I’m Driven Mad

1999 > Russia

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.

ouch!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

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

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.

Pork Alert!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.

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

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.

nice impoundLater 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.

where those bribes go...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.

new carzThe 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.’