Commentary
7:00 am
Sat November 26, 2011

One Last Hitchhike In A Moscow Taxi

Originally published on Sat November 26, 2011 4:17 pm

Transcript

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Before you hear this next story, let's offer a caution. Hitchhiking is not generally safe. But just happens to be a way of life in Moscow. That may be about to change.

NPR's David Greene sent this postcard from the Russian capital.

DAVID GREENE, BYLINE: This is the way you get a ride in Moscow. You stand on a street corner, like I am right now, shivering. And you stick your hand out and you just wave down any car that will stop. It doesn't have to look like a taxi. It could just be like this guy who's pulling over right now in his old car. And we negotiate a price.

(SOUNDBITE OF CAR DOORS)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Sadovaya karentnaya...

GREENE: Traveling this way can be an adventure – even embarrassing. There was the time I played host to the British novelist Tom Rob Smith. He had written about Russia and wanted a true Moscow experience. I waved down one of the city's old Ladas, the boxy Soviet clunkers still trying to stay in one piece. The driver had the radio blaring as we past Red Square. Then, unexpected stop.

(SOUNDBITE OF CAR DOOR SLAMMING)

GREENE: We ran out of gas.

TOM ROB SMITH: The first taxi I've ever had that's run out of gas.

GREENE: Welcome to Moscow.

For people who live in Moscow, flagging down random cars is routine. Actual taxis are scarce, the subway can be hot and crowded, and if you throw your hand up, a drive will usually pull over within seconds and take you anywhere downtown for five or six dollars. But this may be ending.

A new law to be enforced beginning in January will fine drivers for taking passengers unless their car is registered as a taxi and they install a meter. I asked one of my recent drivers, Sergei Volkov his reaction.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

SERGEI VOLKOFF: (Speaking Russian)

GREENE: Sure, the government's intentions seem worthy – namely, getting control of the taxi industry and making Moscow seem less like an anarchy...

VOLKOFF: (Speaking Russian)

GREENE: ...but like other drivers, Volkov worries the new system will be twisted to give the government another chance to extract bribes. As for passengers, the numbers are problematic. Moscow, Europe's largest city, officially has around 12 million people. The actual number is likely even higher. Yet there are only 9,000 legal taxis. Jumping in strangers' cars, maybe not the best solution according to blogger Jennifer Eremeeva. Here's how she described the experience in one of her columns:

JENNIFER EREMEEVA: I feared imminent death or severe bodily harm from either bad road conditions, criminally minded taxi drivers or simply being trapped in a vehicle whose certificate of roadworthiness had lapsed about two decades, driven by someone who was more at home at either a combine harvester and a Wii console.

GREENE: But the American-born writer who married a Russian and lives in Moscow still gets around this way. She doesn't do it alone at night but during the day...

EREMEEVA: Any car at all can pull up. It doesn't have to be a taxi.

GREENE: You're hitchhiking. I mean, it's basically hitchhiking.

EREMEEVA: Well, hitchhiking with money.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

GREENE: Do you feel safe? Safer? Doing that here than you would in, say, New York, Washington?

EREMEEVA: I would never do this in New York. It's just a part of life here.

GREENE: And part of post-Soviet Russian culture. Especially in this crowded, chaotic city, there's a feeling that the government isn't there for people. Going to court with a complaint? Pointless. Police? They just want bribes. As for transportation, you may as well rely on fellow citizens.

EREMEEVA: There's always been this sort of citizen-to-citizen help and assistance, where the state maybe has not been as supportive. (Speaking Russian)

GREENE: Eremeeva and I wave down a car to head to her next meeting.

(SOUNDBITE OF CAR DOOR SLAMMING AND PEOPLE SPEAKING RUSSIAN)

GREENE: She was happy to pay a few dollars for a lift and 58-year-old Sergei Pichonkin (ph) was happy for extra gas money. He needs more than his $400 a month pension.

SERGEI PICHANKAN: (Speaking Russian)

GREENE: I'm a retired military doctor, he said. "And here I am giving rides to American journalists. What do you think? Is this a good thing?" His question hung there as we sped on. David Greene, NPR News, Moscow. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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