Russia’s Winter Transport: From the Troika to Rubber Tires

Posted December 3rd, 2012 at 9:46 pm (UTC+0)
5 comments

The good old days. Winter travel in Russia in 1819. Lithograph by Aleksander Orlowski , The Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg.

It snowed in Russia last week.

(Yawn. What else is new?)

But Russia no longer is Dr. Zhivago country, a rural place where troika sleighs slide smoothly across white, wintry landscapes.

Modern Russians have a deep, passionate, often unrequited, love affair with rubber tires.

Last weekend, on the highway between Moscow and St. Petersburg, the nation’s two largest cities, an above-average snow storm trapped drivers for three days in a traffic jam that stretched for 200 kilometers.

In Moscow, drivers ignored snow warnings, and drove into a storm that paralyzed the capital’s streets for hours.

A snowstorm in the beginning of December is nothing new for Russia. Over two days, the city was treated to 30 centimeters of snow and some freezing rain. Not pleasant, but part of winter life in this part of the Northern hemisphere.

But Russians’ inability to cope with the white stuff is news.

In Moscow, snow was forecast, and yet hundreds of thousands of drivers set off for work in the morning as if they were living in Miami. For some modern Muscovites, the right to drive is their most cherished civil liberty.

The bad new days. One million commuters took to their cars to drive to work Thursday in Moscow’s first snow storm. Subconsciously, did they think they would glide across the snow like the troikas of their ancestors two centuries ago? Instead, they spent hours trapped in their cars. Photo: Reuters/Sergei Karpukhin

The right to sit in a mobile steel cocoon is a key to many people’s identity.

In 1970s America, gun owners used to sell bumper stickers that read: “I’ll give you my gun, when you pry it from my cold, dead fingers.”

For Moscow commuters, the refrain would be: “I’ll give you my steering wheel, when you pry it from my cold, dead fingers.”

Some Muscovites recount with pride that they have not been down in the metro in 13 years, in 18 years.

So off they drove Thursday and Friday mornings. Within minutes, the city’s Yandex traffic jam meter hit 9. On a scale of 1 to 10, one is good.

They sat in four-hour traffic jams watching digital billboards beckoning them to tropical beach vacations. So many Muscovites now live for their warm weather vacations that they seem to be in denial of about living in Moscow. It is hard to drive in an ice storm, if you are day dreaming about Christmas in Goa, the Maldives or Phuket.

On the other side of the car windows, armies of workers from Uzbekistan and Tajikistan wielded alien implements, once familiar to Russian young men as snow shovels.

Moscow and St. Petersburg, like northern versions of the oil-rich city states of the Persian Gulf, have outsourced much manual labor to gastarbeiters, in Russia’s case from Central Asia.

Next: A talking snow shovel? In this “Labor Migrant’s Handbook” printed in October to help migrant workers deal with Russia, gastarbeiters were portrayed as smiling paintbrushes, mops, and brooms. AP Photo: Dmitry Lovetsky

Russia’s social chasm was captured recently in a cartoon health booklet addressed to Central Asian migrant workers. Russian health workers were depicted as people. Migrant workers were depicted as smiling mops, brooms, and paintbrushes. Maybe next year’s booklet will feature smiling snow shovels.

Last weekend in Moscow, 12,000 snowplows moved 1.1 million cubic meters of snow. Of drivers blamed gridlock on city officials. But, in reality, Moscow’s chaos was created by as many as 1 million individuals deciding to drive to work in falling snow.

In contrast, the highway chaos of last weekend was largely the government’s doing.

The highway between Moscow and St. Petersburg should be a national showcase. It unites the nation’s largest and wealthiest cities – with a combined population representing at least 10 percent of Russia’s total population.

Crammed 24 hours a day with thousands of tractor trailer trucks bringing goods to Moscow, the 600-kilometer road is narrow, potholed and scary. (So scary, in fact, that last December, I shelled out $1,000 for five train tickets to St. Petersburg and back, rather than risk the lives of most of my family by driving in a car).

For starters, there should be an eight-lane highway joining Russia’s two biggest cities. If Russian contractors are unable to build it without going five times over budget, hire the Chinese. In 10 years, China has built an interstate highway system rivaling one that took 30 years to build in the United States.

For the challenge of this winter, highway police should watch weather forecasts around the clock. When storms are coming, close the road with storm gates, forcing traffic to wait in holding areas in towns. That solution saves lives every winter on highways in North America’s snow country. Also essential is a fleet of snowplows with drivers on 24-hour call.

