Brian G. Angevine, Ph. D.
PO Box 5
Cuba KS 66940
Russian Driving Lessons
by Brian G. Angevine
My wife sponsored a student exchange visit to Russia several times. The first time I went I learned some important lessons, one of which had to do with driving habits. The ride from Shermetyvo airport into the center of Moscow to our sponsoring school, the famous School 56, was uneventful. But I began to wonder about the large number of smashed vehicles just abandoned by the side of the road. By the time we reached our pension, a small businessperson’s hotel, I was getting a little leery of Moscow drivers.
March in Moscow is generally a snowy, frigid time, and there was plenty of snow and ice on the ground. Our first gathering at School 56 left me wondering just who was in charge. The students were staying with host families, but since we took our two children, no family had room for the four of us. Someone had to drive us to our pension each evening and pick us up the next morning. Each time it was a different driver and he had to be given directions to our hotel. Moscow streets are not particularly friendly for visitors. There is no apparent pattern other than the several “ring roads” that circle the city at precise intervals. Street signs are located on the sides of buildings along the route which may or may not show from the road. Two or three women would take the driver aside and try to tell him how to get to our pension. I’m sure everyone knows how much male drivers appreciate directions from females. After several minutes of arguing back and forth about the best route, with the driver usually paying scant attention, we would roar off into the night whichever direction the driver decided to take—never the same way twice.
One driver, a young man of about 18, sped with abandon down a road toward the Ostankino television tower, a Moscow landmark. The night was very dark and traffic was not too heavy, so our intrepid driver turned off his headlights and accelerated even faster. When he caught up with a glob of cars he would merely careen into the lanes heading the opposite direction and pass the whole mob in one rush. More than once he barely returned to the correct lanes just before being met head-on by a glut of cars rushing towards us. I did not quite understand the whole deal of the darkened vehicle and the headlong pace, but we made it, most of us with still clean underwear.
One morning we were to visit the factory of a benefactor of School 56. The executive officer, at that time not an owner since the Soviets were still in power, was a kind man who believed that children should experience other cultures. Our driver, an officer in the large coat manufacturing firm, picked us up in the icy parking lot of our pension. My wife and her children shoehorned themselves into the back seat of the small car while I sat in front with the driver. No sooner had the door closed than the wheels were spinning wildly grabbing for traction. Have you ever thrown a ball to a playful dog on a slick floor? All four paws scrabbling for purchase to pursue the ball is a comical sight. In our case only two tires were trying to gain a purchase and they were not doing too good a job. It was not exactly comical. The driver threw a cursory glance at oncoming cars that seemed merely to determine whether or not they were large enough to crush us, rather than with any concern for safety, or any thought of yielding the right-of-way, as we shot out into the street, fishtailing into a lane.
A slight hesitation at the major intersection where a stop sign indicated more discretion, led to a careening dash in front of oncoming traffic. Abruptly he wheeled onto a so-called shortcut that wound up in a construction project which had completely blocked the street. He slammed on the brakes and the car teetered to a stop on the very edge of a deep trench. Amid curses about the delay and without hesitation, the driver jumped the curbing onto the adjacent sidewalk, barely squeezing between two trees. Pedestrians scattered like quail as we dodged and swerved down the sidewalk for two blocks, trees whizzing by like fence posts. At the end of the construction we slalomed between trees and plunged onto the icy street again. As I gradually loosened my death-grip on the seat edges I was surprised I still had fingernails.
As we neared the center of Moscow on a large thoroughfare a stop light halted the frightening ride. We were in the front row of the queue along with a car with two wheels up on the curb, another car in the lane next to us, and a fourth in the emergency lane in the middle of the road. Across the way oncoming traffic was lined up the same way. Obviously there was not enough room for eight cars on the four lane road. An all-out, pedal to the metal, drag race ensued when the light changed. By some miracle there were no crashes.
Shortly after that, frustrated by the “slow” pace of traffic, our Mario Andretti slapped a magnetic red light on the top of the car and took to the emergency lane. A separate lane is marked off in the center of the ring roads for the express use of emergency vehicles. That did not deter our driver from using it, since he now looked as if he were on official business with his red orb flashing away. Of course all the other drivers ignored him as well as the ambulance that was trying to use the lane too.
When we careened into a parking lot and slid to a stop in a reserved space near the door of the factory, we all climbed from the car with great relief and shaky legs. I considered kissing the ground and blessing its solidity, but felt the driver might take offense. Who knows what might have happened then? Clutching my wife in gratitude for our relatively safe arrival, she commented that I had not fastened my seat belt. I replied, white faced, that I didn’t want to prolong my agony if we were in a wreck. Seat belt or not we would have all been killed. I had no desire to learn any more about Russian driving. On our next visit we rode the metro (subway) and got around just fine on our own.