Russia Has the Wheels; Now it Needs the Roads

Posted April 10th, 2012 at 8:23 pm (UTC+0)

Russians get perverse pleasure out of taking photos of their bad roads and then posting the pictures on the internet.

This year, for the first time, Russia is expected to top Germany as Europe’s largest car market.
With car purchases increasing by 20 percent in Russia this year, the Center of Automotive Management predicts that Russians will buy 3.2 million vehicles during 2012, slightly more than Germany.

So how are Russia’s roads?

According to the World Economic Forum’s Global Competitiveness Report, Russia ranks number 125 out of 139 countries on the quality of its highway infrastructure.  According to another report, this one by Renaissance Asset Management, barely half of Russia’s road networks meet minimum riding quality and strength measurements.

All this leads to a highway fatality rate in Russia that is higher than in Brazil, China and India.

But I don’t need reports to tell me this the morning after I made  a hair raising 250 kilometer drive from  Moscow to Yaroslavl. And then back again.

In a 20-kilometer bypass of the M8, the drivers of 18-wheel trucks zig-zagged around huge potholes eased their rigs slooowly over deepening trenches gouged in crumbling asphalt, or tried their luck in the spring chocolate sauce of deep mud that bounded that two lane “highway.”  All the while, drivers of private cars wrestled to find their space in this obstacle course.

I felt a pang of nostalgia. I felt I was back in Brazil in the 1970s, trying to move along the fringe of Amazon rainforest.

April is the mud season in Siberia!

But this was “European Russia” and my destination was Yaroslavl, an ancient city founded in 1010. Yaroslavl was built on the west bank of the Volga River, Russia’s main thoroughfare for trade for centuries.

After 1,000 years, the Russian state still has not learned how to build safe and solid roads.

Judge a nation’s economy by its car fleet.
Judge its government by its roads.

Roads reflect a government’s ability to project power and to harness bureaucracy for the common good.

In my life’s travels, I have had the luck – and pleasure — of walking the Appian Way, built near Rome around 300 BC.  In Peru’s Andes, I hiked the Inca Trail, built as a stone path from the Andes to the Pacific in the 1450s. In Angola, I have seen traces of asphalt roads swallowed up by the African bush after the collapse of Portuguese colonialism in 1975.

In Russia today, the “highway” between Moscow and St. Petersburg is such a death trap that I spent $1,200 on train tickets last December for myself and my three sons. Driving to St. Petersburg and back would have seriously risked cutting one branch from the Brooke family tree.

While China builds an interstate highway system that connects cities you have never heard of, Russia still cannot link its two largest cities with a safe, eight-lane divided highway.

The traditional Russian response is to quote Nikolai Gogol. This satirist once wrote that Russia’s two problems are – duraki i dorogi – fools and roads. But Gogol wrote that almost two centuries ago.

In the 1980s, people used to have a similar throwaway line for Brazil: “Brazil, the country of the future – and it always will be.” Today, people who say that are either intellectually lazy or simply out of touch.

But Russia’s fools and roads comment came back to me Monday. One hour north of Moscow, I was dealing with the kind of mud tracks you might associate with rural Bolivia.

I wonder where the budget money for the asphalt went? The Lena 'Highway' in Siberia.

Stealing money on road construction is really easy.
You contract to lay 10 centimeters of asphalt. You put down five centimeters.  You pocket the difference, minus the amount need to keep the state road inspector happy.

The current joke in Moscow is that so much money has been stolen on reconstructing the main highway in Sochi for the 2014 Winter Olympics that it would have been cheaper to pave the 20 kilometer section of the M27 with Louis Vuitton handbags.

Asked a few weeks ago about highway corruption, Russia’s Transport Ministry responded limply that there is no point in creating a black list of corrupt highway contractors.

Because the companies would just change their names.

Another governmental copout is that Russia has a bad climate.

Oh, really? I grew up in rural New England where road maintenance and snow plowing are points of pride. At the annual town meetings, one of the hottest topics is the road budget.

Across Canada, Russia’s sister nation on the far side of the North Pole, roads are excellent.

Some Russian drivers don't realize how deep their puddles can be. Photo: English Russia website.

In Northern Japan, where I also worked, roads are scarily well maintained. In mountain areas, they actually heat some stretches of pavement to prevent ice. You feel like you should wash your tires and make a little bow before driving over these roads.

After the climate, apologists for Russia’s bad roads focus on the fool factor.

That’s odd. Look closely at a Google map of the Russian-Finnish border.

 On the Finnish side, the road network looks pretty good.
On side of Russian Karelia, paved rural roads seem few and far between.

Finland and Karelia share pretty much the same genetic stock, the same hard drinking habits, and a lot of history. Until 1917, Finland was a Grand Duchy in the Czarist empire.

But modern Russia lacks the local citizen responsibility that you see in New England, Canada, Japan and Finland. Communism did a good job of wiping out Russian feelings of responsibility toward public property.
Russia’s new democracy movement seeks to build citizen responsibility for local affairs.

And then, on leadership side of the coin, it is clear that, despite the authoritarian longings, Vladimir Putin is no Inca. Although the title Czar derives from the word Caesar, the modern connection is not there. Generation hence, no one will pen odes to Putin’s roads.

