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Old Saint Basil's Cathedral in MoscowJohnson's Russia List title and scenes of Saint Petersburg
Excerpts from the JRL E-Mail Community :: Founded and Edited by David Johnson

City Haul

Kremlin and Saint Basil'sDespite pledges by tough-talking Prime Minister Vladimir Putin to spend $285 billion on doubling road construction over the next decade, Russian motorists are not holding out much hope. "Hopefully, something will be done, but I am convinced that half of that money will simply be siphoned off," a Moscow cab-driver, who did not want to be named, told me during one of my recent weekend escapades. Russia's road building industry remains a prime area of state corruption, with the country ranked a shocking 124 in the World Economic Forum's road quality rating. Only 1,200 kilometers of roads were built in Russia last year, compared with 42,000 kilometers in 1990, according to a report by statistical agency Rosstat.

I am standing ankle-high in a puddle as we speak with the driver, but with the mercury up around 30 degrees Celsius, I don't mind. "Do you want to know how long this puddle has been here?" he says, pointing at the four centimeter-deep pool that stretches all the way under his battered Lada sedan. I wait expectantly for his reply. "11 years!" he exclaims. "I've been working on this here route since 2000 or thereabouts," he goes on. "And all that time, whenever there was rain, all that time it's been right here in the very center of Moscow! And do you think anybody ever lifted a finger to fix that pothole?" My guess is, no.

But now this surge of public anger may have found a vital outlet. Last week, anti-graft campaigner Alexei Navalny, the founder of crusading Web site Rospil, launched a new project which he says will "force" local authorities to put the country's roads in better shape. Rosyama.ru, from the Russian word "yama," which means "hole" or "pit," encourages users to send in photos of road defects in need of repair and helps lodge complaints with the authorities. The Web site has been periodically crashing ­ but not through foul play. It's been overwhelmed by demand. Rosyama says 48 out of 2,499 road cracks have been repaired so far.

But the puddle man is skeptical. "I hear Navalny means business, and maybe some of the potholes will indeed be repaired, but [a sad withdrawn appearance spreads over his face] you know yourself the way things are [sigh]. Anyway, I better crack on, may health and longevity be yours!" And he whizzes off.

A joke doing the rounds now has Navalny calling for corrupt officials to be put in holes. This may sound like an election manifesto for a defunct national Bolshevik, but it may also be the general hope of the ordinary person looking for a better future. The idea that a good life can only exist in a country where cars glide serenely over roads smooth as glass is not a new invention, at least not in Russia, but the tension between these competing visions of today and of the Highway Shangri-la is increasingly becoming part of a larger battleground ahead of next year's presidential elections.

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