Potholes and Gas Wars

When an American first arrives in Moscow, the road system in the capital makes a positive impression. The highway from the international airport (Sheremetyevo) to the central part of the city near the Kremlin is a broad, tree-lined boulevard. While it is not equivalent to the airport-bound interstate highways in Los Angeles or Chicago, it is still an impressive transportation artery.

Thirteen trunk roads from all areas of Russia feed into the 68-mile motorway ring, the beltway completed in 1962 which marks the municipal boundary of Moscow. Inside this beltway are two smaller rings — the Garden Ring and the Boulevard Ring — which circle the central city and provide wide, spacious avenues for viewing the sights. The roads in Moscow are a match for the highways in other great capitals of Europe. Moscow’s “rings” remind travelers of Vienna’s “Ringstrasse,” Paris’ “Champs-Elysees” and London’s “Piccadilly Street.”

It is only upon leaving the capital that the full reality of the state of Russia’s highway system becomes clear. After living in Nizhni Novgorod (formerly Gorky) for several months, our hosts at the state university agreed to take us on a weekend excursion to Suzdal and Vladimir, two of the beautiful cities on the “Golden Ring” in Russia. Nizhni Novgorod is 380 kilometers (230 miles) east of Moscow, and these two “Golden Ring” cities are located approximately halfway between our temporary home and Russia’s capital.

The day we left for Vladimir was a cold and clear mid-March day, and our mini-van, while not new, seemed adequate for the 200 kilometer (120 mile) drive. I expected the highway between Russia’s capital and Nizhni Novgorod, Russia’s third largest city, to be at least a four- to six-lane highway. After all, the roads between America’s major cities are certainly some of the best highways in the country, due to the necessity of maintaining commercial support for these large metropolitan communities. Assuming we were traveling on a similar road system here in Russia, I could not understand why our hosts wanted to depart so early in the morning.

Soon, I understood. The highway between Nizhni Novgorod and Vladimir, which is halfway to Moscow on the principal road system, is sometimes four lanes, but mostly two. The potholes are so large that our driver repeatedly had to bring the mini-van to a complete stop as he gently crossed the broken sections of road. Oftentimes, he steered our vehicle to the left-hand side of the unmarked highway in order to find smoother pavement.

The 120 mile trip took four hours. The van veered back and forth across the two lanes and frequently braked to a stop — usually when we least expected it. The only parallel experience I could recall was the 13-hour bus ride I endured from San Jose, Costa Rica, to Managua, Nicaragua. But we were not in Central America. We were in Russia, on the highway connecting the first and third largest cities!

The deteriorated road system was not the only surprise on our trip. After several hours of travel, my wife Marge and I both noticed that we had seen no roadside facilities, such as restaurants for weary and hungry travelers, or repair shops for broken-down cars or vans. Needless to say, restroom facilities were non-existent. I did wonder what would happen if one’s automobile decided to quit; our driver, however, merely shrugged his shoulders when I asked.

Three times during our four-hour trip we pulled into gasoline stations — the only ones encountered along the way — and tried to buy gas. I wondered why we never bought any, but I didn’t worry until I noticed the driver becoming increasingly agitated. We were made aware of the “problem” when our van ran out of gas within 100 yards of the southern city gates of Vladimir, which were constructed during the time of Catherine the Great. Fortunately, our driver had several containers of gas in the back of the van. When no funnel could be found, he simply cracked off the top half of our Diet Pepsi bottle. It served its purpose well.

During our tours of the beautiful cities of Vladimir and Suzdal, with their magnificent cathedrals and ancient buildings, I noticed our driver regularly asking local residents about gas stations. While we visited the historic sites, he searched for gas to no avail. At the end of the second day, as we prepared to return to Nizhni Novgorod, I could sense the tension within our driver growing. As we approached the highway, we stopped at each of the gas stations that we passed — which were few — and found every one either closed or unwilling to serve us.

As the gas gauge continued to go down, all of us became affected by our common plight. Several more gas stops and more pleading ensued, still with no results. Finally, we located a gas station that was open and was serving the large trucks which plied the highway between Russia’s two major cities. Once again, our driver, in utter frustration, was told he would not be served. At this time, our interpreter, a gentle, gracious man, approached the station attendant and used this line: “We have Americans in our vehicle who have traveled all the way across the Atlantic Ocean to visit us. Wouldn’t it be a shame if they came all that way only to be stranded between Vladimir and Nizhni Novgorod?” The gas attendant gave in to his plea, and graciously gave us 10 liters of gas (5 gallons) — just enough to get us to our destination.

We later found out that we were caught in the middle of a “gas war.” The local authorities in the Nizhni Novgorod region had increased the price of gas by four to six rubles a liter; the authorities in the Vladimir-Suzdal region, the neighboring area to the east, however, kept the gas prices at one and on-half rubles a liter. The Vladimir-Suzdal authorities had then ordered all gas stations only to sell gas to residents of their region, and not to serve “outsiders” from neighboring areas who might try to cross their borders and “steal” the cheaper gas. We happened to be caught in the middle of this nightmare: two districts in the same republic, two different economic plans, and no desire to work together.

We were thankful to get back home to Nizhni Novgorod after two days on the road. The experience with potholes and gas wars illustrated the difficulties that lie ahead for our Russian friends.