Russia: Fools and Roads, Part II By Grigory Pasko, journalist
[Editor note: As mentioned earlier, our regular contributor Grigory Pasko actually managed to get into the city of Samara during the recent EU-Russia summit held there, and has already contributed several exclusive reports about his experiences there. In this, the penultimate article of the series, he continues the theme of Fools and Roads he had addressed in an earlier article on this blog, and discovers that Samara’s roads are among the worst in Russia – even after the sprucing up they supposedly were to receive for the summit.]
Summits are a big deal in Russia. Not only are they useful for raising the country’s prestige in the eyes of the rest of the world, but they also serve as a convenient excuse for satisfying all manner of utilitarian needs. For example, for repairing bad roads. Or giving a sorely needed fresh coat of paint to the houses past which the motorcades carrying the foreign VIPs to the summit will be driving. In Samara, it was declared many times that the recent EU-Russia summit was a boon for Samara Oblast, a great joy and a holiday. At any rate, everybody assumed that at least the authorities would fix the roads. They didn’t even do that. Where did the money go? This is the third most popular question in Russia, after “Whose fault is it?” and “What is to be done?” In order to have the kind of roads they’ve got in Samara, you need to have a very deep hatred for your city, for the people living in it, and for the cars that drive there. By the way, most of the cars driving around in Samara are «Zhiguli» [more popularly sold under the “Lada” brand name abroad—Trans.] – that same brand that president Putin gave a new lease on life to after a recent visit to the Togliatti automobile plant (yes, that same brand about which specialists have said that it should have been taken out of production 20 years ago because it’s a dangerous and very bad car). I do a lot of traveling by car around Russia, but never have I seen the kind of roads I saw in Samara. True, it is said that there is another city where the roads are even worse – that would be Saratov. After having experienced the streets and highways of the city of Samara and of Samara Oblast firsthand for three days, I heard a joyous announcement on television by Samara Oblast governor Konstantin Titov about how the roads in Samara had become… simply wonderful. And all this thanks to the Russia-EU summit. Remarkably, the governor did not even choke on his words as he uttered this whopping lie. Probably because lying is a norm of life for today’s Russian state. Lies in everything – in state policy, in the “cover-up operation” for all the dark little dealings of the chekist power and its henchmen in the gubernatorial ranks.
Photo of a typical street in Samara by Grigory Pasko
Of course there are roads in Samara. But driving on them is sheer torture. In other cities of Russia, you might experience pits and potholes in one place. But in another – a couple of kilometres of roadway that is perfectly suitable for travel. That’s not how it is in Samara. In Samara, ALL the roads are disgusting. And this despite the fact that they repair them quite often. The technology of the “repairs” looks like this: First, they take a high-pressure air hose and blow out all the mud and dust from the cracks in the asphalt. Then they fill the crack with hot tar or, as they call it, “liquid asphalt”. That’s it – the road has been “repaired”. Even a schoolchild knows what rising and falling temperatures are and what water in cracks after a rainfall is. They say that nobody has ever concerned himself with the roads in Samara. I’m interested in something else: Does governor Titov travel on some other roads than these? Or maybe he only moves around in a helicopter? On the eve of the Russia-EU summit, they repaired only one road – the one from the airport to Moskovskoye chaussé. And not even all of it, but only those several kilometres along which it was supposed that president Putin and the guests of the summit would drive by. Apparently, Putin was aware of what state the roads are in in Samara. Therefore, he and his guests flew in a helicopter to the «Volga crag» sanatorium, which is located 150 kilometers from Samara. I drove these 150 kilometers in a private car and driver I had to hire because all the taxi drivers in town categorically refused to drive that far on the hideous roads. And the 150 kilometers back to Samara too, of course, because as you can imagine, all the helicopters were in use that day… Along the entire length of the highway stood policemen of various stripes – MVD internal troops conscripts, “gaishniki” [highway police—Trans.], and some kind of unspecified people in uniform with machine guns… I got the impression that Samara Oblast was under siege, occupied by aliens in gray uniforms.
