Ilya Nyamushin / Reuters

Russia's Pothole Predicament

Beneath the Pavement, Corruption

My grandfather was enamored of his car, a Soviet attempt at an all-wheel-drive offroader. Even though it was 20 years ago, I still remember that going for a drive with him was a special treat: he only wheeled his prized possession out for ritualistic camping and fishing trips. But it wasn’t just for off-roading that grandad needed his 4x4. The vehicle was necessary to get by on the Russian roads of the 1990s, which were so dilapidated that it was common practice for drivers to meander onto the dirt shoulder, which provided a markedly smoother ride than the massively potholed, uneven “paved” surface. More than a decade later, after being picked up from Moscow’s Domodedovo airport, my taxi driver repeated the same maneuver on the capital city’s highways.

It’s no secret that Russia is a kleptocracy in which the state is run for profit by a criminal elite while average citizens shoulder the cost. Road corruption in this setting appears to be a logical revenue stream for all involved—from top officials who pilfer from the roads budget, to construction companies cutting corners, to local traffic cops taking bribes for the most minor traffic violations. Such bribes can be anywhere between $15 to $200. And even if bribes can be avoided, one might still have to cover the cost of a new chassis: because of this perfect storm of graft, roads are littered with holes large enough to dislodge wheels from vehicles. 

Roads in Russia have always been inadequate. During the imperial era, strategic highways connected major cities and served primarily postal and military functions. Apart from those, however, dirt roads were the norm. The Soviets, upon inheriting the muddy mess of the country’s roads, sought to improve the infrastructure through labor conscription for local road improvement; such work was often poorly executed and helped to normalize an amateurish approach to what should be a sophisticated engineering endeavor. For thoroughfares of strategic importance, the Soviets allocated vast state funding, “kept,” as Lewis Siegelbaum wrote, “in a super condition.” 

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