Dangers of Moscow
by Fred Flintstone
“The single most dangerous thing you can do in Russia is to get into a car.” This is my standard response to people back home who ask me if it isn’t dangerous to live in Moscow, what with all the crime and such. I continue, “that is unless you are a coal miner. And, the next most dangerous is to be a pedestrian anywhere near a road or parking lot.” This is not BS. Just ask anyone who has lived here for a while and taken a white knuckled taxi ride pretty much anywhere in the city. And if you actually drive, well……
The fact is, except for the traffic accidents, Moscow is relatively safe from street crime, certainly safer than many US cities, and especially for foreigners, at least Westerners. As someone commented recently, “Why would anyone rob a foreigner, when there are so many rich Russians, and they carry cash, sometimes in huge quantities.” There was a recent report of a purse snatched from a woman in a Mercedes – she lost over $100,000.
When you first arrive in Moscow, and are actually on your own, you’ll first learn the Metro, the Eighth Wonder of the World and still an incredible bargain, by any measure, at about 60 cents a ride. Even though you’ll have to either learn Cyrillic characters to read the signs or count stations, it’s still the fastest way around town on most business days. And you don’t have to worry about parking and the dangers of speeding down the road. However, there was the incident last year when workers constructing a billboard foundation near Voikovskaya drove a pile right into the metro tunnel and into a passing train; stopping it like an entomologist with a bug pin.
But eventually you must emerge from the depths and become a pedestrian. Just remember, no matter how incensed you may get, as a pedestrian in an encounter with a car, you lose. Look both ways (several times) before crossing the road, and if possible use the podzemly perekhod (underground walkway). Forget the zebras (white striped crossing zones) on the streets. Moscow drivers pay absolutely no attention to them and the GAI (traffic police) don’t either. Walk to the nearest stoplight, and even if you have a green signal look both ways.
It’s interesting to stand at an intersection like the one near our house, which is a simple stop light on a four-lane road and installed there primarily for the benefit of pedestrians. There are a fair number of drivers that ignore the light completely, and certainly the first five or ten seconds of red does not mean you can safely cross – for many drivers, yellow means speed up, and the first five seconds of red is a grace period. If you watch pedestrian body language you will learn the rules; “Ok, the light is now red, I look left, then right, then left again and start to cross, but keep looking both ways all the way across the road.”
Even if you don’t cross a road you are at risk - sometimes the drivers use the walkways as passing lanes, and these days, since the city has started towing, walkways have become parking lots. You can also expect drivers to head against the traffic or go the wrong way down a one-way street. Russian drivers also do not turn around to look back when they back up – they use the mirrors which means they may not see you in a blind spot.
When you step out and learn to flag a cab, typically a gypsy cab, you’ll sit in the place of honor in a Russian car; the front passenger seat. But this is also the most dangerous, closest to the scene of a potential accident and just inches from the very hard windshield. When you try to buckle your seat belt - if it works, your driver is likely to say, “It’s not necessary.” Not even thinking your concern might be safety, he is just telling you that the GAI no longer stop drivers for driving without belts fastened. If he thought your concern was safety, he would be insulted, or in any case, if there’s an accident its just sudba, or fate. Ignore him – buckle up if you can and pray if you cannot. And if you learn no other Russian, learn to say ne speschitye (don’t rush) or po medleniye (slow down).