Photo of police standing every few meters along the Samara-Togliatti-Zhigulevsk highway by Grigory Pasko
We were stopped three times. But they only checked the driver’s documents, and when they asked him “Who’s that that you’re driving?”, he’d answer “Friends I’m taking to the nature preserve”. Personally, the whole trip to the Samara Bend nature preserve, which is indeed where we were going, reminded me of some kind of science fiction movie where aliens have invaded planet Earth. The aliens in their gray police uniforms had been planted all over the place and would sometimes suddenly appear out of the most unexpected places – from behind bushes, cars parked by the side of the highway, and even highway lighting posts. Oh, I should add that the heat stood at 27 degrees Celsius above zero (81 Fahrenheit). So, needless to say, the policemen in their full dress uniforms – white shirts, neckties, and large hats – were not having an easy time of it trying to look presentable in such circumstances. The road was no better from Zhigulevsk to the Samara Bend nature preserve. But at one point, the highway suddenly became smooth. Not very wide, but extremely smooth and of evidently good quality. But I could see that it was actually very old. My local driver later explained the mystery to me: it turns out that it had been built by German prisoners of war sixty years ago!
Photo of a typical Russian scene of a “gaishnik” highway policeman waiting for his prey by Grigory Pasko
We took a detour to the village of Shiryayevo (about which I’ll tell in my next article), and returned to Samara along another highway – the one that is supposedly old and a secondary route and along which neither Putin, nor even the journalists covering the summit, had travelled. This secondary road actually turned out to be a bit better than the “new” highway we’d taken in the morning. And there were plenty of police along it as well. Back in Samara, we happened to see a small rally. It turns out that these were pensioners protesting against… the march of those who disagree, which was supposed to take place the next day. I asked one little old lady whom of the organizers of the march she knows and why she’s protesting against the march. The granny replied with a memorized phrase: “Our pensions are small, while ‘A Just Russia’ (a clown party, created by the Kremlin in order to bring a little more variety to the political arena with yet another obedient party to spite “United Russia”—Author’s subjective opinion) promises to raise them”. I understood that the little old lady had been instructed to stand there holding a poster, and that she hadn’t the vaguest idea about who the leaders of “The Other Russia” were or what the “March of Those Who Disagree” was.
Photo of a pensioner protesting against the march of those who disagree by Grigory Pasko
That evening, back at the hotel, I read an article in one of the local newspapers that included the following words: “About the fact that the state of the road network of Togliatti leaves much to be desired is far from a secret for the townsfolk. Local motoring enthusiasts have long ago gotten used to driving around on broken asphalt and getting stuck in endless potholes. But so the participants in the upcoming summit would not find confirmation of the saying that everybody knows about the two Russian misfortunes – fools and roads – in our city, the city authorities have decided to give at least the second of these a bit of a facelift. But in order to bring the roads in the entire city in order, the money…” It wasn’t interesting to read any farther. Although this article was about the city of Togliatti, you could easily have put in the name of ANY other city of Russia – and the sense article would remain exactly the same. It seems quite clear that in Russia, fools and roads just naturally go together, literally joined forever. The one can not exist without the other. As long as fools remain in power in Russia, the roads will remain bad too. There were two other interesting phrases I heard that evening. Speaking yet again on local television, governor Titov said: “For us, the summit is a big holiday…”. While the inspectorate of road traffic for Samara officially announced that repairs of ALL the main roads of the city had been scheduled for 18 May (the day of the march of those who disagree). And they added: the repairs would be carried out using the “pouring of liquid asphalt” method… Liquid asphalt for a bad road is about as useful as a hot water bottle for a corpse. It’s like a softening of the brain on the eve of a scholarly discussion. For example, a discussion on the subject of the quality of roads and the dependence thereof on the quantity of fools. Afterword: According to official data, 3 billion rubles were allocated from the federal budget before the summit for the repair of roads in Samara city and Oblast, 800 million rubles from the Oblast budget, and 40 million rubles from the city budget.