Russia, January 11, 1999
Only the mad and the ignorant drive in this country!Today, as I was being driven to a meeting, I pondered on the odd profession of being a driver in Russia. Unlike the West, where it is an occupation, something that occupies your time, here it is a profession, something you have to be highly skilled to do.
As we traveled the streets of Moscow, he (there are very few female drivers, professional or otherwise) focused all his attention on the road to try and avoid the many hazards that presented themselves. Encompassing potholes, constant road repairs, street name changes, street direction changes, other drivers, corrupt GAI (traffic police) and random pedestrians all combine to make our journey a bit more than I would like to experience in the driver's seat.
Ouch! A Neva can be a road hazard for a Zhigolee.
Since it is a profession here, drivers are a little different. First, they know almost every street, intersection, alley, and building in the city. On top of that, they know all the GAI haunts and traffic bottlenecks. Oh, and the good ones come with their own car, usually a shiny new German one. I remember the unassuming, quiet driver for the BCC (a USAID funded enterprise) who drove a top-line BMW. I never asked him how he came about such a car. He wasn't the kind of guy you would ask those type of questions. I'm sure he was just lucky to be at the right place at the right time (or something like that).
As my driver, who came with a new Volvo, dropped me off at my meeting, I understood why they are in such demand here. In a country without credit cards, or even credit terms, everything is paid up front, in cash. You need a trustworthy, but sharp, individual to pay for and deliver all those items we just charge and ship in the States.
Wednesday, November 18, 1998, Moscow Times
Hard Lessons of Moscow School of Motoring
By Martin von den Driesch
Saturday morning, 2:30 a.m., driving along Prospekt Mira. I was taking a friend - a newcomer to Moscow - home after an evening out. "Where is your house?" I asked her. "It's on the other side, over on the left," she replied, pointing. Damn! As I had already learned in a month of driving in Moscow, a left turn can mean covering endless stretches until the next regular turning point. Or if the traffic allows it and after checking the rearview mirror for police cars on your tail, a sneaky and utterly illegal U-turn on the spot.
I felt absolutely sober, although I had drunk two beers over the course of the evening - a legal intake in my native Germany, but a definite nono here. But because I hadn't had any serious encounters with the traffic police, formerly (and still popularly) known as the GAI, since I took to Moscow's roads in a Volkswagen, I guess I had become a little too carefree. I swung the car around through the double white line separating the lanes and set off in the opposite direction. For a few seconds I thought to myself that driving in Moscow was much the same as back in Hamburg, i.e. simply check the rear-view mirror before violating traffic regulations.
Seconds later, a large Ford appeared from nowhere and raced up to my rear fender, siren wailing and blue and red lights flashing. "That's not for us," I tried to reassure my friend, who was fidgeting nervously. "It's not their style for a minor traffic violation."
The Russian GAI
How wrong can you be. "Would you please stop behind us here on the right," one of three GAI officers called through the open window as the Ford glided up level. "Documents, please," said the first officer, while one of his colleagues slowly circled my car, eerily illuminated by the light of the still-flashing police beacons. "Have you been drinking?"
"No," I lied, trying to conceal my nervousness. "But how could you cross the double white line here on Prospekt Mira without being drunk?" Before I could think of a snappy answer to that one I found myself in their car, surrounded by all manner of state-of-the-arts technology including a Breathalyzer, which was promptly used on me. I mentally raced through all the different strategies various friends recommend for this kind of situation. Should I give in and offer to "settle" the problem on the spot? Or should I deny that I have been drinking and see what happens? In fighting spirit, I went for the latter.
"No, not one drop, officer - Perhaps your alcohol meter is not working properly" I offered helpfully, and even agreed to accompany them to a hospital for a blood test, hoping to call their bluff.
Only then did I remember that I was not alone. I returned to my car and told my friend that we, were going for a little spin, and that a police officer would drive my car. A minute after we all set off, I realized they were serious about the blood test. "Skol'ko, " I gave in. How much? "Do you know what drunk driving costs in your country?" the officers inquired darkly. I frankly had no idea, only that you don't have to pay in cash.
$500 minimum," I was informed. The Moscow rate, it turned out, is $200, so after a bit of haggling and much convincing them that my friend didn't have a cent on her, I eventually handed over $100 and 200 rubles before I was allowed to leave.
Parking is not a problem
Surprisingly, I didn't feel very angry - $100 after one month free is not so bad, I thought as I returned to my car. My friend was crying. "Don't be upset - it's not your fault," I said by way of comfort. "This is pretty normal for Moscow." "But the whole time we were driving, the officer was running his hands all over me," she sobbed. Moscow is indeed a little different from Hamburg.
The next afternoon, having almost forgotten about this episode, I was on my way to Victory Park to go rollerblading and enjoy the last of the warm weather. I had just parked my car on Kutuzovsky Prospekt when a Lada stopped alongside and one of the passengers asked if f could tell him how to get to Leninsky Prospekt, I got out my Moscow map and obligingly showed him the route as we chatted about German and Russian cars and girls. Only after they drove off, waving cheerfully, did I realize that while we were exchanging pleasantries the driver's friends had opened the trunk and removed a bag containing my mobile phone, pager, and professional camera.
The next day, Sunday, although I had lost some money, personal items, and a good deal of face, I was still in Possession of my car. I headed downtown to get some cash from an ATM, religiously observing the minutest traffic regulation. Not that this stopped the big Ford thing happening again, of course, this time for a document check: passport, driver's license, technical papers, customs papers - the whole works.
