Fools and Roads, Part III By Grigory Pasko, journalist Having visited various cities of Russia, I can’t avoid noticing the roads. My most recent trip, to northern Russia to report on the construction of the land portion of the North European Gas Pipeline, was no exception. Not only the roads of Vologda and Babayevo left their impression on me, so too did the comments of those people who in one way or another are responsible for the condition of these roads. On 10 June, Vologda turned 860 years old. I got to observe the preparations for the celebrations when I passed through the city on my pipeline journey. Two circumstances immediately caught my eye. First, there are almost no sidewalks in the city. Instead, there are pits and sloughs. Even at the bus stops, there are yawning water-filled potholes, and the people stand and wait off to the side of the stop itself so as not to get soaked when the bus drives through the giant puddle when arriving at the stop. And second, the preparation for the celebration was clearly felt in one place – on Kremlin Square (near the St. Sophia and Resurrection cathedrals, the Vologda Kremlin). Why just there? Because the Patriarch of All the Russias had promised to come and attend the city’s celebration. It is an unspoken but firm rule in all the Russias that holes in the roads are patched up only for the arrival of the big bosses. Of course, the holes should be patched not in the roads, but for starters, in the heads.
Where’s the sidewalk? Photo of a typical Vologda scene by Grigory Pasko.
On the day of my arrival, the local newspapers were writing about how it was planned to spend a record sum – 250 million rubles – in the year 2007 for improvement of the roads and streets of Vologda (I immediately remembered Samara, where 3 bln. 840 million rubles was allocated for these same purposes, but the roads still weren’t done). And in Vologda too, the local power had already hastened to note: it is difficult to spend such a quantity of funds, because “mechanisms, specialists and materials” are needed (they forgot to mention that you also need integrity, brains, and a conscience). It was particularly noted that problems of provision with asphalt are found under procuratorial oversight («Vologodskiye novosti», 23 May 2007) (Goodness gracious! What DOESN’T the Russian procuracy get involved in?)
Photo of Kremlin Square being repaired on the eve of the Patriarch’s arrival by Grigory Pasko.
It is noteworthy that this same issue of the newspaper reports about an increase in the discharge of pollutants into the atmosphere by 60 tons just this year alone. Indicated among the number of principal polluters are, you guessed it – asphalt-concrete plants. Nearly all the local newspapers quoted generously from an appearance at a press conference by the deputy head of the city, Valentin Gorobtsov. He, in part, told that it was planned to spend 470 million rubles in 2007 alone for provision of urban amenities in all of Vologda (once again I recalled Samara). Gorobtsov also uttered a wonderful phrase that shed light on the essence of such a purely Russian phenomenon as “permanent road repairs”. He said: “On the road leading to the park, we are going to do a good hole repair. And just past the cemetery, we will restore an asphalt path for pedestrians.” Do you understand? In Russia, they don’t repair roads, they repair HOLES. And pedestrian paths – where else, if not only by the cemetery? On a related note, in the town of Babayevo of Vologda Oblast the roads are just as bad as in Samara Oblast, where I was recently in the days of the work there of the Russia – EU summit. The head of the town of Babayevo told a correspondent of the local newspaper «Nasha zhizn» [“Our life”] the following. It turns out that 200 thousand rubles have been allocated from the budget for “hole repair”, 700 thousand – for full asphalt paving of streets. But the head of the Rayon had complained to me that the gasmen aren’t participating in any way with their money in the construction and repair of roads. What other good things has the power done for Vologda? The representative of the power went down the list: they will put up 300 additional garbage urns [Translator’s note: Instead of trash cans or baskets, Russian cities boast tiny pseudo-classical urn-shaped trash containers cast from concrete or metal. Because they are so small, they get filled instantly, and there is always a pile of trash on the ground around them. However, they are too heavy to lift, and some are permanently mounted on swivels, so when the time comes to pick up the trash, the driver of the garbage truck sits in the cab smoking while an elderly lady steps out, tips the urn over and empties its compacted contents onto the sidewalk, then uses a short broom made of bundled twigs to sweep the mess into a small dustpan and throw it piece by piece into the back of the truck. See image below.], they will continue beautification with the planting of flowers, all of the city cemeteries have already been brought “into compliance”, they have “accomplished the bronze-plating of monuments”, they have organized the delivery of war veterans to holiday events, they have erected a stage for the orchestra…
A typical Russian urn rubbish bin
All of this from the point of view of expenditures costs mere kopeks. I made it a point to find out the expenditure side of the Vologda budget in 2006. It turned out that 193 million rubles were spent on so-called “whole-country questions” (that is, “bronze-plating of monuments” and erecting stages for orchestras). For comparison: 148 million rubles were spent on the whole housing and public utilities infrastructure of the city, and 47 million on culture. Once upon a time, a native son of these places, the Russian poet and writer Varlam Shalamov, who spent just a hair less than two decades in the Stalinist camps of the GULAG, wrote about Vologda: “Sometimes it’s too dusty, vulgar, and carnal; other times it’s too exile-like. And too lacy.” Lacy – he’s referring to the famous Vologdan lace craft. I saw examples of it in the stores of Vologda – beautiful and very expensive. Nowadays another kind of “lace” is in fashion: the promises of the power of a good life for people. Good roads barely make it to the very bottom of the list of what constitutes a “good life”. Only life keeps moving ahead, while roads are something Russia has never had, and still doesn’t have. (Also see Part I and Part II of this series)