“They have a Day? Isn’t every day, like, their day?
~ My Very Funny Friend Ian
Get out your wallet champagne! Today is Traffic Cop Day! Which is why the traffic cops, known by their old name “Gaishniki” are all dressed up in their special white shirts. These are the fine men (mostly men) of Russia’s Department for The Provision of Road Safety. If you get pulled over, be sure to offer them up hearty congratulations on their “profpraznik.” It can’t hurt. Unlikely to help.
So very much has been written about Russia’s nefarious traffic cops, and since I was slammed this week in a five page harangue by a lunatic septuagenarian Russian writer who took such violent exception to my views on Russian dachas, I hesitate to offer my own thoughts on the subject, but what the hell…
There he is, our hero of the day, the Gaishnik standing at an intersection, arms casually folded, propped up against a telephone pole, watching the traffic snarl up with a profoundly detached expression, as he enjoys a smoke, hawks and spits, or indulges in an unhurried chat on the phone. “Christ,” you think “my tax rubles at work.” HRH tells me to drop it, because, in his experience, when they try and get involved, like if a traffic light has been broken for four days in a row, things go rapidly downhill. A Gaishnik will leap to action quickly enough, however, if the call comes through that “Someone Important is on the Move.” He straightens his spine, hurls his half-smoked cigarette into the nearest on-coming windshield, pockets his mobile, and wades bravely into the tangle of cars, blocking off all access at the intersection by bravely taking up a defensive stance in the middle of the five lanes, legs spread, hands on hips, the brave defenders of Stalingrad and Borodino come to life again, ready to salute smartly as the motorcade whizzes by.
Gaishniki are the scourge of Russian drivers, who, like over-disciplined children, have developed a reckless disregard for speed limits and traffic regulations that makes Ben Hur’s chariot race look like a tricycle race for the five-and-under set. These two disparate elements co-exist, co-depend and enable one another until the road situation in Russia is beyond rehab or any one of the twelve steps.
If corrupt minor officialdom has a face, it is a Gaishnik: ruddy complexion, squinty-eyed, stocky build, and medium height. You can tell they are not the sharpest knives in the drawer. They exude a bizarre combination of smug self-satisfaction and a menacing demeanor, which makes you think that asking them if you can turn left on Alabianaya Street is possibly not the best idea. They wear slate grey uniforms: in the winter padded snow pants and heavy parkas, with matching fur hats, thick gloves and Storm Trooper boots. In the summer, they look slightly less menacing, in military tunics and peaked police caps. They are instantly recognizable by their emblematic pozhaluysta (please) sticks. As in “please” pull over. Pozhaluysta sticks are roughly 20 inches long, painted in white and black stripes, and hang from a well-worn leather strap. At Gaishnik Prep School, it seems to me, the mandatory curriculum includes complicated majorette-type twirling routines with the sticks. They really are very accomplished at these intricate swings, twirls and twists. I think this is a key skill set for climbing up the Gaishnik Greasy Pole: if you are any good at it, you get posted to some plumb intersection where the traffic rules change hourly. You enjoy rapid promotion. Mind you, they don’t lack for practice, and keeping fit for the All-Gaishnik Semi-Annual Pozhaluysta Stick Twirling Jamboree must help to kill time between motorists nabs. Pozhaluysta sticks are meant to direct traffic, but the true purpose is to act like one massive middle or, if you like, index finger. A Gaishnik seeks out his victim – a hapless transgressor of some obscure traffic rule, or, if you are a foreigner, some completely made up traffic rule – swings his pozhaluysta stick up, executes a quick flip, and then plunges it down like a dagger right in the direction of your windshield. As you acknowledge, he swings it around 180-degrees, then snaps his wrist adroitly to point to the side of the road, motioning you to pull out of traffic, and prepare for battle.
