Moscow restaurateur Andrei Hartley insists he’s no revolutionary. He believes Vladimir Putin saved Russia from collapse and says he backed the Russian leader’s handpicked presidential successor, Dmitri Medvedev, even if Medvedev’s ascent "wasn’t exactly democratic."
But when Hartley, 38, saw a bureaucrat’s BMW buzzing toward him going the wrong way down a central Moscow thoroughfare with its blue siren flashing, he snapped. He drove his Ford Focus straight at the official’s car, and when both cars halted bumper to bumper, Hartley grabbed a video camera he had with him, marched up to the BMW and demanded that the official in the front passenger seat identify himself. The man, Kremlin adviser Vladimir Shevchenko, opened his door but quickly pulled it shut when Hartley started asking questions. Shevchenko’s driver got out and tried to swat the camera from Hartley’s hand but backed off when a third driver, stuck in traffic, jumped out of his car to the businessman’s defense. (In a radio interview, Shevchenko said he had done nothing wrong and accused Hartley of a "deliberate provocation.")
Hartley posted the video on the Internet, where it became a sensation in the raucous Russian blogosphere—the country’s most vibrant forum for political debate—and made him a hero among Russian drivers disgusted with the ruling elite’s brazen and reckless domination of the roads. While Muscovites waste their days in suffocating gridlock, officials simply switch on their sirens, known as migalki, and speed down the median strip or into the opposite lane to avoid traffic. For many Russians, the sirens are the most immediate and evident symbol of the impunity with which Russia’s rich and powerful run the country.
"The issue is bigger than just the sirens," Hartley said in an interview. "It’s a question of our society being divided into castes."
The simmering public resentment has boiled over in the months following the March 31 incident. Russian state news agencies have reported incidents of drivers intentionally obstructing the passage of unmarked cars outfitted with sirens. Other Moscow drivers have begun attaching small blue buckets resembling sirens to their car roofs, provoking traffic cops into pulling them over and filming the ensuing encounters with camcorders. Leonid Nikolayev, a notorious performance artist known as "Fucked-Up Lyonya," recently darted through five lanes of traffic on foot, threw a blue bucket over his head and climbed atop a siren-equipped car parked on a median strip near the Kremlin. The driver got out and chased Nikolayev but hustled back to the car and sped off after he saw the performer’s friend filming the stunt. Authorities later tracked Nikolayev down at his apartment and charged him with disturbing the peace.
Some government officials have publicly defended the sirens, saying they are necessary for officials conducting crucial state business. But the recent widespread rage has not escaped the attention of the leadership. Since Hartley’s dust-up, Sergei Mironov, speaker of the Upper House of Parliament, has said Medvedev and Putin are the only government officials who should be granted access to the sirens. A State Duma deputy from Putin’s ruling United Russia Party then submitted draft legislation that would fine officials for abusing the devices.