The taxi driver hasn't a clue. We turn up the heat on him. At least tell us, we say - witheringly - what part of the city we are in. Is this the east or the west? He looks uncomfortable, and gazes thoughtfully at the monotonous Soviet architecture around him before answering with the awkwardly pitched voice of a man on shaky ground. "Er, west. Of course."
This is not a foreign correspondent's moan. It cuts to a far deeper issue, the extraordinary fact that a good number of the 270 million who live in the former Soviet Union, a territory that girdles nearly half the planet, have not a clue where they are. Not, at least, in terms of the compass. This one happened to ply the streets of Tashkent, capital of Uzbekistan. But the same disorientated man can be found in cabs from Minsk to Vladivostok.
West, north, south - concepts rooted in the core of a western brain - mean nothing. The poles are distant ice fields, which could be anywhere over the horizon. Alfred Hitchcock's famous movie title is just so much gibberish. While an American cannot get into a car without being constantly reminded of his relationship as an individual against the backdrop of the planet by the street signs - the entire traffic grid works on compass points - a Russian or an Azeri usually has to use other means. He fumbles his way around by combining private landmarks - a twisted lamp- post here, a kiosk there, a memorable pothole - with an unshakeable (and often misplaced) faith in the ability of passers-by to help him out.
All this is particularly odd, given the passion for statistics and diagrams you often find among former peoples of the Soviet Union. There is no shortage of charts, showing you how things work. If you get bored during the seven days it takes to cross Russia on the Trans-Siberian Express, you can sit in the loo studying the diagrams of the waterworks (not rocket science, this).
For decades, millions of Soviet males bought Za Rulyom car magazine so that they could study stark little drawings of the latest Lada chassis or Niva engine. Flights on Aeroflot carry helpful charts showing passengers where to find the axe. Computer manufacturers say Russian clients vacuum up every tiny detail of a desktop's performance statistics, which influence them far more than where the machine was made, and by whom. Broadcast weather forecasts are an endless Gregorian chant of statistics, from wind speed per metre to air pressure. Officials constantly spout statistics, trying to bring order to the chaos by attaching numbers to it.
But cartography is a different issue. Hand a Russian a map and he will look at you with suspicion. I sought help from a man in Moscow , brandishing one under his nose. He refused to even glance at it; it was as if I was flourishing a warrant for his arrest.
The standard explanation for this has been trotted out many times: maps were banned by the Communists, because of paranoia that they would fall into hostile hands, and they have yet to catch on, not only because they are expensive but also because people have got used to life without them. Even now - seven years after the end of the USSR - they are a rarity outside capital cities.
But there are other reasons for their lack of use, and the general state of disorientation. In most main cities, the street names have changed in the past few years. At most, two out of 10 people own cars, so they are less likely to carry a broad mental picture of the lay-out of their surroundings. In much of Russia the issue is further complicated by the fact that the landscape is flat, and seems much the same whatever direction you look. It is as if the country is too vast for compass points to matter.
In Tashkent, we finally arrived at our destination. Blustering apologies, we asked our hosts where we were. Was this the west, like the man said? They looked surprised. It was, of course, the east.
Phil ReevesReuse content