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 The Perils and Pleasures of Travel in Russia

The road from St. Petersburg to Moscow.
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Since Alexander Radishchev's days, Russia has experienced wars, famines, a bloody revolution, and, 10 years ago, a bloodless one. Throughout, the road from St. Petersburg to Moscow has stood witness—the villages and towns along the way are tenacious monuments to Russia's history.

Though now a paved highway, the St. Petersburg to Moscow road still follows every twist and turn of Radishchev's route. It's a good place to look at the state of Russia and its grasp for freedom and prosperity, issues that resonate today just as they did 200 years ago.

Radishchev visited 24 settlements in his journey documenting harsh laws, arbitrary punishment, burdensome taxes, and suffocating censorship. He chose this route because he said the two great cities—St. Petersburg and Moscow—do not reflect the true Russian condition. That's still the case.

Radishchev did this trip in a carriage with horses. We're doing it in a red Zhiguli. It's a 1989 version, so we hope everything goes okay. It took Radishchev between 4 and 5 days to do the trip—424 miles; we could easily do it in 24 hours. But as Radishchev said: "The longer you take, the farther you'll get."

The speedometer doesn't work, and the suspension has seen better days, but our driver, 37-year-old Kostya Vasin, is a master at the wheel. With tousled blond hair and clear blue eyes, he knows every bump of the route by heart. He's been driving it as a trucker for 13 years.

We pass grand St. Petersburg hotels and a busy McDonald's, and then the city begins to dissolve into gray, deteriorating apartment buildings. They give way to green fields and birch groves interrupted by clusters of one-story wooden houses and small towns. This is the Russian heartland.

We've only been on the road for a few miles and we've already been waved over by a policeman. Kostya says it's a document check.

On the road from St. Petersburg to Moscow. Click to enlarge

Photo: Rob Rand
"They'll always get you for something," he explains after it's over. "Some problem with your papers or with the car. Russian cars aren't Mercedes or Volvos. There's always something broken. It's better to pay immediately, because if you dawdle or look for a way out, you wind up paying a bigger fine."

Two hundred years ago, a driver at a post station confronted Radishchev with a thinly veiled demand for a bribe. It was the order of the day. According to Kostya, bribes are still the way things work. Further along, we're stopped again, this time for speeding.

"I was fined 300 rubles," he tells us, "but without a receipt I only paid 100. The government won't get anything. I'm happy. He's happy. That's the way it always is. I've never met a policeman who didn't take a bribe. Not bad work being a policeman. But they are always very careful. They invite you into their car as if to fill out the forms so it's just you and them, no other witnesses. By the way, they warned me there's another police check up ahead."

Though this is one of Russia's major highways, there are just three narrow lanes in each direction. Kostya has to maneuver around the potholes. With the recent return of private enterprise, services that disappeared under the communists have reappeared. Gas stations, motels, and some really quite decent eateries are modern versions of the inns Radishchev frequented.

Over homemade cabbage soup at Manya's Restaurant, Kostya describes the perils and pleasures of travel now.

"If you stop on the road somewhere between small towns," he says, "guys come up and demand money and you come to some agreement or else they will slash your tires or beat you. The question is how little you can get away with. But now there are truck stops. They won't touch you there. Now you can wash up along the way. In the past we would camp by a river, but now there are places with showers—even saunas."

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