Pulled Over in Moscow: Lessons of the Road

It was a Sunday afternoon, the streets nearly empty. I sat idling at a red light, trying not to make eye contact. He faced me from the middle of the intersection like a Socialist Realist monument come to life in knee-high leather boots, a shoulders' span apart, with his arms folded. My license plate told him at a glance that I was a foreigner, an American journalist. The light changed, but I wasn't going anywhere. He gave me the baton.

The white baton is a most feared object on these streets. It strikes when you have violated a traffic law, or look suspicious, or have been singled out for a random check of documents. Sometimes, it is alleged, it strikes when an officer of the GAI (gah-yee), the Russian acronym for State Automobile Inspectorate, just needs money. I have been given the baton for many legitimate reasons, but on this particular Sunday afternoon my driving had been irreproachable.

In Moscow, traffic works on different principles than in the West, and it is not at all clear what these principles are. The main one is that turning left is usually out of the question. This is a holdover from when the left lanes of Moscow's boulevards were reserved for Soviet Central Committee members, who didn't want them clogged with people waiting to turn. The lanes are now free, but the turns rare.

I have driven miles in search of an opportunity to turn left. I have driven past a church on the left side of the street and then spent the next 45 minutes, using three different detailed maps of the neighborhood, trying to reach that church to hear a friend's choir sing an Orthodox Easter service. I finally ditched my car and walked almost a mile. And yet there are sections of busy streets where drivers can do U-turns at will, creating bumper derbies of careening cars and trucks, weaving across and into oncoming traffic.

So why was I nabbed on a quiet day when I had only driven up to the light and stopped? I rolled down the window, and we made our introductions. Very formal, very correct. I was a foreigner, after all, which still makes many Russians self-conscious. When Russian drivers are stopped by the baton, they get out and walk over to the GAIshnik, shake hands, and banter. There's a lot of shrugging and smiling on the driver's part. In the winter, the GAIshnik gets into the car with you, so gloves can be removed for the many forms to be filled out painstakingly. I just rolled down the window.

THE inspector asked for my license, which got a careful line-by-line inspection. Then the "passport" for my car. Then my personal accreditation from the Foreign Ministry. Then the power of attorney that gave me legal authority to drive this particular car. All these documents had been obtained with so much waiting, fee-paying, and return visits to notary publics that it was like scoring points to produce them one by one on demand.

He held them in both hands and walked a slow circuit around the car. Was there a smirk on his face as he asked if I had a certificate for the accident that had crunched my fender? (Needless to say, it is a violation not to have a certificate for damage to your car.) Or was I smirking as I popped it out of the glove compartment? After all, I had spent at least two hours late one evening flagging down a GAIshnik and then filling out forms in my car in order to obtain such an official report. He was frustrated. So he took all my documents over to a fellow officer sitting in their Lada. They conferred at some length, and then he returned, brandishing my Virginia driver's license.

Aha. He explained that drivers residing in Russia are required to use Russian licenses after two months.

"What are we going to do with you?" he asked. Never mind that at least a half dozen GAIshniks had inspected that Virginia license and found it adequate. He had me.

Usually, you can pay a fine on the spot. They are not steep, the ruble equivalent of a few dollars. And it is impossible to tell how legitimate they are. GAIshniks usually provide receipts with their fines, but it is not clear that they turn in copies of those receipts to their superiors. On the other hand, some GAIshniks do everything by the book. This means your license is seized until you pay the fine at an authorized bank and take the receipt to a central GAI office. When I walked in to the central office and asked for my license (seized for an illegal left turn), the clerk-officers said, "Oh, the American!" and walked straight to it, snatching it out of a wall of cabinets that held all the seized licenses in a city of 9 million people.

But that was then. Now the GAI had me. I told him I would have to straightaway get a Russian license. "Of course," he said, "but this is a violation." And again: "What are we going to do with you?"

I kept repeating my determination to obtain a proper license, steadfastly refusing to take his broad hints that I should offer another way out, perhaps a contribution to his personal recreation fund. Perhaps he did not quite have the confidence to name a price to this foreigner who did, after all, have an awful lot of valid documentation. Perhaps he was a straight arrow who just couldn't bring himself to seize my license and put us both through all that paperwork.

In any case, as in many other instances in Russia that seemed to call for petty bribery, I found that not getting the hint can work. The GAIshnik tossed the handful of papers back into the car and told me to scram.

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