Thursday, 25 October 2012

Russian Roads and Wimpy English

Natasha, the student I lived with in Kazan', repeated a Gogol quote to me:

'Russia has two problems: stupid mens and roads.'

She related this to me in English so this may not be exactly what the great novelist said, but it still holds true. Kazan's roads were riddled with potholes, uneven cobbles and rubble. Pedestrians picked their way around obstacles as best they could, with some brave (Russian) souls in towering heels, while the cars thudded up and down over holes and tracks for the trams. Even in St Petersburg's diluted part of Russia, they are prone to dig up the road unannounced, but it is hastily built over.

The interesting aspect of Russian roads is the almost total lack of health and safety. In England, roadworks are made totally inaccessible to passers-by, who are shepherded carefully around them by garish plastic buffers, just in case a car nicks them. In Russia, people walk freely through most roadworks, right past active pneumatic drills, across dirt, dug-up cobbles and mud. On the road of our school a giant cavern dug into the pavement was half-heartedly marked with a string of red tape, held in place by one of the giant rocks.

At the moment industrial bags of sand have been emptied across the recently-finished pavement around the corner. A man with a broom intermittently smooths the tracks made by so many Russian feet, but to my untrained eye its purpose is still confusing. I like to think the powers that be are harnessing pedestrians like mules to finish the pavement's surface, so I always walk on that side. Plus it's kind of like being in a sandpit.

I think the reason Russians happily trip across slightly hazardous areas, while in England there would be a lot of literal red tape and several law suits, is because:
a) Russians are not used to mollycoddling. You are expected to use your common sense as you get around and if you hurt yourself, it's your fault. The nanny state is not a problem here.
b) Russians are used to a lot worse. Below is what happens to the Lena Highway, or the 'Highway from Hell' every time it rains:
In one "traffic jam", 600 cars were stuck and a woman gave birth right in the public bus she was travelling in. The rescue team was afraid to arrive because the last time they were beaten by those stuck in their cars. In the meantime, they broke the locks on trucks in search of food, warm clothes and fuel.
Sort of makes us look a bit pathetic...
Additionally, pedestrians are largely expected to look out for themselves as legislation heavily favours motorists. When the light is green for the cars, the cars can go. When the light is green for the pedestrians, the cars can also go. Most of them are nice enough to slow down for pedestrians during the pedestrian crossing, but you have to watch out for the odd boy racer/digger. It's disconcerting at first, but after a couple of weeks you happily walk out in front of cars and assume they won't mow you down. I'm a little concerned about keeping this habit when I go back to London.
There is a similar discrepancy with snow. Some Russians we were talking to thought it was a myth that 3 inches of snow grinds London's cogs to a halt. Alina held her hand to her temples and said:

"But sometimes we have it up to here!"

From an outside perspective, it's even more ridiculous that England has the same argument every year about not buying enough grit, that schools and workplaces close and public transport barely runs. The stillness is magical, until the pithy layer of snow turns into dirty slush. It's no wonder Scotland just laughs and wants nothing to do with us. Meanwhile, in Russia...
Speaking of which, the first snow is predicted this weekend. I can't wait.

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