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 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 oil-rich cities of the Persian Gulf, have outsourced much manual labor to gastarbeiters, in Russia’s case from Central Asia.
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. (Duh!)
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.”
(Photo, of traffic near the Kremlin: Yaroslav Ushakov)