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Saturday, Feb. 4, 2006
Letter from Moscow

Globe and Mail Update
Friday, August 16, 2002
From the Field
York Mark


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Pictures from Moscow

Traffic is heavy in Moscow. More than 150 years ago, the writer Nikolai Gogol wrote "What Russian doesn't like fast driving? Though he was talking about horses, the question still stands.
Photo: Dmitry Korotayev

The bridge over the Moscow river is barely visible through thick smoke over the Russian capital Moscow on Wednesday, July 31, 2002. Officials said the smog, created by peat and forest fires around the capital, was the thickest it had been in 30 years.
Photo: Misha Japaridze/AP


There are many ways for foreigners to get themselves into trouble in this former capital of the Evil Empire. You can try and drink the locals under the table, and lose. You can believe the pretty girl staring at you from the corner doesn't care only about the size of your wallet. Or you can try and catch a ride home after dark.

First, a few caveats: Moscow has perhaps the most fabulous metro system in the world. It's main station stops are pieces of art - intended as testaments to what the proletariat could do when it worked together. It's lovely and efficient. But in a 24-hour city, it shuts down at 1 a.m., meaning it's of little use to those of us who like to do late-night research on local behaviour several times a week.

And there are, of course, yellow taxi cabs. But these are driven by burly men with very short haircuts and shorter necks, and the men they work for all seem to be named "Don." Taking a yellow cab may mean both a) having to pay a month's salary for a trip around the corner, and b) agreeing to take a nondescript brown package with you back to Canada the next time you fly home.

The Globe and Mail has a car in this city, too. An ageing Volvo station wagon, it has proven its worth several times, most famously by folding a careening Lada in two while sustaining only a broken headlight as collateral damage. But driving in this city at night is only for the brave, and few of the brave end up as journalists.

So unless you feel like traveling with The Family, you play a modern version of Russian roulette - wandering into the streets after dark, waving madly at the oncoming traffic, breaking every rule your mother ever taught you about hitchhiking, candy and strangers. Within minutes, a car, sometimes two or three, will pull over and offer you a ride home. Half the cars on the road will claim to be "going your way."

While Russia's GDP growth has been impressive on paper in the years following the 1998 crash, the average Vladimir hasn't seen much of a change in his paycheque. So he and all the Mikhails and Dmitris you could hope to meet hit the streets after work, spinning their smog-belching rusted sedans around the city hoping to make a few extra rubles on the side.

You have all of a 10-second conversation to ascertain at least some of the following information: how much will the ride cost? (Five dollars is an extravagant fee for going across town in one of these "Gypsy cabs". Ten and you can get a drive to Paris.) Has this man, the driver, had more vodka tonight than I, the passenger? Does he know the Cold War is over? Will this 1968 Lada hold together for another 20 minutes?

Once you find a willing driver who passes at least one of these tests, the adventure begins. More than 150 years ago, the writer Nikolai Gogol wrote "What Russian doesn't like fast driving?" Though he was talking about horses, the question still stands.

I've spotted drivers with one hand on a cell phone, one hand on their flask, driving at speeds for which Jigulis and Nivas were never designed. They react to red lights the same way angry bulls do.

Pedestrians who dare to think crosswalks, or even sidewalks, are entirely their domain do so at their peril. Turn to the police for help, and you're as likely to end up discussing supposed "irregularities" on your passport as the alleged driving offence you were reporting.

For added torture, the gypsy cab rules of the road state that the driver must always play, at top volume, Russian pop songs - most of which sound like the Spice Girls backed only by an accordionist and a drum machine. The lyrics make Corey Hart seem erudite.

Sometimes the music is better than the conversation. On one recent trip - I was truly pressed for time and just took the first driver to come along - I got in the front seat beside a bare-chested army vet who smelled like a wet couch. Instead of saying hello, he began cursing Chechens, the Czechs and miscellaneous other nationalities. Once prompted to speak, my accent gave me away as a foreigner. I spent the rest of the ride learning about how Canada is part of the United States, and how we Americans were destroying Russia with our hamburgers, English and false smiles. Russia would rise again, he snarled as I paid him $3 for the trip.

Of course, others trips have spawned delightful conversations with absolutely delightful people. I've discussed the latest Moby disc with a rich kid putting his dad's Audi to good use in St. Petersburg. I've argued with a pudgy Georgian for the length of a Moscow traffic jam about whether Gretzky could have scored on a breakaway on Tretiak. Prompted, I even demonstrated in my seat the forehand-fake-backhand-shot combo the Wayner would have used.

His windshield, though, was a spider web of cracks that obscured my view of the road and the other cars on it almost entirely, and his vision must have also been at least partially blocked. Nonetheless, when the traffic began to move, he put two wheels onto the sidewalk to pass a slow-moving army truck, then re-entered the fray at top speed. The Gretzky-Tretiak conversation was over and my new friend Artur was suddenly Schumacher with a bad attitude.

Best to lean back and enjoy the ride, I thought.

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Why did the magician's inquiry get nowhere? Too much smoke and mirrors. Jerry Kitich, Hamilton, Ont.