MOSCOW — The Russian capital is gridlocked. This grim observation applies both physically and metaphorically: The city cannot manage its traffic, and the nation cannot handle its problems.
In Moscow, ground transportation, including private cars, has become all but useless. Be it a weekday or weekend, chances are it will take you at least an hour to drive 15 km. As for Friday night or Saturday afternoon, forget it.
It has become almost normal to spend four hours crossing Moscow either way, and if you are heading for one of its four airports for a domestic flight, you will wish you had taken a train instead. All shortcuts known to seasoned drivers have become traps. You take your car through a maze of backyards and narrow alleys only to discover the desired intersection clogged — and, of course, you are on a one-way street and now will have to spend the next 40 minutes in an irritating traffic jam.
The city has dozens of well-known bottlenecks, and as often as not there is no way to bypass them if you want to reach your destination. People often have to park their cars on sidewalks (thus involving pedestrians involuntarily in the traffic mess) and walk to the nearest subway station.
Nobody is exempt from the plague. When a city is gridlocked, it doesn’t matter whether you drive a $50,000 American sports utility vehicle or a $500 Russian car. The gridlock splashes into the Moscow subway, too. Avoiding buses and cars, people return to the underground originally planned and constructed by Joseph Stalin in the 1930s. As a result, almost any time of day is rush hour, a paradise for pickpockets and sexual predators.
Nobody knows what to do with Moscow’s traffic. The city has had to accommodate millions of new cars in the past few years with streets that were built in the era of Soviet public transportation — when private cars were a rarity.
On orders of energetic Moscow Mayor Yury Luzhkov, new highways and intersections have been constructed; without them, the gridlock would’ve led to total paralysis by now. But it is clear that they have exhausted their potential. It is unrealistic to expect more highways to be built, as that would demand demolishing many residential areas, something the the city cannot afford.
Radicals suggest limiting the use of private cars, for example by introducing the even-and-odd system in which only cars with even-numbered license plate are allowed on the streets on even-numbered days, and vice versa. But the suggestion is hardly viable: In a city whose economy depends entirely on the good will of the newly rich, the private car rules.
At the start of 2003, Russia itself looks gridlocked. Free-market affluence looks odd here. Instead of spreading throughout the country more or less evenly, rich people are streaming to Moscow, the city of corruption and hence opportunities, causing the traffic gridlock. Similarly, the benefits of the free market are distributed unevenly throughout Russian society as a whole. A few are enriched while many are impoverished.
Russian President Vladimir Putin doesn’t like that. Hardly an ascetic himself (he has renovated splendid state residences for himself all over the country), he is nostalgic for Soviet egalitarianism yet apprehensive about the social effects of the recent new class divisions.
Every Russian city still has mixed neighborhoods: An old lady who gets a $50 monthly pension sees her neighbors’ Mercedes cars every morning when she leaves her shabby apartment to comb local stores for almost nonexistent cheap goods. Her grandsons will be drafted into the army and sent to Chechnya, while her neighbors’ offspring go to boarding schools in Switzerland. Her savings are gone, while the Mercedes people accumulate more and more wealth. Even after her rich neighbors build country houses and move out of her neighborhood, leaving it a typical ghetto, she and her family will still feel bitter about the new inequality.
A nation divided this way is not what Putin wants, but what should he do? True, he has limited the power of the mighty oligarchs who used to rule the country under his predecessor, Boris Yeltsin, but what can Putin do about the thousands of smaller robber barons, the engine of his economy?
Unable to do anything about the new inequality, Putin has decided to make pep talks and to take a propaganda offensive. Amazingly, this works: In spite of all the social problems, the majority of the Russians seem to like their president. The result is conventional gridlock: very little economic progress, very little protest, social paralysis in the absence of any serious dissent.
Under Putin, Russia has embraced anti-Americanism, but the nation’s cultural landscape is still dominated by American icons, be they mystery novels, Hollywood movies, clothes or drinks. A weird situation, indeed. Almost everybody ridicules Americans and U.S. policies, yet almost everybody dresses, eats and drinks American.
During the holiday season, the less said about Chechnya, the better. The war against Islamic militants there has been going on for a decade with horrifying losses and war crimes on both sides. Prospects for a peaceful solution are simply not there.
Some people characterize the situation in Russia as “stagnation,” a term normally used to describe the last 15 years of Communist rule when the country remained stable but unhappy. We all know what happened next. One can only wonder what the consequences of gridlock in the 2000s will be.
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