With his carefully created TV image, Putin may be more like the Wizard of Oz.

Behind the tough guy act, Putin does not seem to really control Russia’s bureaucracy.

During the 2000s, annual spending on Russian roads doubled to $20 billion a year. But statistics show that Russia’s network of paved roads gradually retreated.

And, yes, city potholes can be big too.

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.

13 responses to “Russia Has the Wheels; Now it Needs the Roads”

  1. Ken says:

    now you know how Napoleon’s and Hitler’s armies felt

  2. Eric says:

    For actual developments on Russia’s highway development, rather than sneering infantile commentary and decade-old photos, see the link below:

  3. Gennady says:

    1. The fascinating article provides excellent photo documentation of one of aspects of the disgraced failure-government under the leadership of President for life & his notorious party that mastered 1.5 trillion $ gained for the selling off natural resources.
    The thieves & swindlers made Russia the laughing stock of the planet.
    Anybody can see the same in Russia’s healthcare, public education & science.
    Anybody can imagine the scale & depth of the theft.
    The famous words of N. Gogol sound dissonant in XXI century: in Putin’s Russia among problems are roads, healthcare, educations, science.
    They aren’t fools as they have fooled & hijacked the largest country & blackmailed the Western Europe with gas-pipe. With roads, healthcare, public education & science they stole the two last elections & the Constitution.

    2. The stealing of Rights and Freedoms of Man and Citizen stipulated in articles 17.1,22.1,29.1,29.5,31, 56.1 of the Constitution exerts the “domino effect” all over Russia, makes it the house of cards.
    Examples are everywhere. a) Imagine the horror of a mother in the centre of a city when before her own eyes the pavement under a buggy with her child collapsed and the baby dissapeared and never was found. b) Highway fatality rate in Russia is the worst in the world. c) Fleet of hundreds overloaded multi-wheeled trucks smash to smithereens spring-soaked highways.

    3. It would be funny to witness all of those motorists with cars got stuck in the muck if I didn’t want to cry. It isn’t just a theft. It’s mere high treason of Russia’s national interests. The country with roads in shambles is unable to face any serious logistical challenge be it an armed conflict, a natural or technogenic catastrophe. The war in Ossetia showed the significance of proper roads.

  4. Eric says:

    A little prone to hyperbole, Mr Gennady? Read some actual statistics on the matter, you will become more informed..

  5. Gennady says:

    the link you gave about Russia’s traffic deaths is neither where the elder is, nor in Kiev where uncle lives.
    Your link proves my point that highway fatality rate in Russia is the worst among all G8 countries and in the industrialized world and worse than in such a BRICS country as India.
    Russian traffic police reported in the year of 2011 – 27953 dead, 251848 wounded & maimed in 199868 car accidents.
    Your link shows that the largest country as Russia in this respect is better than some developing countries.

  6. Arthur says:

    “This year, for the first time, Russia is expected to top Germany as Europe’s largest car market.”
    For your information it’s not the first time, Russia was expected to top Germany in 2008, but the crisis came…
    For the SUV and 4×4 segment the Russia as already pass the Germany.

    ps: “reconstructing the main highway in Sochi” It’s not “reconstruction” but creation of new highways to by-pass the city center. One is already open and the others are under construction, more informations about all the infrastructures in Sochi:

  7. […] an historic city founded inside 1010. Yaroslavl was built found on the … Read more about Voice of America (blog) Tagged as: Amazon, Europe, Latest, News Leave a comment Comments (0) Trackbacks (0) ( […]

  8. Eric says:

    Gennady, I didn’t know you made a point about G8 nations in your first post. Could you point that out? Thanks.
    By the way, if you want to feel good about how well Russia is doing, might I suggest the following:
    It’ll just warm your soul to see how productive and industrious our Russian comrades are.

  9. Pyotr says:

    I live in Siberia and I confirm that the mud paths with remnants of asphalt we have in the neighbourhood of 600 km radius can hardly be called roads at all. Nothing have really been repaired or built since the commies.

  10. Gennady says:

    To Arthur:

    I bet you didn’t understand a single point in the article.

    1. The main point in the article is NOT in the size of the Russian car market, BUT in the absence of decent highways. What is the point to drive a contemporary car on the roads with no hard covering, on mud & gravel roads, on roads with potholes now & them, on roads with corrupt & dangerous traffic police?

    2.The main point in the article is WHERE has the money gone from 1.5 trillion $ being earned for selling off natural resources? Russia has got just a few new crossroads, bridges & highways.

    3. Your link to the highway in Sochi sounds hilarious. It’s an example of the feast amidst “plague” in Russia. What is the point to put up a new Las Vegas, this time in Russia, what is the justification to invite the Olympics in Russia with stolen elections, with population being gagged, dying out, with crumbling apart highways, infrastructure, miserable healthcare, public education & science?

  11. PCUSA says:

    I am planning a trip to Karelia this summer; can’t wait to see the roads! 😉

  12. E-roc says:

    Do you consider a cup half full or half empty? Speaking of which, Russia’s demographics are improving considerably. Might I suggest some additional reading to cheer your soul:
    Rossiya vperyod!



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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