Old Saint Basil's Cathedral in MoscowJohnson's Russia List title and scenes of Saint Petersburg
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New York Times
December 22, 2001
You Pretend to Drive, We Pretend to Get You There

MOSCOW, Dec. 21 This city's widest, busiest, most expensive and most fabled highway was first built under Nikita Khrushchev's rule, but it was not until late 1998, after an ambitious reconstruction project, that it reached its current exalted status. Ten lanes wide, 67.73 miles long, costing more than $1 billion (nobody seems quite sure how much more), it draws a colossal limited-access concrete circle around Russia's capital.

Its formal name is Moskovskaya Koltsevaya Avtomobilnaya Doroga — the Moscow Ring Automobile Road — but everyone calls it by its acronym, MKAD, pronounced "muh- COD." It is the nation's only Western-style superhighway.

At 7 p.m. one week ago, 23-year-old Andrei Bogdanov got on the MKAD, intent on spending a snowy evening with friends who live near an interchange some 20 miles away. Unfortunately, there was a traffic jam.

He did not reach his exit until 11 a.m. the next day.

Mr. Bogdanov's is an amazing story, filled with good old Russian ingenuity and classic Russian stoicism. It is all the more amazing because the 16-hour traffic jam on the MKAD — an event which, among many other things, led frantic parents to entrust their children to passing strangers and left one man dead of a heart attack — passed virtually unnoticed here.

Traffic in Moscow can be that bad.

Indeed, Mr. Bogdanov said, his wife, Anya, did not bat an eye when he failed to turn up for 16 hours.

"She's a Muscovite," he said. "She knows such things can happen."

To be fair, Dec. 14 was not a good day to be on the MKAD. A four-inch snowfall had made driving tricky. That morning, 45,000 people swamped the grand opening of an Ikea furniture store south of town, overloading the ring road.

And as every good Russian knows, Friday is the day to leave work early and head to one's dacha, meaning main roads are already clogged.

This did not deter Mr. Bogdanov. That evening he left his job at a downtown Moscow computer firm and set out for the forest of modern high-rises in Moscow's Mitino neighborhood, where his friends live.

He pointed his 1998 silver Subaru station wagon east until he reached the MKAD interchange, where he entered, heading north.

Rather, he tried to head north.

"I was driving on the outer side of the ring road. All the roads toward the city center were blocked by cars — they were jammed," he said. "Gradually, I drove up to Yaro slavsky Road, where we actually stopped completely."

It was now 9 p.m. He dialed his wife on his cellular phone to say he was stuck in a traffic jam. Over the next two and a half hours, his Subaru moved about 45 yards.

It was 11:30 p.m. About midnight, Mr. Bogdanov saw strange doings among drivers in another lane. "They were trying to organize this movement backwards," he said. "There was a turn to some side road leading to a village, and they hoped they'd be able to move backwards to this side road and somehow get out."

Some 100 cars began edging backwards in unison, to little avail. Drivers seized the space they created, trapping them even farther behind.

The parade edged past swooping cloverleaf interchanges, yet nobody could exit. Each time, apparently, the way was blocked by pileups of cars and trucks.

By 1 a.m., drivers began abandoning their cars.

At about 2 a.m., cars that had been creeping more swiftly along the MKAD's inner ring, in the opposite direction, began pulling over. Out came relatives of marooned drivers, bringing fresh provisions, warm clothes, even gasoline to loved ones located by cellular phone.

It was now 2:30 a.m. In the dead of night, entrepreneurs sprang from houses near the superhighway with bags of homemade sandwiches, hawking them to starving drivers and passengers.

"There were children in some cars," Mr. Bogdanov said, "and in some cases the parents took their kids, got on the other side of the road and begged people to take them home. I saw one case where somebody's friends stopped on the other side to bring food. So one driver took his kid, about 7 years old, and asked this lady to drive him home."

It was 3 a.m. Nature's call, long insistent, became irresistible for some. But the MKAD is fenced in by tall, soundproofing walls, leaving no discreet place to seek relief.

Four drivers edged their cars into a bumper-to-bumper rectangle. Despite the occasional headlight and 5- degree cold, the instant privy did land-office business.

It was 4 a.m. Tempers long held in check began to flare. According to www.auto.ru, an automotive enthusiasts' Internet chat room that chronicled the tie-up, a band of furious drivers ordered a truck driver to turn off his idling engine. He refused. They shattered his window.

"Where are the authorities?" someone cried out. "We've been here long enough to get a loan from the Americans and buy choppers from Japan to clear this mess."

Meanwhile, radio stations made no mention of the jam.

It was 6:30 a.m. Success!

Mr. Bogdanov managed to edge off the ring onto an obscure side road. He immediately became hopelessly lost. He edged southward until he again found the ring road.

"I saw some movement there. Finally, the cars had begun moving!" he said. He rejoined the throng, only to find that the movement was by cars whose drivers, like himself, had found their way off the freeway.

It was 7 a.m. The sun rose.

It would take another four hours and, in all, 10 gallons of gas for Mr. Bogdanov to complete the 20-mile trek to his friends' house.

Asked today about the huge traffic jam, a senior inspector at the department for propaganda of the Moscow traffic police said, in essence, that it never happened.

"The situation became stable in two or three hours," said the official, who refused to be identified. "All the drivers had a chance to leave the ring road. There were many exits. There is no way they could just stand there for 16 hours."

The official conceded that a man died during the tie-up. "He died from heart insufficiency," the official said. "That could happen to anyone."

Just the same, Moscow newspapers report, the traffic police have issued a bit of holiday advice for Moscow motorists. From Dec. 20 to Jan. 10, the advisory said, it is probably better not to drive at all.

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