Russia is a wonderful country. Traveling there can be a delightful experience, but before renting a car for a sightseeing tour, be prepared—driving in Russia is an experience like no other.
Overcoming the Susanin syndrome
Ivan Susanin is a Russian national hero who became a household name after promising to show the enemy the way to the Russian tsar’s secret residence, but instead led them into dark, woody thickets from which none of them escaped. Today an oft-repeated sarcastic phrase is that Susanin’s descendents now man the Russian road services. While in Moscow and on major highways, you have a fair chance of getting from point A to point B, but as soon as you turn off onto a country road, that assumption becomes problematic. Road signs in Russian are few and far between, let alone Latin letters. You can avoid losing your way if you have a simple GPS navigation system. In the absence of a navigation system, the only way out is to use a detailed English-language map or ask directions from the locals after learning a few Russian phrases.
The three D rule
According to a Russian comedian, Russia is the only country in which you can be rear-ended while driving along the line separating traffic moving in opposite directions. Russians appreciate powerful vehicles and often want to display their superiority to other cars. Even if you drive the speed limit, be ready to have some local hot-rodder start blinking his headlights from behind, demanding that you let him pass in the left lane, and if you do not follow suit, trying to terrorize you into submission. Needless to say, changing lanes and being the first to speed off when the traffic light turns green is many Russian motorists’ favorite thing to do. Experienced drivers follow the three D rule, dai dorogu duraku, or “give a jerk the right of way.”
Even if you are an ace behind the wheel, beyond comparison with the characters from The Fast and Furious, do not try to challenge local road hogs. The know where all the traffic police posts are along the road and slow down in time to avoid getting a ticket, whereas you are sure to be pulled over for speeding and fined or have your license suspended.
One problem rights another
Nikolai Gogol, the classic Russian novelist, used to say: “Russia has two problems: pinheads and roads.” Latter-day jokesters have a follow-up to it: “One problem rights another.” The Russian climate is harsh; the summer heat can melt asphalt, and in winter, ice and the impact of spiked tires splinter the roads to pieces. Russian road services have still not come up with a suitable technology to make asphalt more resistant to Russia’s horrendous weather conditions. Worst of all, they often create chaos on the roads by starting road construction at peak hours. In Summer 2010, road construction leading to Moscow’s Sheremetyevo airport was organized so ineptly that even pilots were late for their flights. If you notice the slightest hint of construction further down the road, brace yourself for a traffic jam or look for a detour.
Snowdrops, common flowers in parts of Russia with moderate climate conditions, are the first to bloom after the winter snow melts. Russian motorists use this word as a derogatory term for drivers who do not use their cars in the winter, fearing the icy roads, huge traffic snarls after every snowfall and damage to their car’s chassis from the de-icing chemicals lavishly spread over the roads. These motorists have been a dwindling breed in recent years, but there are still a fair number of them every spring and their lack of confidence and undue caution may be an unpleasant surprise.
European parking rules don’t apply
One problem all large cities have in common is a lack of parking space. but do not even think about the European tradition that allows you to make room for yourself by slightly nudging another car’s bumper. Any little scratch is a potential cause for confrontation. A Russian’s car is like a cavalryman’s favorite horse: He coddles it, often treats it like an animate creature, heeding its whims and thanking it for a job well done. Additionally, until recently, car insurance was not mandatory, and many cannot resist the temptation to make the offending driver pay for moral and physical damage.
What about paying for parking?
There are some pleasant aspects to parking in Russia, however. Parking fees are not usually charged in Moscow, and with the exception of some roads, you can leave your car on the roadside for long periods of time. Exceptions include airports, paid parking lots in front of upscale shopping malls and along the side of some very important streets, such as Tverskaya, where parked cars are quickly taken away by tow trucks to be impounded. Do not be surprised, however, if in smaller towns a young man approaches you and offers to keep watch over your car for a small fee. By accepting the offer, you can be sure that hoodlums will not mess with your car while you are checking out the sights. When you come back to your car, you may be pleased to see that it is not only safe, but freshly washed as well. It is up to you whether or not to pay for this extra service.
