Moscow's pedestrian survival plan: 'Jump'

Show me a man behind the wheel at rush hour, a sage once said or should have said, and I will show you the innermost workings of his soul. Driving in Moscow is serious business. It represents the fusion of the Soviet Russian mind, Charles Darwin, and the internal combustion engine: the survival of the heaviest accelerator foot.

That, of course, means pedestrians are counted out before- hand. They are mere accessories, and they are fair game even if they happen to be on a sidewalk. They learn to move quickly.

This, I swear by the late Joseph Pulitzer, is no exaggeration. In a mere month here, my wife and I have jointly witnessed these unfortunates elude by inches onrushing cars, trucks, or buses: a pencil- thin man with a cane; a young woman wheeling a baby carriage; and -- yes -- a blind woman.

But there are limits, with foot policemen at major intersections to enforce them. This, too, seems somehow appropriate to a view of the Soviet soul from the driver's seat.

As it happens, I have jotted down a few of the more important rules observed during several wintry hours beside a main Moscow thoroughfare. With the splattered slush duly wiped from my notebook, they read thus:

* If a policeman whistles at you to stop, generally stop. There is very little percentage in trying to beat the Soviet system. If it really wants to, it wins.

* If, however, the policeman hasn't really taken a good look at you, there is some chance you'll get away with whatever you've just done. So pretend not to have seen. This, by the way, clearly does not apply if the offense has caused visible damage to place, thing, or even person . . . or if the policeman's immediate superior happens to be nearby.

* Don't worry about the city speed limit (35 m.p.h.). Policemen at street corners seem to have better things to think about, although it remains unclear precisely what. Besides, they can't run that fast.

* Swerve from lane to lane at your heart's desire. Whoever is behind you expects you to.

* During the winter months, go particularly quickly. Experience seems to have taught Muscovites that nature, like the system, wins in the end. But since you can't fight the second, you might as well have a go at the first.

* Finally, get out of the way at the first hint that a shiny black sedan is zooming up the center lane, its special province. Inside, generally, is a senior official of the Communist Party. He can do anything he wants.

Even this painstakingly compiled set of guidelines leaves several mysteries undeciphered. Why, for instance, is there almost no Moscow intersection at which one can take a left turn?

Or why do foreign drivers like me bother stopping at crosswalks? All this seems to do is astonish the pedestrians. Who knows? They may even let down their guard a little, just in time for a veteran local speedster to zoom within inches of their frozen knees.

Why, moreover, do there appear to be so few accidents?

But why, most of all, am I so interested in Moscow motorists?

A Western diplomat here must share at least part of the blame for my interest. "Why," I asked him shortly after arriving in Moscow, "has President Brezhnev made no visible preparations for a calm and orderly succession?"

His guess: "Things aren't that simple. Such a process would have to be done in a way so that no one could force Brezhnev out in the interim.

"This is a society where muscle counts. People learn to play rough, or step aside, whether in traffic or in the Politburo."

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