Scary Fires, Crashes, and Glitches - Isn't That Just Life in Russia?

The Mir Dilemma: Would You Go Up There?

With the dire daily reports from the aging Mir space station, you might wonder why a Russian, let alone an American, would choose to blast off into space just to spend months fixing one mechanical problem after another. Wouldn't that be a waste of time at best and a meaningless deadly risk at worst?

But isn't that just life - in Russia, anyway?

Contemplating what kind of nerve it takes to risk a visit to Mir, I see fundamental differences in approach between an American astronaut and a Russian cosmonaut. It puts me in mind of a simple parallel - driving in Russia.

Not long ago, planning to attend a conference in St. Petersburg, I was debating whether to take the train or undertake the long drive from Moscow. "But you'll be going with Nanette," said a friend, referring to an American acquaintance. "She can share the driving."

"I would never let an American drive my car," I said decisively, and resolved to travel by train.

It's not that Americans are bad drivers. In fact, an average American has much more driving experience than an average Russian. It's just that, when Americans drive, they tend to look forward and up: at other cars and at road signs. A person who is used to driving in Russia looks forward and down: at other cars and at potholes, objects in the middle of the road, open manholes, and a variety of other obstacles.

This summer there was a large pit in the archway that is the only path out of my courtyard. You had to drive on the sidewalk to bypass it. The unmarked pit, three by six feet and six feet deep, seemed either oddly symbolic or morbidly practical.

That pit always somehow makes me think of Mir.

You see, sight is not the only sense tuned differently for Russian drivers than the Americans. The Russian driver has keen hearing. Yes, of course, any driver can detect a knock in the engine or the treacherous whistle of a loose belt. But the experienced Russian driver can hear an unattached part of the car moving under the hood. A friend who got a brand new Tavria, a cheap Ukrainian subcompact, figured out within a few days that the factory had failed to attach the engine: The car ran fine, but it made a banging noise at take-off, when the engine slid back toward the passenger compartment.

More and more young, newly moneyed people buy foreign cars, go to their mechanics with the smallest problem - to change the oil, even - and generally treat their cars as objects of convenience. But the traditional Russian driver still lives the driving life.

A committed driver's relationship with his new Russian-made car begins with taking the car apart, oiling all the nuts and bolts, and putting it back together again. The factory doesn't bother with oiling, and if you don't do it from the start, the nuts and bolts meld into one another, becoming inseparable. So if you're not careful, to change the air filter you'll have to cut the carburetor cover off with a torch.

After he reassembles his car, the Russian driver never goes anywhere without his tools. A wealthy Russian businessman I know, setting off to explore the state of Nevada in a rented car, inquired of his American companion, "Did you make sure there are tools in the trunk?"

The American assured him they were standard-issue. Of course, he meant a jack and a spare tire, while the Russian businessman was envisioning a full set, including wrenches of all sizes, perhaps a few spare belts, a replacement relay regulator, a hammer. Why, you might ask, would a driver need a hammer? To hammer back into shape the soft-metal wheels mangled by the potholed roads, of course. Everyone here knows that's the appropriate first aid for a flat tire.

All the changes of the last 10 years notwithstanding, we still lead the inconvenient life. The store next door may or may not have potatoes or kiwi fruit on any given day; a road trip still requires a suitcase of spare parts; and the space station has something go wrong with it every day.

So would I go up on Mir? Sure. But I'd only let the American drive if he brought his hammer.

* Masha Gessen, who writes for the Russian newsweekly Itogi, is author of "Dead Again: The Russian Intelligentsia After Communism" (Verso, 1997).

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