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Russia Has the Wheels; Now it Needs the Roads
James Brooke - Voice of America - 4.10.12 - JRL 2012-67

James Brooke is VOA Moscow bureau chief, covering Russia and the former USSR.

This year, for the first time, Russia is expected to top Germany as Europe's largest car market. File Photo of Dirt Road in Siberia
file photo

With car purchases increasing by 20 percent in Russia this year, the Center of Automotive Management predicts that Russians will buy 3.2 million vehicles during 2012, slightly more than Germany.

So how are Russia's roads?

According to the World Economic Forum's Global Competitiveness Report, Russia ranks number 125 out of 139 countries on the quality of its highway infrastructure. According to another report, this one by Renaissance Asset Management, barely half of Russia's road networks meet minimum riding quality and strength measurements.

All this leads to a highway fatality rate in Russia that is higher than in Brazil, China and India.

But I don't need reports to tell me this the morning after I made a hair raising 250 kilometer drive from Moscow to Yaroslavl. And then back again.

In a 20-kilometer bypass of the M8, the drivers of 18-wheel trucks zig-zagged around huge potholes eased their rigs slooowly over deepening trenches gouged in crumbling asphalt, or tried their luck in the spring chocolate sauce of deep mud that bounded that two lane "highway." All the while, drivers of private cars wrestled to find their space in this obstacle course.

I felt a pang of nostalgia. I felt I was back in Brazil in the 1970s, trying to move along the fringe of Amazon rainforest.

But this was "European Russia" and my destination was Yaroslavl, an ancient city founded in 1010. Yaroslavl was built on the west bank of the Volga River, Russia's main thoroughfare for trade for centuries.

After 1,000 years, the Russian state still has not learned how to build safe and solid roads.

Judge a nation's economy by its car fleet. Judge its government by its roads.

Roads reflect a government's ability to project power and to harness bureaucracy for the common good.

In my life's travels, I have had the luck ­ and pleasure - of walking the Appian Way, built near Rome around 300 BC. In Peru's Andes, I hiked the Inca Trail, built as a stone path from the Andes to the Pacific in the 1450s. In Angola, I have seen traces of asphalt roads swallowed up by the African bush after the collapse of Portuguese colonialism in 1975.

In Russia today, the "highway" between Moscow and St. Petersburg is such a death trap that I spent $1,200 on train tickets last December for myself and my three sons. Driving to St. Petersburg and back would have seriously risked cutting one branch from the Brooke family tree.

While China builds an interstate highway system that connects cities you have never heard of, Russia still cannot link its two largest cities with a safe, eight-lane divided highway.

The traditional Russian response is to quote Nikolai Gogol. This satirist once wrote that Russia's two problems are ­ duraki i dorogi ­ fools and roads. But Gogol wrote that almost two centuries ago.

In the 1980s, people used to have a similar throwaway line for Brazil: "Brazil, the country of the future ­ and it always will be." Today, people who s