Instead, Russia’s laissez faire approach resulted in a line of stopped vehicles that stretched, in American terms, half the distance from New York to Boston. An estimated 10,000 trucks and cars were marooned in sub-freezing temperatures, with drivers running engines to keep warm.

News crews from state television focused on the warming tents and field kitchens offering hot tea and sandwiches. But – surprise! – many drivers report that they were stuck in areas without these tents.

The traffic jam took on a life of its own, prompting headlines like this one from Interfax: “Authorities pledge to do away with traffic jam near Tver by Monday morning.”

If it is any consolation to Russians, Brazilians recently faced a worse traffic jam. On June 1, heavy rains combined with Friday evening weekend departures to create 295 kilometers of traffic congestion around Sao Paulo, the largest city in the southern hemisphere.

North or South, it pays to check the weather before you get behind the wheel.

Near the VOA office in Moscow, an entrepreneur has found one solution. He named his cafe “Probki,” – or traffic jam. That way, drivers can call home – or to the office – and say, in good faith: “I’m running late, I’m stuck in the Probki.”

A good team of Russian horses like a brisk trot in the snow. Here a troika sets out in Vologda, north of Moscow. Photo: Lena

James Brooke
James Brooke is the Russia/CIS bureau chief for Voice of America. A lifelong journalist, he covered West Africa, Brazil, the American Rocky Mountain States, Canada, and Japan/Korea for The New York Times. A resident of Moscow since 2006, he was first Bloomberg bureau chief for the region. In 2010, he joined VOA. In addition to writing Russia Watch, his weekly blog, he also does video, radio and web reports from Russia and the former USSR.

5 Responses to “Russia’s Winter Transport: From the Troika to Rubber Tires”

  1. [...] Russia's Winter Transport: From the Troika to Rubber TiresVoice of America (blog)The good old days. Winter travel in Russia in 1819. Lithograph by Aleksander Orlowski , The Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg. It snowed in Russia last week. (Yawn. What else is new?) But Russia no longer is Dr. Zhivago country, a rural place where troika …Epic weekend-long traffic jam in Russia stretched 125 milesCNNRussia drivers trapped in giant traffic jamBBC NewsState response blamed for 48-hour Russian traffic jamTelegraph.co.ukFinancial Times (blog) -The Guardian -Wall Street Journal (blog)all 154 news articles » [...]

  2. Gennady says:

    1. The gigantic traffic jam in subfreezing temperatures should be viewed in the context of the dozens crying problems that Putin’s regime has created. Once again Russia is the laughing stock of the planet – for the first time ever the largest country couldn’t have coped with its logistics on the showcase highway.
    It should be one more wake-up call to see where Putin’s Russia is sliding to, where and how billions dollars of national wealth are spent.
    2. The gridlock didn’t happen by accident; it isn’t a stand-alone episode but one more symptom that those who usurped power in the country aren’t able to solve Russia’s problems, that their examples of ignoring laws have permeated the society. No wonder that the motorists didn’t put on winter tires, Russia has the worst traffic accident rate in Europe. Five-times over budget built roads are in horrible state with traffic police extorting bribes.
    3. One more alarming problem of Putin’s Russia went almost unnoticed just a few days ago: the horrible epidemic of HIV/AIDS hit new heights. Thousands upon thousands Russia’s citizens die unseen annually from the disease that has long become preventable in the civilized world. Nowadays Russia has got record number of HIV infected people in the world directly competing with Africa. Those in power are completely unable to control the disease that has long ceased to be a severe health problem in all developed and even developing nations, but not in Putin’s Russia. The regime can’t stop Russia from rapid dying-out.
    Shouldn’t it be one more wake-up call to see where Putin’s Russia is sliding to, where and how billions dollars of national wealth are spent?

  3. Kimberly Kinsey says:

    Yaniznyu….

  4. Joe says:

    At least they are building that highway through Khimki. ;)

  5. cheap rubber says:

    But in my opinion Russians’ inability to cope with the white stuff is news. In Moscow, snow was forecast, and yet hundreds of thousands of drivers set off for work in the morning .

About

About

James Brooke is VOA Moscow bureau chief, covering Russia and the former USSR. With The New York Times, he worked as a foreign correspondent in Africa, Latin America, Canada and Japan/Koreas. He studied Russian in college during the Brezhnev years, first visited Moscow as a reporter during the final months of Gorbachev, and then came back for reporting forays during the Yeltsin and early Putin years. In 2006, he moved to Moscow to report for Bloomberg. He joined VOA in Moscow in 2010. Follow Jim on Twitter @VOA_Moscow.

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