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Knights of the Vine RUSSIA

The Way It Is

Frank Ebbecke

A typically dark, grey, icy day mid-December last year. About 4 pm Moscow local time.

I was supposed to be at an important business meeting in one hour. My destination that day was a client’s office on the Garden Ring, the life-vein of the centre. Not that I was very worried about being late. Punctuality is not exactly one of Russians’ prime virtues. But I was locked behind the steering wheel of my car. For two hours, the trip computer showed an average speed of 2 mph. It should have shown 0 mph. There was no way I could move forward, backward or sideways. I couldn’t even dump the car and escape the nightmare on foot. I was hopelessly stuck right in the middle of six lanes (genuine Muscovite drivers may quickly create even up to ten doorhandle to doorhandle lanes).

I was forced to waste over five hours of my life, just to cover a total distance of a mere 18 kilometres by car. Everybody just keeps sitting in these endless traffic jams. With blank faces, smoking, reading, listening to the radio, watching a DVD, cleaning their noses, ladies checking their make-up, looking after their finger nails. Russians are so used to waiting, to being patient, to keeping quiet.

This reminds me of the endless human lines in front of stores not that long time ago. Nowadays the same people are lining up in the comfort of their cars. This one was not just an ordinary “probka” (traffic jam). This was the worst ever. But today there even was a kind of good, understandable reason: 3,000 OMON (special police force) were on their way to the Kremlin area where ethnic riots had threatened to get out of hand. Everything and everybody else came to a sudden stop. Not even the government elite or other so-called VIPs who often paid for their flashing blue light on their cars’ roofs (they’re hundreds of them) had hassle-free travel.

This megapolis is far too spread out to rely on your feet alone. Busses and trams are continuously stuck as well, of course. But, yes, the Metro is an option. The world’s busiest (9.5 million passengers per day) metro is an impressive model of efficiency and speed. Provided you don’t have to carry heavy stuff, your destination is near a station, it’s not minus 30 outside and you can avoid the rush hours. But how? Under ground, too, the rush hour seems never to end. So, we stick to our four wheels. If you have a driver, you at least can concentrate on your mobile conversations, your emails, your paperwork.

But why are streets are so hopelessly overfull in this city? Well, over 20 years ago, Moscow‘s roads were meant to provide for no more than 400,000 cars. Today that is roughly the figure of annual new registrations. 4 million cars are already flooding the city streets. And hundreds of thousands of more cars are commuting every day and night from all directions into the capital. Imagine this gigantic “workload” for the streets in combination with harsh weather conditions (up to six months serious winter), and you can understand why the roads are so dreadful and dangerous.

The car is the most obvious demonstration Russians use to show their new freedom and wealth. Hence the love for huge gas-guzzlers, when something smaller, cleaner and lighter would easily do the job. Lots of cars in Moscow have the indicative sticker on their back windows: “Fuck Fuel Economy.” Who cares? We’ve got enough oil! And what‘s environmental consciousness? We’ve the biggest sky above the biggest national territory in the world!

Once traffic is moving, it gets wild. The flashy foreign cars of the newly-rich jockey for position with the boxy Russian Ladas and Zhigulis of the looked-down-upon. Making their own rules, the new rich drivers like to pretend to be F1 drivers. Almost trying to shave off other cars front bumper edges when suddenly cutting through from the outer edge of six lanes to turn right at the next close corner at an irresponsible speed (without indicating, of course). Racing at full-speed is a highly appreciated activity of the Russian “street anarchists”. Preferably in the dark and then even sometimes without head and rear lamps. A red traffic light may simply turn green in the eyes of some drivers when they feel in a hurry. You might easily encounter a car coming towards you in a one-way street. For the driver it just might mean a shortcut to his destination. At big crossings, Muscovite drivers like to fight for every inch, bumper to bumper, to battle their way through. Often to such an extreme that nobody can move in any direction. Me. I am first. This is the name of game.

Another reason for serious jams is the large number of old cars (the average age of registered cars across the nation is 17 years). No, they often go fastest, but yes, they often break down the quickest, too. Drivers of such trusty steeds just stop wherever their old bastard did eventually let them down and repair their vehicles themselves, sometimes blocking traffic. Or, one of the thousands of accidents which occur every day. happens. Even for the smallest scratch, both parties are forced to wait for the police (sometimes for hours). Because without an official police report the insurance company will not pay. While you wait, you need to leave your cars exactly where the accident occurs, even if in the middle of the road.

An accident might be the only occasion where you want to meet the police. Normally everybody tries to avoid them. They always find something wrong—like a typing error in the cars technical documents. Don’t argue. People have nicknamed the DPS, the Dorozhno-Patrul’naya Sluzhba (Road Police Patrol Service, the Den’gi Plati Srazu (Pay Up Now)

Riding motorbikes or scooters are even more life threatening alternatives. Bicycle tracks are only now coming into fashion, although I haven’t seen any. Chasing pedestrians seems to be another sport. Don’t show fear or start running when crossing a road. Your fellow citizens in drivers’ seats might accelerate.

Parking is a really big problem in Moscow. Parking in the 2nd or even 3rd row happens quite a lot. Narrow streets means more traffic jams for this reason. Traffic flows are controlled by hand by individual traffic cops at many busy junctions. .When one gives a green light, his comrade at the next crossing just switches to red.

“I ask everybody who sits down behind a steering wheel to recognize the responsibility of their actions. Pray before you start driving that God and your Guardian Angel are with you,” demanded Kyrill, Patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church, from his compatriots on the International Day of Traffic Victims‘ late last year.

Showing-off horse power by new Russians, the large number of technically rundown old cars, drivers’ recklessness, poor driving experience, bad road conditions, and last but not least, alcohol, all produce a deadly mix: with 30,000 people being killed in traffic (2008), Russia has a doubtful world record (in relation to the total population).

Maybe a key to curbing dangerous driving habits and to avoiding traffic jams would be to encourage more “intelligent and polite” driving, says Kiichiro Hatoyama, Professor at Moscow State University. A higher level of driving etiquette would most certainly entail ending bribery in driving tests and especially the sale of driving licences. Almost half of the 120,000 new permits issued per year in Moscow alone are bought, although this cannot be verified.

One thing is for sure: traffic here is a crash course in surviving. It is extremely stressful for man and machine. But live it or leave it.

Have a safe, pleasant and, probka-free drive.

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