Out of Russia: Car is king on the busy road to ecological ruin

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MOSCOW - Indian summer, Eternal Russia, a Sunday out in the birch forests, mushroom hunting, bliss. And then a rude new reality. Suddenly all the dacha dwellers along the Volokolamsky Highway decided that it was time to go back to Moscow and we were sitting for three hours in a poisonous-smelling, loud-honking traffic jam.

'So what?' you may ask, if you travel regularly on the M25 or go to the Lake District on bank holidays. But Russians, who have queued placidly for most things from bread to shoes, are not used to queuing on their roads. Engines boiled and tempers flared. The air grew thick with fumes and unprintable words as cars became inextricably entangled after impatient drivers tried to zoom off on the wrong side of the road.

Statisticians have been telling us that private car ownership is shooting up in Russia but now you can really feel it. On some days Moscow seems as choked as Tokyo or Los Angeles. You must allow hours for journeys which used to take minutes.

Of course, the streets of Moscow were never as quiet as those of the Albanian capital, Tirana. But until economic reforms were launched two years ago, the traffic consisted mostly of state lorries (almost always empty), taxis, the limousines of bureaucrats and the dinky little Zhiguli and Moskvitch cars of a minority of private citizens.

In today's new capitalist Russia, the car is king. Every Russian male must have a car, no matter if his family has to wait for furniture, clothes, holidays and even sometimes food. The car should be foreign and as long and gas- guzzling as possible. If the would-be driver has limited funds, he will opt for a second-hand import.

Otherwise he will go to one of the many new car showrooms that have sprung up in Moscow, in one case taking over the premises of a former state art gallery. Cadillacs, Mercedeses, BMWs and off- roaders with pitiless kangaroo bars are the vehicles most in demand. Ecology is a concept for which Russia might be ready by the middle of the next century.

Naturally, the proud new owner wants to drive the car straight away, regardless of whether he has ever had any driving lessons or possesses a licence. Passing the driving test is tedious in Russia because you have to study mechanics as well as the handling of your car, and obtain a doctor's certificate proving you have no mental problems. So drivers often prefer to pay from up to dollars 500 ( pounds 320) for a black-market driving licence. And then they are off - fast.

There is only one rule on the Russian roads now: the weaker make way for the stronger. Mercedeses force Zhigulis to the side, Zhigulis plough through pedestrians on zebra crossings as if they were flocks of pigeons. Children have no business to be out on the streets at all unless, that is, they are skipping their education to stand at dusty crossroads, wiping windscreens for a few coins.

Where are Russia's famous, grey-uniformed GAI or traffic police? you may ask. They are taking bribes from cars that pootle along at a speed which makes it possible for them to be stopped. But they turn a blind eye to the gangsters who race round town without number plates to identify them, often with their back windows rolled down and guns ready to shoot anyone who gives offence.

For those who hope to survive into old age, the answer might be to abandon the roads and revert to public transport. But without feeling any nostalgia for Soviet Communism, I have to say that the trains are not what they used to be. The 'electrichkas' (suburban trains) have all been smashed up by vandals while the trains of the under- funded metro increasingly break down in the middle of the tunnels.

But the chandeliers still sparkle, and there is a camaraderie among folk too poor to afford cars. I think I may join them in the cosy fug of the underground this winter.