Pint-sized Lada is proved champion of the road in rescue of panting Volvo hulk

Moscow Days
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The Independent Online
I have taken a solemn vow. Never again will I pour scorn, lampoon, or subject to ridicule and contempt that whipping boy of the motor industry and butt of a million jokes, the Lada car. For all its similarities with a jerry can on wheels, I now realise the error of my ways: it is a truly superior vehicle, a masterpiece of Soviet engineering. An apology is in order.

I made my resolution at 3.45pm Moscow time last Saturday, on a roasting day in the middle of the countryside. That was when my ageing Volvo, which had been whingeing for months, issued a small sigh and coasted to a stubborn halt by the vergeside. The damn thing had only just been serviced; a mechanic's spanner had evidently upset the delicate organic internal balance that has kept it on the road beyond its natural life.

In this rugged environment, with its pot-holed roads and ferocious winters, cars - like people - die young. Breaking down anywhere is obviously annoying, but in Russia it is a crisis.

A new petrol station seems to open every other day in and around Moscow, where, until recently, there were fewer than 40 for the entire city. In summer, you can buy a bizarre assortment of goods from the stalls along the country roads around the capital - fruit, barbecued pork, cooking pots, samovars, water toys, and garish beach towels decorated as $100 notes or with topless women. But two crucial services are lacking: telephones and break-down trucks.

Hot and irritated, we decided to wait. For all this nation's reputation for churlishness, Russians are often quick to help one another out, filling in the gaps in their infrastructure and economy by a system of self-help. It is neither uncommon nor embarrassing to ask a friend for a loan rather than risk venturing into the shark-invested waters of the Russian banking system. (A Russian associate startled me the other day, when our funds were running low, by offering to lend me $1,000 - about pounds 625)

So, too, with cars. In Soviet times, for those few who owned vehicles (party lickspittles, army veterans, top scientists and so on) there was a long waiting list for the state-run garages, so Russians took to mending their cars themselves, or turning to an oily-fingered friend.

That tradition has continued, perpetuated both by a lack of mechanics who could be trusted not to steal your engine parts, and the expense of going to a garage. The place is teeming with amateurs. Every other Russian man carries around in his head a manual of the Lada, the Volga, the Moskvich or the Niva.

There are plenty of opportunities to use this expertise. On any Sunday summer evening , as Muscovites return home from a weekend at their country dachas, hundreds of broken-down Russian-made cars line the roads back into the city, their bonnets yawning.

It took approximately one and a half minutes to flag down our man. "You need a lorry to move that thing," he said matter-of-factly, after inspecting our tank-like vehicle. Yet the opportunity to be seen towing a posh foreign car with his clapped out, canary blue Lada was simply too good to miss.

He cheerfully hitched our hulk to his own pint-sized vehicle. Ten minutes later, we slowly glided through the gate of our destination, a country cottage some 50 miles from Moscow. Without asking for money, he drove off, beaming happily. Thus, the vow.

But our problem is only half solved. In the last few days, I have been trying to get our car back from the country to Moscow. If this city's new species of entrepreneur (in contrast to the Good Samaritans in the country) understands one principle of capitalism well it is this: you can charge big money to someone in a jam, particularly a foreigner.

One company - ludicrously called Angel - has demanded a fee of $1,000 , about one-third of the car's probable value. No deal.

There may, however, be a way of stopping this happening again. The other day I spotted an Orthodox priest standing by the roadside on the outskirts of Moscow, sweltering beneath his black robes and beard. Next to him, there was a large notice in which he offered (for a fee, I imagine) to bless cars.

Once mine is back on the road, I will be going straight there with a list of requests. A blessing, please, for the Volvo, with some special prayers for the broken distributor and faulty gears. Another blessing for the owner of the Lada who rescued us the other day. And how about a damnation for that Angel?

Phil Reeves