Russia is Asia (Get Used To It)

My 15 minute drive to the service centre took two and a half hours today. I sat in the traffic on Moscow’s Third Ring alongside ambulances which, despite sirens blaring, made little more progress than I did.

I was trying to drop off my car, something which can only be done by scheduling a hard-to-get appointment within set hours.

Why, I wondered, don’t more service centres offer out-of-hours support. Moscow’s traffic jams are legendary, among the very worst in the world.

It was the second time in six days that I had been stuck, barely moving, for more than two hours, both because of accidents. I had plenty of time to examine the Russian enigma.

Ahead of me, few of the thousands of drivers made any effort to leave the Moscow ring road. In Europe, drivers would have taken any opportunity to escape and try their luck at a different route. In Moscow they sat in line, breathing the smoke that belched from countless exhausts, awaiting their fate.

On the radio, the prime minister was talking about modernizing the economy. He spoke of innovation but not initiative.


Russia’s politicians endlessly tell the population that they’re part of Europe. The message gets through. People move to residential districts, buy cars, drive the kids to school, pick up the shopping but at a cost in stress and time and pollution that Europeans would not bear. Every day the country’s Asian character becomes more evident.

Yet Russia is not Asian enough. In Bangkok or Turkey, you have no problem getting a haircut at six in the morning or ten at night. If the traffic doesn’t move, Thais move the meeting or businessmen get together in a limousine. In Japan, chains of hotels offer sleeping cubicles by the hour for those taking a nap before their second job. If the infrastructure doesn’t function, people change their lifestyle, business adapts. It's a more gentle version of adapt or die.

Protestant Europe, in contrast, purports to live by the rulebook and the clock. Live within the rules and the timetable and you can get pretty much anything done.


As I was discovering, you cannot live by a European timetable in Russia. The people form a passive mass before you. Drivers try to push their way in front of others, but they all travel in the same direction.

You dare not run an errand on the way to work, drop something off, or get your hair cut. The traffic, or the police, or an unannounced road closure will snare you. You stray from the path at your peril. Take a different turn and consequences begin to unfold. No wonder the Russians have the most fantastical folk tales. There is always the unexpected waiting around the corner.

Many Russians make their journeys at five in the morning or after 10 at night. So many, that jams are now common even when most of the population is in bed.

Just six days before, driving to the dacha northwest of Moscow at 11 pm, another deadly accident had brought traffic to a two-hour standstill.


The way drivers dealt with the problem was simply terrifying. A few performed U-turns and went home. Some swerved to the other side of the road, put the car in reverse, and drove backwards to their destination. Many more simply swung into the oncoming lane and took their chance.

I told my Russian passenger that this was surely a sign of popular madness.

“Russians are mad but it is not a genetic madness. They have been ruled by so many different, brutal regimes at different times.When they feel free, they go a bit crazy. Secondly, they have no respect for rules. A fool obeys the law but you are clever if you find a way around it.

If Russians were as creative with business as they are with rules, there would be no need for politicians to talk about modernizing the economy. And we wouldn’t be spending so much time in a line on the Third Ring.