But this Officer demanded that I produce yet another document certifying import of a foreign vehicle. I was finally instructed to follow him for a "brief" cheek. After a I 5-minute ride through Moscow we reached a customs control point, which looked like a derelict warehouse, After four hours of waiting, negotiating and pleading, I gave up and went home by inline skates and metro.
Later I called a Russian friend of mine, Yura, who has a lot of experience with importing cars and dealing with the police, With his help I finally recovered my car after four days, and didn't even have to pay for four days of secured parking."
Very secure parking
Finally, after a weeklong, 5,000 kilometer, six-country car journey via Moscow-Minsk-Berlin-Stockholm-Helsinki, I arrived back in Moscow with the precious piece of paper, obtained with much difficulty at the Finnish-Russian border. Now I was fully prepared for my next encounter with the GAI, which was not long in coming.
If it breaks down, the GAI will never help, either!
Driving on Tverskaya Ulitsa a couple of days later, I changed lanes and, hey presto, the GAI officer standing at the junction waved me over With his black and white truncheon. "You want to turn right'?" he, asked. I nodded dejectedly. Let me show you what you did wrong." He motioned me out of the car and pointed out the solid white line I had crossed. "That will be, 41 rubies and 90 kopecks," the officer told me, explaining that he must keep my driving license until I hid paid the fine at Sberbank.
I automatically reached for my wallet. "Put that away," he said sharply as he filled out the relevant forms. "Where are you from in Germany?" he asked me in a grim tone, as if this was part of the protocol. "So do they have a good soccer team in Hamburg, then?" he brightened, throwing the half-completed form into a corner. "Not really, I think Spartak is better. Can I pay my fine now?"
"Forget it. You're all right," was his only reply. I can't exactly say that this incident miraculously restored my faith in Russia's traffic police. But then again, I never expected that it would he a GAI officer who would pick up my mood so soon.
Martin von den Driesch is a freelance photographer based in Moscow. He contributed this essay to the Moscow Times.
Boston Globe January 11, 1999
Russian roads can exact a toll on drivers
By David Filipov
TOTMA, Russia - The captain was not pleased. He frowned at the documents strewn on the tiny desk of his checkpoint: the US passport, Russian press accreditation, Russian car registration, and US driver's license. The captain did not like this. It reeked of an international plot. 'Where'd you say you were going again?,' the captain asked, again.
The American explained, again: to Veliky Ustyug, a picturesque 12th century town, a 650-mile drive northeast of Moscow and 150 miles east of Totma. The captain mulled this over, again. 'You can't get there from here,' he concluded.
New Englanders may remember that as the punch line from an old joke about Yankees. In Russia, the joke is often reality. Over 40 percent of Russia's 135,000 towns are not connected to the rest of the world by roads, according to Russia's Transportation Ministry. Over 40 percent of the roads that do exist are considered 'substandard.'
Vast tracts of Russia's nine time zones have no roads at all and have to depend on supplies that come by rail, river, and air. And since railways are also far from ubiquitous, air travel is too expensive, and most Russian rivers freeze, lots of these places go cold and hungry in winter. Veliky Ustyug no longer has this problem. Last year, a direct road from Totma was finally completed. But apparently no one had told this captain.
The Globe's boxy Czech-built Skoda had journeyed some 400 miles from Moscow, the last 100 on one of those 'substandard' roads - in fact, an obstacle course of potholes with wickedly serrated edges. One crater had just cost the Globe's Moscow bureau two steel-belted radials a few miles back. We were proud of having made it this far.
The captain, it seems, wanted a bribe for letting us go any farther. Russian conventional wisdom dictates that when a Russian traffic police officer, still known by the Soviet-era acronym GAI (pronounced 'Guy-EE'), waves his white baton at your car, an extortion attempt is in the offing. Our driver made an abstract comment about writing down his badge number and reporting this as breach of international treaties. In Moscow, that would have merely upped the price. Here, miraculously, the bluff worked.
Where all those bribes go! Nice cop Merc's!
Why are Russian roads so bad? One popular theory blames Russian generals, who remember how Hitler's Blitzkreig was slowed when it ran into Russia's unpaved, muddy ruts. Perhaps a more realistic explanation is that most Russian regions cannot afford to build new roads. As a result, they remain isolated from many goods and services.
The area around relatively prosperous Moscow has six-lane highways with fluorescent lane markers, drive-in fast-food restaurants, and spiffy 24-hour service stations. Farther from the capital, such amenities deteriorate with the quality of the roads. The last fast food we saw was at a McDonald's in Yaroslavl, 160 miles north of Moscow. The last gas station with plumbing was 140 miles farther north in Vologda, capital of the impoverished region where Veliky Ustyug is located.
The rest of the route through the dark, snow-capped taiga has only one lane that is plowed. As two oncoming vehicles approach, the drivers flash their lights at each other to signal the other car to yield. Rule of thumb: If the oncoming vehicle is a KaMAZ lumber truck and you are driving a Skoda, you yield. Then you drive with extra care to avoid the logs the KaMAZ has inevitably sprinkled in its path. It is a harrowing trip.
A high tech Zhigali
But in Veliky Ustyug - until recently best reached the way Russian settlers found it in 1147, by river - people are happy to have any road at all. 'We love our road,' said Yevgeny Udachin, who works at a local furniture company. 'It feels so much like ...' He paused to search for the right word. 'It feels so much like civilization.'