Let me share with you my experience at a public Russian бассейн (swimming pool) located at a small town 1 hour east of Moscow. For Russian dimensions you can still call this Moscow metropolitan area. It is a funny story, but also reveals some intriguing insights.

My wife who grew up in soviet Russia warned me about a number of peculiarities that I took not quite serious. Mistake. When we entered the building the lady at the reception desk informed us that the next group is scheduled in 45 minutes, but she recommended to stay to make sure to be included. Group? Waiting to enter the public swimming pool? It turned out that swimmers are admitted entrance in batches every 60 minutes. Batches small enough to not exceed 3 people per swimming lane.

So we bought tickets for the mandatory health check conducted by the nurse and waited 30 minutes at the entrance hall. Health check? I became somewhat nervous wondering which parts of my body she would want to investigate. Suddenly my wife interrupted my imaginations and told me time has come to visit the nurse. She checked hands and feet and offered to measure my blood pressure. Astonishly it was low. Relief.

Now that we passed the health check we were allowed to buy tickets for the pool. At the wardrobe we showed the tickets and a badge was given to each of us. With the batch we went to the so called administrator who replaced the badge with keys for the locker. Then we went into opposite directions to enter the changing rooms clearly separated by gender. Taking a shower is mandatory and the “changing room guardian” is watching you.

My wife advised me before to not jump into the pool without permission from the pool attendant. When I entered the pool area someone jumped into the pool so I joined him and other people followed. Mistake. Amazingly they all seemed to be locals familiar with the strict rules in this public institution and yet they ignore it. Grassroots revolution?

After approximately 15 people had started to swim, a woman who turned out to be the pool attendant blew her pipe in burst mode and directed people to move out of the pool with a serious look in her face. Once all swimmers had left the pool she blew her pipe again to signal entrance is allowed. People entered the pool again. Such education approach I typically apply with my 4 year old son to “enforce learning”.

The pool water turned out to be among the best quality I had seen so far. Much less chemicals compared to German pools and (for me) ideal temperature. Another benefit of the concept is that the entire pool area (behind the entrance hall) is perfectly clean, certainly cleaner than any public bath in Germany I have visited. Having returned to the changing room the “changing room guardian” instructed me to not put my towel on the window bench. After starting to use the hairdryer he instructed me to use another one for a reason that he did not share (or I did not understand). Really weird.

The story reveals the role of public institutions in Russia. Their role in the system is to maintain the total lack of confidence of Russians into their ability to self-organise on grass roots civil level. This reflects directly the legitimacy of the autocratic political system. Russian officials signal to people they should be thankful for being rescued from their definite inability to self-organise as a society.

How does this compare with western social systems and their ability to self-organise as a civil society?