Out of Russia: Terrible driving and the fear of retribution

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The Independent Online
MOSCOW - My Russian simply wasn't up to it. What do you say when you drive straight into a brand-new, uninsured, pounds 18,000, salmon-pink Mercedes on an icy street in Moscow?

The next task: what do you say when the Mercedes crashes into a second car - a modest Moskvitch but also new, also uninsured and the pride and joy of a Russian pensioner who has saved all his life to buy it?

All I could come up with was sorry and a few mumbled excuses about ice on the road.

Then came the most difficult test of all. How do you respond when the driver of the Mercedes tells you, with a crazed glint in his eye, that he comes from a town called Terrible?

I thought about trying 'How nice', but settled for another round of 'sorry'.

The pensioner started cursing, dragging me to inspect all the zeros on his virgin milometre and car seats so new they still had their plastic covers. The man from Terrible started shouting. 'You've heard of Terrible,' he snapped. 'I think so,' I stammered. 'Terrible, of course. Terrible, like Ivan? Right?' He was not amused.

I had no idea what he was getting at. But it didn't look good. Why did he keep talking about this place called Terrible, Grozny in Russian? Alternative translations offered little comfort: Threatening, Menacing, Dreadful. Not somewhere to go for a good time.

Then it clicked. 'Oh God,' I muttered, 'not Terrible.' Next test in emergency Russian: what do you say when you realise the owner of the Mercedes you ruined comes from the mafia capital of Russia?

The family in the Mercedes were Chechens. And I'd been in Moscow long enough to know that you don't mess with the Chechens. Stalin tried. He deported them en masse from the Caucasus to Central Asia. But now they are back home in Terrible, a name chosen by conquering Tsarist forces in 1870 to intimidate the locals. Chechens, though, are not easily intimidated. Most Russians are terrified of them. Not surprising really, when Chechens provide much of the muscle to Russia's mob and have as their leader an eccentric former Red Army officer, Dzhokhar Dudayev, who trims his moustache to approximate the wings of a Soviet nuclear bomber.

I decided it was time for more grovelling apologies. More angry glances from the Chechens. More curses from the Russian pensioner, by now almost in tears.

In desperation, I tried another tack. 'Truba,' I shouted, digging deep into my meagre stock of slang. It was not a felicitous choice. The word can mean 'How awful'. Unfortunately, it can also mean 'How wonderful'. It depends on how you say it. I got the wrong one.

Then came my first stroke of good luck all day: the police showed up. Never has anyone been so pleased to see the GAI - the dreaded Gosudarstvennaya Avto Inspectsiya, Russia's universally hated traffic force.

On most days I curse them like everyone else. They remind me of what was said about Chicago cops - only those uglier than Mayor Daley need apply. For GAI recruiters, the model seems to have been Brezhnev: fat, slow and slothful.

Never, though, will I malign the GAI again. They measured the position of each car; told the man from Terrible to pipe down; took us down to the station; and listened to our stories. And most important of all, they explained the mysteries of third-party insurance. Within an hour it was all over. I was guilty, fined 300 roubles (50 pence) and told to watch out for ice on the road. We all shook hands. I gave them the number of my insurance. And that was the last I saw of them.

If only half of what Russians say is true, though, I'm not be out of the woods yet. Chechens, they insist, always exact revenge. I'd like to think that was before insurance. All the same, I'm still a bit spooked.

Late at night a few days ago, I was tramping through the slush on my way home (my car is still in for repairs). There was a loud bang, a flash of light and a sharp thud in a nearby pile of snow. My legs froze. My imagination raced. So this is how it's done: a quick hit from a speeding car. Panic passed. I looked up. No speeding car, no sign of any Chechen hitman, only a battered blue Zhiguli limping its way down the deserted street, burping great clots of sparks, smoke and muck from a clogged exhaust.