There is a magnetic relationship between Russians and space. The world knows of their historic leadership in the field: Sputnik, Yuri Gagarin, Mir, and their famous rockets. Even the United States now uses Russian rockets to launch satellites. But there is another observation, an anomaly it seems, about Russians and space—right here on earth. On the streets of Moscow.
I have seen it happen too many times. In the dense traffic that is now normal for Moscow, at a crowded intersection, there are six cars squeezed into three lanes at the stoplight. Say, four Ladas, a Volga, and a big black Mercedes. There is space for one car at the stalled traffic ahead. When the light turns green (or maybe a little before) all six cars rocket for that one space. Maybe two will make it. The others will keep trying, like hungry puppies to their mother’s breast. From the air it must look like a bunch of killer ants attacking a crumb. Moscow was not built for cars. It has one of the world’s finest metro systems instead. Under Soviet control, the proletariat did not have cars—that was not the plan.
The same thing happens in grocery stores and at the gate for an Aeroflot flight. It seems there is a fear the cash register will crash, the cashier will go home, or the plane will leave without them (maybe they know!) Butting in line, elbowing in front of one another seems quite natural and little or no offense is taken by the butt-ees. But I do take offense and I usually succeed in sending the butt-er to the end of the linethat is unless he has cropped hair, is wearing a black turtleneck and suit and smells of sweat, or if it’s a determined babushka. Never challenge a babushka. Then I take it all in my stride like the rest and pretend not to notice.
I have Russian friends who visited me in California over the Christmas holidays. She is a writer and he is a young businessman and newly elected member to his city’s Duma. They rent a car when they come to California and challenge the famous freeways as well as the two-lane country roads that lead to places like Las Vegas via Death Valley. They manage the traffic and the maps quite well. At the end of their last visit, I asked the husband how, in one word, he would describe U.S. life and society. Discipline was the word he chose. That sort of surprised me. We take that for granted here in California. Despite all the jokes and complaints about traffic, the real fact is that it is pretty disciplined, not by police, but by the drivers themselves. Of course the police are available if needed and on call. But for the large part, around 97% of the drivers obey the rules and are mainly polite. It works better that way. Life is easier.
Russians do have a magnetic attraction to space. Maybe that is why the Americans were second. And why the Japanese will never succeed with all that bowing.
The column is about the ideas and stories generated from the 20 years the author spent living and doing business in Russia. Often about conflict and resolution, these tales at times reveal the “third side of the Russian coin.” Based on direct involvement and from observations at a safe distance, the author relates his experiences with respect, satire and humor.
Frederick Andresen is an international businessman and writer with a lifetime of intercultural experience in Asia and for the last twenty years in Russia. He now lives in California and is President of the Los Angeles/St. Petersburg Sister City. While still involved in Russian business, he also devotes time to the arts and his writing, being author of “Walking on Ice, An American Businessman in Russia” and historical novellas.