The Magazine

Life in Putinland

Driving while Russian.

Mar 29, 2010, Vol. 15, No. 27 • By REUBEN F. JOHNSON
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Some aspects of life in Moscow have sadly not changed for the better since the fall of the Soviet Union. A telling example: Persons in positions of power or authority reserve the right to ignore (to everyone else’s peril) all traffic laws. And the corruption and incompetence of the traffic police poses an even greater danger to motorists than those drivers for whom the laws do not apply.

Life in Putinland

Both issues came into sharp focus this month with the press coverage and posting on YouTube of incidents that graphically illustrate both deadly trends.

On February 25, a specially armored, black Mercedes S500 belonging to Lukoil vice president Anatoly Barkov plowed head-on into a C3 Citroën hatchback. The collision between the considerably heavier luxury sedan fitted with bulletproof plating and the small, lightweight economy car was like a contest between a raw egg still in the shell and a cannonball. The Citroën was smashed to bits and both passengers—35-year-old Olga Alexandrina, the driver, and her mother-in-law, 72-year-old Vera Sidelnikova, a well-known obstetrician—were killed.

Predictably, police authorities immediately placed blame for the accident on the two dead “ordinary” citizens, stating that the Citroën had strayed over the center line into oncoming traffic. Relatives of the two, however, reported that traffic police at the crash site refused to give them a copy of the accident report, which is required by law. And the license plates of Barkov’s Mercedes were quickly removed so that they would not be “lost” while the automobile was being towed away.

Three witnesses have since come forward and contradicted the traffic police’s “official” version of events. Two of them said that it was the Mercedes that illegally pulled over the center line—in order to speed around a traffic jam—while the third witness stated that the Citroën had legally remained in its lane. Their names have been withheld by Sergei Kanayev, the head of the Moscow branch of the Russian Federation of Car Owners, which is conducting an independent investigation into the crash. He said he would disclose the witnesses’ names only to representatives of the Prosecutor General’s Office. “The people have agreed to talk, but they need assurances that they will not be in danger,” he said.

In the aftermath, an open letter was sent to President Dmitri Medvedev by a group of famous Russian artists, writers, and other cultural figures— requesting that he personally look into the details surrounding this accident. “In recent years, a double standard has reigned over our country’s roads, and people driving cars with special license plates and special signals have become a constant and unpunished threat to ordinary drivers,” the letter read.

Other than being an executive at Lukoil—the largest of the notorious energy firms that are the center of gravity in a Russian economy dominated by the export of natural resources—what makes Barkov one of these “special” people with a “special” license plate? Why would witnesses that can point the finger at him as the person responsible for these two traffic deaths be in danger? Why would the police try and cover up his culpability?

Barkov’s biography offers a few clues. He was born in 1948, but for the first 44 years of his life he officially did nothing. In 1992 he appeared from nowhere and graduated from the Ufa Oil Institute. Then in 1993, with a newly minted diploma and no job experience, he became, according to the Lukoil website, “Vice President in charge of general questions and corporate security and communications.” Under the category of “if it walks like a duck and talks like a duck,” this job sounds like a not-too-difficult but well paying position for a former KGB comrade of Prime Minister Vladimir Putin.

Lukoil has a bevy of these senior executives whose backgrounds are blank pages until around 1992, the year after the collapse of the Soviet Union, the year that all of the KGB men had to stop spying on journalists and diplomats or beating up Jews who applied to emigrate to Israel and go find something resembling a real job. Among others, the company’s vice president for business and finance and the head of Lukoil’s legal department also fall into this category. No wonder the witnesses in Barkov’s crash do not want their names revealed publicly.

But the police in Moscow do worse than just provide cover for former KGB men. On March 5, a number of drivers, one of whom was taking a pregnant woman to deliver her child, were stopped by police on the MKAD—a sort of Moscow beltway on the city outskirts—and instructed to park their cars at oblique angles in order to block one side of the divided highway. What they were not told by the Russian highway police (GIBDD) was that they were being deployed as “human shields,” to cite the title of a YouTube video later posted by Stanislav Sutyagin, one of the drivers who was stopped.

The GIBDD knew that an armed and dangerous criminal they were trying to apprehend was heading in their direction. Their strategy was to allow the criminal’s vehicle to crash into the barricade of autos they had just assembled thanks to the compliance of a group of unsuspecting citizens. The police, however, ignored the possibility “that someone in these vehicles might be injured or shot by these criminals,” Sutyagin stated. “Our lives are worth nothing to our Russian state—and the people in power absolutely to the nth degree could not care less that there were live people in these automobiles,” said Sutyagin. “This is a complete bespredel”—a lack of law, order, and decency.

The stunt failed. The silver Audi driven by the accused criminal crashed through the parked cars and kept going. The GIBDD then had the audacity not only to not apologize to those whose lives they had endangered, but also to tell those drivers whose vehicles were damaged that they would not be compensated for the repair costs because the police were unable to apprehend the driver of the Audi. (They later reversed course and apologized after the publicity offensive created political embarrassment.) 

Sutyagin said he would never stop again if a similar situation came up. “If you do not stop [when the police wave you over], the fine is only 300 roubles [about $10]. The damage to my automobile is many times more, and nothing can get your life back. Everyone else out there has to decide for themselves what they would do.”

In the same week that this latter scandal was all over the news, the State Department released its worldwide human rights report, giving low marks to Russia for rampant corruption, rigged elections, and the regular killings of journalists who criticize the government. Taking a page from the Soviet era, a Russian foreign ministry spokesman pretended that none of these documented incidents had occurred and accused Washington of using the human rights issue as a foil to advance “quite concrete, material foreign policy interests.”

All of this was spoken high-handedly, as befits a member of Russia’s golden governmental elite. Just another one of the “special” people—like Anatoly Barkov—for whom the laws and norms that apply to ordinary people might as well not exist. The rest of Russia’s populace, as we have seen, have no rights and are only fit to be human shields—or if they get in the way of one of these “special” automobiles—human victims.

Reuben F. Johnson is an aerospace expert based in Kiev.

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