closer to us than our degree of friendship implies. As such, the exact number of centimeters cannot explain how Italians and Russians navigate space differently when walking through the streets, standing in lines, having conversations in their kitchens, riding the subway, or going to stores (even then, it’s hard to make generalizations about either group).

If we were to talk about some cultural differences, then we would first have to draw attention to the existing ideas of acceptable and unacceptable distances in the context of specific, day-to-day practices. Roughly speaking, both Russians and Germans stand in lines (for example, at an ATM), but they can have different understandings of what it means to “stand in line at the ATM.” Here, one of the most important differences is the notion of the borders between public and private.

This border has its own long and confusing history in Western Europe, which is partly repeated in Russia, but also partly different. And this history leaves its mark on how we interact with other people in different spaces. 

In Russia, it’s likely that the line between private and public is deeper than in Western Europe. One of the historical reasons for this separation can be found in the Soviet practices of pretense and hypocrisy, analyzed by sociologist Oleg Karkhordin.

The practice of public pretense draws a pretty hard, clear-cut line between public relations and “personal life.” In the USSR, the two were cultivated as distinct spheres of social behavior, which should never be confused. The “center” of the private arose at home; in apartments, huts, and dachas, and sometimes in places like pubs, where short distances reigned (this is also due to the architectural set-up of these spaces). But in public space, it was necessary to keep up a “facade,” in relation to which there was no need to observe the ritual respect expressed in terms of great distances. Of course, people in the Soviet Union weren’t knocking their heads together and stepping on each others’ toes when walking down the streets. But the understanding of the meaning of these distances, their distribution in specific spaces and, in some instances, these very distances themselves, differed from what could be observed in other countries. 

Accordingly, in Russia (although any generalizations should be taken with great care), public spaces are understood as impersonal — literally “without a face.” Russians don’t look at public space as a place for demonstrating one’s “I.” Therefore, in public space personal relationships are only possible in a very limited format: Russians prefer to save them for special, private or semi-private places (for example, kitchens or bars, respectively). In public space, one needs to behave as if they aren’t even there.

This, among other things, can lead to the fact that when waiting in line for an ATM, Russians stand much shorter distance from the front than, for example, the British. For Russians, standing in line is a public practice, carried out in a public space, in which privacy is either absent or very limited (to a small space in front of the ATM). For Russians, maintaining a large distance between people in a line would constitute a strange demonstration of the private in public. From a Russian person’s perspective, a public space does not call for such behavior and, therefore, does not require the same measure of public scrupulousness with regard to other people’s privacy that occurs in other countries. 

This is also evidenced by the strange feelings that Russians get when they see how, for example, French people greet their friends with kisses (although the attitude towards such public displays of personal relations is certainly changing over time; today, even Russians, especially the younger generations, often do the same thing). This is not because this degree of proximity seems strange to people in Russia due to other ideas about acceptable distances, but because we are not used to such forms of combining the private and the public. If the private appears in public, it’s not through the two being combined, but rather through one suppressing the other.

This can be observed, for example, at political rallies, where both ordinary demonstrators and people who take on the role of political leaders, seek to ensure that the entire movement turns into a “union of souls.” Therefore, more often than not, public political engagement in Russia turns into either a total dictate of the public (with a clean sweep of the area or by bringing in involuntary “demonstrators”), or a total dictate of public relations (whoever is here now is either with us, or against us).

However, cultural differences in interactions involving distance should not be overestimated. They reflect not only the historical trajectories of different cultures (and individual communities within those cultures), but also material conditions. The fact that lines for ATMs are noticeably different in Russia and in Germany does not mean that Germans and Russians would experience varying degrees of embarrassment and irritation if they found themselves sitting next to each other on an airplane. Most likely, they would care about the same things; things entirely unrelated to the fact that they are being forced to sit within a certain distance from another person.

Today, the spread of digital technology also shows that everyday interactions in any country can be very easily reconstructed, depending on the opportunities that new means of communication have to offer. Russians very quickly acquired mobile phones, although it’s possible that they do not use them to have long conversations, like people do in other countries. It’s also possible that during these conversations, should they take place on the street, they do not share the same kind of intimate details as the French or the Italians.

In general, it’s safe to say that the particularities of distancing in different countries are becoming less and less discernible. On the one hand, as they get acquainted with different ways of interacting in public spaces (as a result of travel, or through the media), people master ways of constructing and maintaining distances that were formerly unfamiliar. That said, sometimes they can be formally borrowed from another culture, without understanding the notions of public and private behind them. In this case, new methods of distancing are unlikely to catch on, even if they are officially introduced (for example, in the case of epidemiological rules). 

On the other hand, different countries, and different groups of people within those countries, live in varying historical and cultural circumstances — they have different realities, which participants can’t control as they please. Of course, the different features of everyday life in separate countries and regions is not so deep that we do not understand representatives of different cultures (even without knowing their language, we can come to a mutual understanding). At the same time, it’s still deep enough that we might cast an indignant glance at a foreigner who, from our perspective, is standing too close to us in a half-empty subway car.

Text by Andrey Korbut

Translation by Eilish Hart