Street Life: Samotechny Lane - The vodka king drove me to distraction...

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The Independent Online
"ARE YOU still driving around in that old rust bucket?" asked my neighbour, the handyman Oleg, looking contemptuously at the faithful red Niva four-wheel-drive I call my "cherry girl". "If I were you, I'd get rid of it before it falls to pieces. I'll give you $500 (pounds 300) for it. I'd be doing you a favour." Lyosha the car thief stood listening to this conversation and grinning. I had always thought my car was safe outside Samotechny Lane because he had taken a shine to me. The truth is, he probably never thought it was worth nicking.

"I'll think about it," I said, fixing the left headlamp into its socket with a wad of chewing gum, before going to the garage for yet another repair. The neighbours laughed affectionately. I may be an eccentric Englishwoman but they see that I live more or less the same low life as they do.

Imagine their astonishment then, when, a few days later, I pulled up in a sleek black Mercedes, flicked on the central locking and entered our shabby building like Lady Muck. Their jaws fell open, their tongues hung out and words failed them. They stared, agog.

"It's not mine, it's not mine," I hastened to explain but they drew back, shyly. I was another person, now. I was leading the high life. I was driving in the fast lane.

I was in fact making a programme for a BBC radio series on cars in different countries. Russia was represented by the Mercedes - symbol of success under the new capitalism but also symbol of post-Soviet social division. The job took me to limousine showrooms, fancy restaurants and casinos.

Amazingly, one of the super rich New Russians I interviewed, a vodka baron, said I could borrow his Mercedes for a day. "I'll be very careful not to crash it," I said, reverently. "It's OK," he replied. "I've got five." With that, he ambled off for a game of tennis in the back garden of his villa, just down a wooded lane from where President Yeltsin and his family live.

Fortunately, the car came complete with a driver. His name was Sergei and he was as calm as Baikal, the famous deepwater lake in his native Siberia. He may have begun his career driving buses but he had risen to become a chauffeur for the Russian Foreign Ministry and had even driven in the protocol convoy that accompanied Bill Clinton when he came to Moscow. He was a real professional.

We agreed he would first show me how to handle the Merc, then remain at my side while I drove the great, purring machine.

We set off on a quiet road down by the Moscow River. At first, I drove like a pensioner on a Sunday outing, risking no more than 40kph (25mph). Other drivers could fly into apoplectic rages but that was their problem. Gradually, I began to pick up speed. At 60, I went over a double white line right under the nose of a traffic cop but he did not bat an eyelid at this violation of the Highway Code.

I began to enjoy myself. At 80, I was cursing some stupid woman for pushing her pram into the road and at 90 I was screaming at a rickety Lada to get out of my way. Having completed one lap of what was, I realised, a circular road, I whizzed at 100 over the double white line in front of the same traffic cop, who lifted his arm as if about to salute me. He would not fine me. I might be someone important. Instead, he would harass the next little nobody to come driving by.

Power was going to my head. But no sooner had I started to get used to this good life than Sergei was telling me it was time to park. To find myself back in the Niva, with a little pool of water at my feet, apparently leaking from the heating system, was a rude awakening.

Lurching and spluttering, I made it home to Samotechny Lane. Oleg and Lyosha were lounging on the pavement. "Back in the rust bucket again, are we?" said Oleg while Lyosha just grinned. "I told you, I'll give you 500 for it. The offer still stands."

Helen Womack

`Car Stories' will be broadcast on the World Service on four consecutive Saturdays from 21 August at 10.30pm (repeated on Sundays at 8.30 am). The World Service can be received in London and the South-east on 648MW.