I’m not saying this ever happens to me, but if it did, my heart would plummet to my accelerator foot. I am not great at these encounters: this is not my core skill set. I might roll down the window of my slick imported planet-punishing SUV, with the Obama ’08 sticker, a set up that could earn me an immediate 15% increase in whatever fine is coming down the pipeline, in addition, that is, to the pre-existing 5% surcharge for being a female of the species behind the wheel. It would not occur to me that I might get off without a fine, which is why a lot of people (not necessarily me) keep a stash of crisp 1000-ruble notes hidden between the pages of their copy of “Rules of Automotive Conduct of the Russian Federation” in the glove compartment. Not that I do that kind of thing.
Should, hypothetically, this kind of thing happen, the Gaishnik would whip through his compulsory polite routine: a curt salute, his name and rank rattled off at lightening speed, in a tone that doesn’t fill one with confidence that he feels himself to be a servant of the public. Having established his unquestioned supremacy, he asks to see one’s documents. Then, not that this has ever happened to me, one might hand over the car’s registration card, Certificate of Roadworthiness, HRH’s power of attorney giving one permission to drive the car, one’s license and, what will earn one a further increase in whatever fee is surely heading one’s way: one’s blue American passport. Not having the documents is not an option – it’s not like trying to get out of gym by forgetting your shorts. Not having the full set of documents means that they will confiscate the car instantly. The Gaishnik would then make a thorough investigation of the documents, checking them once, checking them twice, because there might well be a juicy little bonus stream if any of them is outdated, incorrectly stamped, or in any way defective. He would take even more time with the American passport, because, let’s be honest, he can’t read anything but Certificates of Roadworthiness in Cyrillic Sovietese. He flips through the pages to find something written in Cyrillic he can understand. Finally, he looks up and greets one, using the charmingly outdated “Citizen” as a salutation. Responding With Charm is Plan A. Tears are Plan B, and calling HRH is the strategy of last resort, one hopes never to have to fall back on.
“Citizen,” might the Gaishnik say, in a manner suggesting he is personally deeply offended, “you have broken law number blitherblather of the Rules of Automotive Conduct of the Russian Federation.” (said at lightening speed, making one unlikely to refer to one’s really-not-all-that-well-thumbed copy of “Rules of Automotive Conduct of the Russian Federation”).
At this point in the proceedings, my audacious buddy Joe Kelly would launch into a complicated and eloquent argument in his best pidgeon Russian. He’d actually exit the vehicle (enough to scare anyone who doesn’t know him well) and start to re-enact the scenario, trying (and failing) to prove that he’s in the right. I’ve noticed that men like HRH and Joe often exit the vehicle to discuss their transgressions with the Gaishniki, but girls tend to stay in the car. This would suit me fine. I enjoy being a girl.
“Oh dear,” I would say. “How shall we proceed?”
For all my time in this emerging market, I am neither an accomplished, nor a thrifty briber. Joe might argue, haggle or negotiate at this point, but I would not. Why? It costs more, but it saves time. Should the Gaishnik write me up a summons, I would pretend to be very frightened, and ponder, out loud, what my husband might say when he finds out, or bite my lip and say I’m running late for picking my three children up at kindergarten, and might there possibly be a way to settle this thing quickly and simply? I think psychologists call this mirroring: sensing what the Gaishnik wants, and becoming it. Should this happens (and I’m not saying it does) I would become the helpless female. He, in turn, would make a production of sighing deeply, glancing surreptitiously to the left and to the right, as if checking to see if a non-existent senior officer is looking on, then tell me it is a massive exception, because he is an incredibly nice guy, but he’d let me streamline my penalty, by paying him directly. He might quote an (outrageous) figure, which I might (I’m not saying this has ever happened) pay promptly, in the crisp notes, already prepared, out of the “Rules of Automotive Conduct of the Russian Federation” and gratefully hightail it of there as soon as possible.
Not that any of this ever happens.
This post is part of The Stunt
Hi There, Readers:
Let’s hear your GAI stories: come on: I know you have them! And, if you hate dachas, this would be an excellent time for you to chime in on your support, as I really was quite brutally lambasted. So, please, comment! And, if you want to stick around, enjoy a few more posts like this one: