Moscow's elite has decided it doesn't need to follow the traffic laws. Will there be a pedestrian revolution?
- By Julia IoffeJulia Ioffe is a contributing writer at the New York Times Magazine. She was a senior editor at the New Republic and was the Moscow correspondent for Foreign Policy and the New Yorker from 2009 to 2012.
It was a hot and sunny Sunday afternoon when Lena Miro (the pop-lit writer Elena Mironenko) was wheeling her way home, happy and sated after a Goya exhibit and some stuffed cabbage at a chic Moscow cafe. “When all of a sudden, out of nowhere, a vile old woman with a massive bag on wheels threw herself under my car,” Miro wrote on her blog. “I almost knocked the bowling pin down.” Miro was rattled, but then she had a soothing thought: “It occurred to me: I could’ve run over this scum (the world would only benefit from this), but to give myself a serious headache over some old cunt was a little silly.”
And then she got to thinking: what the fuck. Why are these people even here, in her city? Why not impose an entry fee to Moscow — say, $200. “Then we’ll have beautiful people driving around in beautiful cars, not collective farmers in their farting wrecks, or office schmucks in their miserable Passats,” she mused. “And anyway: let these office drones take the metro to their kunstkameras, or, even better, have them go somewhere far away. Maybe Kolyma” — the remote site of some of the most notorious Soviet-era gulags. “Let them pan for gold. That way, we’d at least get some use out of their pointless existence.”
Healthy thoughts, to be sure, in a city plagued by infamous congestion. Miro, a card-carrying member of United Russia, is not the only celebrity doing her part to give voice to the party’s patrician inner monologue. When confronted with the growing public outrage over his behavior on the roads, Oscar-winning Russian director Nikita Mikhalkov retold an old pre-revolutionary joke. “A peasant nursed and nursed his anger at his master,” Mikhalkov said, “but the master didn’t know shit about it.” Last month, when Mikhalkov was finally stripped of his migalka — a blue VIP car siren that, when turned on, allows the driver to circumvent all traffic laws — his public bitching about the loss seemed to know no bounds. And it’s not hard to understand why: With that blue light flashing, a driver can cut through traffic like an ambulance, and everyone else must scatter. (Although some VIPs don’t even bother issuing that warning.)
In this season of strange movements of the bulldogs under the rug, the migalka and all it stands for have become what passes in Russia for a hot-button campaign issue: the people — or the bydlo, the plebes, as the elite and the plebes themselves refer to the non-elite — get upset at the constant abuse of gratuitous privilege, and the state throws a few of its most insignificant pawns under the bus to show that it has the interests of the people at heart. Which, of course, is not quite true.
In principle and by law, migalki are supposed to go only to the most important officials, officials who have really important meetings to go to, meetings that could make or break the future of Russia. Thus, Barack Obama has a helicopter to get around stoplights and traffic jams; Dmitry Medvedev has a blue migalka. Then what about the prime minister, Vladimir Putin? He has one, too. As do the finance minister and the defense minister and other cabinet members. The Patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church has one.
And then the definition of “important” becomes rather swimmy and 970 people get a migalka. Officially. Nearly double that number of “special sirens” are actually on the roads. Who has them? Some of the president’s advisors, some big businessmen who get them through connections. Who else? The deputy head of the Federal Customs Agency, who recently turned his siren on one weekday morning to speed to the dry cleaner’s. Filmmaker Mikhalkov, ostensibly because he was the head of the Defense Ministry’s Public Council. (When a journalist called him to ask why a film director would need a siren, Mikhalkov responded with a tirade so explicit, so bleep-worthy, that it firmly established him as Russia’s leading artistic light.) Even more bizarrely, so does this woman, who called in to a Moscow radio station in January to complain that no one pays attention to her migalka:
Radio host: “Tatyana, tell us, where do you work?
Tatyana: “I don’t work.”
Radio host: “Then in what way did you acquire a special siren?”
Tatyana: “Well, it’s my car and it has a siren installed on it and I just wanted to say that people who demand to be treated well –”
Radio host: “Tatyana, Tatyana, one second. On what basis do you have a special siren?”