You won’t be left looking for help
If you need help or if you got into an accident, you can be sure that other drivers will do everything in their power to help you out, and they will be faster than the traffic police and emergency services. With all the dangers and hardships on the country’s roads, Russians are readily sympathetic, and they like to play hero. As soon as an accident happens, other cars stop to ask if anyone needs help. Anyone who has lived in Russia for some time and drives frequently will have seen good Samaritans pushing cars that wouldn’t start in freezing weather, towing cars that have broken down and helping pull overturned cars out of ditches. Be ready to come to the rescue of people in distress, and be sure you have a towrope and first aid kit in your trunk, and put emergency service phone numbers in your mobile telephone. Look up the numbers for evacuation and tire repair services on the Internet in advance.
Motorists’ secret fraternity
Over the years, Russian drivers have worked out a language of symbols and gestures to warn their fellow drivers of a police ambush or other problems. For instance, if the car moving in the opposite direction flashes its headlights at you, this does not mean that he wants to switch over to your lane; it is just a signal warning you that a traffic cop with a speed gun is hiding in the roadside bush ahead of you. If the driver overtaking you honks at you and gives his thumb down, it means you have tire troubles. Drivers of large trailer trucks often indicate by switching lights whether it is safe for the cars trailing dejectedly behind them to pass or not.
If something is off limits, but you want it really bad, go nuts
This phrase sums up Russians’ attitude to virtually all rules, including traffic rules. This mindset is particularly relevant at night, when most traffic cops are asleep. If you see a car at night swerving from one side to make a U-turn crossing your path, the driver’s head is switched to “night mode.” At night, in and outside cities, you can see motorists do some really unexpected things: cross double lines, creep slowly but steadily to a red light, park in the unlikeliest of places, drive in reverse, etc. Of course, this is against the law, but be prepared for a car you are driving behind to do any of these things. Be ready to react and keep your distance.
Whether you are parking in a courtyard or driving cheerfully along a wide avenue, do not forget about pedestrians. Russian pedestrians are a brave and resolute sort—one that police rarely fine. A serious shortage of street crossings, combined with innate panache and laziness, cause people to cross roads in the most unexpected places both day and night. Threading behind a parking car is a popular thing to do. In narrow lanes, pedestrians often take their time. You have to watch out for pedestrians and be ready for them to pop out where you least expect them.
Toilets are a rarity in the Russian jungle
Russian satirist Mikhail Zadornov tells the story of a bus of German tourists in Russia that stops by the roadside on the edge of a forest and the driver tells them they can go to the bathroom. After two hours of wandering in the woods, the exhausted Germans come back and tell the driver: “But there is no bathroom.” It’s not a joke about Germans or toilets—it is the reality of the infrastructure of Russian highways. Before setting out on a long journey, keep in mind that you will have to camp in the forest. Plan in advance where you are going to stop and have food and drink in your car. Toilets, food, accommodations and car services on Russian roads are all touch-and-go. There are signs of roadside infrastructure between Moscow and St Petersburg and on the roads to Kiev and Minsk, but if you drive into the depths of Russia, the situation will grow worse with every kilometer. It also would not hurt to bring along a spare blanket, can of gasoline, towrope, jack and spare tire.
The right hand drives east
In 2009, there were 2.2 million cars with the steering wheel on the right-hand side; 84 percent of them were located in the Russian Far East, although traffic there moves on the right, like in the rest of the country. The reason is simple: Most of the cars sold in the Far East come from Japan, where traffic moves on the left. The government has repeatedly tried to turn the situation around, but to no avail. Initially the situation is mind-boggling, but after a few narrow escapes, you get used to it. So, before you make a risky move, remember that you are on the right-hand side of the road along with right-hand drive cars, and be on your guard.