Two weeks ago I sat in a GAI patrol car drinking whiskey with an on-duty traffic cop. The pudgy officer had flagged down my friend’s Nissan for a routine “document check,” but decided not to pursue the bribe when he spotted me in the back swigging from a bottle of Jack Daniel’s. I was immediately invited to his idling car for a drink and a chat.
We passed the bottle back and forth as he told me of his friend’s Duty Free booze racket. He could get any imported booze for half the retail price. A bottle of Jack for $25? I was impressed. But I guess he still couldn’t afford one on a meager GAIshnik salary, because I was only let go after offering to top off the flask he kept under his seat.
“I’m not getting drunk on the job,” he explained. “I’m just trying to stay warm.” How else did I expect him to survive winter in St. Petersburg? He had a point—one that goes a long way toward explaining why Russia has some of the highest rates of road fatalities in the world, second only to parts of Africa and the Middle East.
“Remember, the roads are very icy. Be careful!” my newly buzzed uniformed friend warned us as we took off.
It was a fitting way to finish day three of my four-day road trip along the three most dangerous stretches of European Russia’s highway system. By then I had clocked a treacherous 24 hours behind the wheel. Driving from Moscow to Pskov and then up to St. Petersburg, I had traversed nearly 700 miles on some of the most perilous roads this side of the Urals. In total, my journey was 1,200 miles long—almost half the distance across the continental United States. But I wasn’t done yet. I still had to get back to Moscow alive.
It had been two years since I last traveled Russia’s provincial highways. That was the year I rented a Ford Focus to move from St. Petersburg to Moscow. It was late spring and the dirty snow had melted into black slush that speeding cars and trucks threw into the air. The big chunks fell to earth, but the smaller bits hovered, creating an unholy dark mist. The powerful headlights of oncoming big rigs reflected off the mist, creating a glare that shrunk night visibility to zero. The big rigs swerved onto oncoming traffic to avoid potholes, narrowly missing cars. Whole stretches of road disappeared unannounced, paved highway turning into dirt country roads without warning. At one point, I hit a mud patch and lost control of the car, nearly ending up in a ditch. I also saw a few dead bodies, including a woman hanging out of the cabin of a smashed up big rig. Its roof was shaved clean off, her limp body impaled on the windshield. Obviously, she hadn’t buckled up.
After two years of economic growth, investment in public infrastructure, stricter traffic fines, road-safety ad campaigns and a supposed fight against corruption, I was curious to see if anything had changed. What did I find? A glimpse into the Eternal Russia. Buckle up, dear reader, and join me as I tour Russia’s notorious highways with the critical eye of a Western journalist…
Day 1. My 14-hour drive from Moscow to Pskov starts with a nice road and picture perfect weather. I find myself worrying, Could this be a sign of Russia’s economic resurgence?
An hour later, my fears are allayed. The road turns to shit and stays that way for 500 miles.
Day 2: Pit stop in Pskov. Hitting six-inch potholes at 60 mph turns my tires into rubber cellulite. They leak air, but still cling on.
Day 3. Although this highway took me from Pskov to St. Petersburg without incident, last year, there were 59 serious accidents recorded on just a one kilometer stretch.
Day 4. A Volga just like mine waits for a tow truck after getting rammed by the truck on the right. I see three more accidents before reaching St. Pete’s city limits.
On my way to Moscow, I experience corruption first hand at GAI inspection point just like this one when I am forced to pay a $200 bribe .
The weak link in Russia’s largest highway: patches of missing asphalt slow traffic to a crawl for a few hours outside of Novgorod.
Untold damage to the economy. This truck’s rear axle spills out onto the road becaue its driver didn’t follow the posted speed limit.
A sign of hope? This section of the Moscow – St. Petersburg highway finally gets a passing lane and fresh coat of paint.
With 50 miles left to Moscow, the roads became so nice, I didn’t notice I was doing 50 in a 35 mph residential zone. Issued an official $12 citation.
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