Tatyana: “Why would I tell you where I got a special siren!”
The plebes, Tatyana complained, were not behaving. They did not respect the law, and the law mandates a strict split between them and people like Tatyana who have drivers and cars with migalki, people who reside in gated communities where nectar is drunk and the only law is the one that separates them from the plebes outside.
The plebes, and their cell-phone cameras, have started fighting back. That is how we know about the second in command at Customs going to the cleaners, or about the driver of Emergency Situations Minister Sergei Shoigu asking another driver, via megaphone, whether his not getting out of the way meant that he wanted to be “shot in the head, dumbass.”
Given the symbolic significance of cars — they are a major commodity in a society obsessed with status and making it look conspicuously higher — the issue has proved to be one of the very few that is able to galvanize and organize notoriously anti-political Russians. Some of the biggest protests Russia has seen in the last decade have been about, you guessed it, cars. This is why the Blue Buckets movement — a bunch of people armed with cell-phone cameras, a blog to monitor abuses, and blue buckets resembling migalki strapped to their car roofs — has become such a major concern for the Kremlin over the last two years. People I spoke to in Moscow expressed an understanding that the envelope had been pushed too far and that something had to be done.
But, this being Russia, the point is not changing the status quo — the cushy, legally extrajudicial privileges of the elite — but changing the way the status quo is perceived. In the last year, various unheard-of lawmakers have “taken up the issue” of migalki and VIP contempt for traffic laws more generally, first last April (to no effect), then in February (to no effect), then again in May (to no effect). Otherwise, not much has changed. Just a month after the second legislative push, someone posted a cell-phone video of three ambulances, sirens on, waiting for a VIP cortege to pass through Kutuzovsky Prospekt, a major artery leading from the Kremlin to the city’s elite suburbs.
The only clear advances have been the ritual punishments of Miro, who was stripped of her party membership, and of Mikhalkov. After his public whining over the lost migalka, he was caught on camera by the Blue Buckets team speeding and veering into oncoming traffic on Moscow’s central Garden Ring — minus a siren. Initially, he said he was late to a taping and said the “louts” and “jackasses with cameras” who taped him couldn’t possibly understand. Then he backtracked and claimed it wasn’t even his car and that he had never called anyone a lout.
Rare is a day in Russia when we don’t hear of another accident involving a “VIP car.” As I sat down to write this story, a new story came across the transom: In the wee hours of Friday morning in Rostov-on-Don, Dmitry Ostrovenko, United Russia deputy in the city Duma, barreled through several stopped cars with his Porsche Cayenne. One of the cars, a tiny Zhiguli, was rammed and dragged nearly 200 feet. Its 23-year-old driver (dead on the spot) had to be cut out of the car’s mangled frame. “Ostrovenko was trashed and could barely stand and tried to pay off the cops right then and there,” an eyewitness wrote on his blog. The gathered crowd nearly tore the deputy to bits.
This was not a new reaction; but then again, this is not a new situation. In 1920s Russia, cars were scarce and prestigious. Whereas before the revolution, only the wealthy could afford cars and chauffeurs, in the dictatorship of the proletariat it was only the party functionaries who were permitted luxuries so out of sync with the letter of the law. But Russia was still a rural, agrarian country back then, and the peasants resented these elite cars kicking up dust or scaring their animals as they roared past. Veering into fields and mashing up their crops didn’t help either. So people fought back. They threw rocks at the cars; they strung up wires across the roads to trip them up. One driver was killed when an angry villager flung an owl at his windshield.
And yet the functionaries and celebrities privileged enough to have cars continued to exercise a familiar kind of recklessness and immunity. According to Lewis Siegelbaum’s Cars for Comrades, on a hot summer day in 1929, Lilya Brik was driving through Moscow in her car, given to her by her lover, poet Vladimir Mayakovsky, when a young girl popped up in the road right in front of her, an experience Lena Miro would share 82 years later. “She froze, as if rooted to the ground, and then began to rush about like a chicken,” Brik later recalled. “Nevertheless, I knocked her slightly off her feet.” Brik was tried — and exonerated.