A Postcard from the Russian Highway

The Associated Press reports:

No lights. No road signs. Potholes big enough to swallow a farm animal. Going 80 mph through the Russian twilight and still being passed by cars and trucks. Suddenly we zip past a couple with a child strolling down a newly paved stretch of asphalt, separated from us by only a flimsy plastic barrier. My first drive in Russia, with wife and infant daughter, was supposed to be a simple jaunt to see old friends. It turned out to be a crash course in a white-knuckle driving culture.

The Vladimir Highway that links Moscow to Nizhny Novgorod, Russia’s fourth largest city, consists largely of four spottily paved lanes with crumbling shoulders or none at all, and more traffic lights than a Manhattan street.

This is a country that sends men into space and nuclear submarines to the ocean floor, but is still struggling to digest fast cars, open roads and the most basic rules of safety.

Known as the “Vladimirka,” the road has special significance in Russian history; in czarist times it was the main route for prisoners banished to Siberia. In “Crime and Punishment,” Dostoyevsky describes manacled Russians shuffling eastward for hundreds of miles along the Vladimirka, heading to the vast Siberian wilderness.

Our own punishment began soon after we set out eastward for the city of Vladimir, 120 miles away. At Moscow’s city limits we slowed to a crawl, wedged in among thousands of Russians taking advantage of one last weekend of good autumn weather.

Creeping through Balashikha, a soulless Moscow bedroom suburb, we passed stoplight after stoplight. SUVS, hulking over our rented Volkswagen and packed with weekend trippers, peeled out at green and screeched to a halt at red. Gridlock ruled.

And then there were the pedestrians — men and women, most of them elderly and loaded down with bags of potatoes or beets from their tiny subsistence garden plots, nervously waiting for a break in the traffic before shuffling across.

When not dodging pedestrians, I found myself careening around unlit plastic construction barriers, seemingly placed at random.

Still, at least it meant something was being fixed, and it might have been tolerable if slowing down was an option. But to go slower than 80 mph was to risk being rear-ended or shoved off the road by a semitrailer doing 90.

White lines didn’t seem to matter much in the constant lane-switching. Keep right and pass on the left? Forget it; at least two dozen semitrailers must have passed us — on the right.

Stuck in traffic? Make your own lane on the shoulder, plowing through grass, mud, gravel or even farther off in a field.

And yet, to our astonishment, we saw traffic cops everywhere, brandishing black-and-white batons. Every five miles or so we saw cars stopped at a speed trap.

The etiquette, I’d been told, was to apologize, address the policeman very politely and ask whether things could be settled “in a humane sort of way.”

That’s code for offering the policeman a 1,000 ruble note (about $36).

Thankfully, we weren’t stopped, and made it to Vladimir. But a trip I had thought would take two hours had lasted nearly three times as long.

The Kremlin has said it plans to spend tens of billions of dollars on improving roads over the next seven years, and that spending won’t be affected by the global financial crisis or the drop in oil prices that underpin the Russian economy.

Driving in 21st century Russia is not at all what it was during Soviet times.

Thirty years ago, Moscow’s sprawling boulevards were all but empty except for the occasional Zhiguli, the Soviet working man’s clunker, and the legendary black ZiL limousines carrying Communist Party high-ups behind curtained windows.

Today, middle-class Russians are snapping up cheap, quality-built sedans and sitting in constant traffic jams. There are few parking meters or garages, and the boulevards clog up with double-, triple-, even quadruple-parked cars. Sidewalks, too.

Until a few years ago, just about every bureaucrat was authorized to use a blue light and sirens to roar past traffic, oblivious to speed limits. Now those perks are gone, as is the resentment they used to stir. But that means those bureaucrats’ cars are now part of the traffic jams.

It took an ordinary Soviet citizen years just to get on the waiting list to buy a Zhiguli. Today, all the world’s brands are available for instant purchase, along with a huge second hand market. Unfortunately, a lot of those used cars come from Japan, with steering wheels on the right.

This engineering detail may have played into the collision we saw just outside Vladimir; one of the cars was a right-hand-drive import.

A man tried to stanch his bleeding nose as he staggered about, fuel gushing from the mangled front end of his delivery van, while traffic moved through the crash site, rather than around it.

Our journey back was much the same, except that it was nighttime and every pedestrian scuttling across the Vladimirka seemed to be dressed in dark clothing.

So, as we waited in yet another miles-long line of traffic, I clenched my teeth and steering wheel and remembered what Russians, quoting the 19th century novelist Nikolai Gogol, are forever saying are their country’s two greatest misfortunes:

Fools and bad roads.

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