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.
The Federation of Russian Car Owners, a drivers’ lobby group that has organized recent protests against the sirens, is calling for a ban on all sirens except for vehicles like police cars, ambulances and fire trucks. "We need to get rid of them once and for all," says Sergei Kanayev, head of the group’s Moscow branch.
Reached on his cellphone while he was stuck in traffic on a recent Monday morning, Gennady Gudkov, a senior Duma deputy with the Kremlin-loyal party A Just Russia, said he would welcome a total ban. "Maybe it would force the executive branch to clean up the chaos on the roads," Gudkov said as car horns blared in the background. "As it is now, they could not care less. They can just turn on their sirens and go around the traffic."
But a ban seems unlikely anytime soon. In a tone-deaf legislative turn, in May Putin signed off on new road rules ordering pedestrians to clear the roadway should they see a vehicle approaching with its siren on. The rules, critics say, essentially give officials the right to mow down citizens on foot. Earlier in the month, Duma deputies proposed legislation that would make it more difficult for drivers to organize demonstrations involving automobiles—a clear response to the recent public protests against the sirens.
Drivers remain a problematic demographic for a Russian government accustomed to micromanaging the political landscape. In recent years they have proved to be one of the country’s few grassroots movements capable of influencing state policy and mobilizing large groups of protesters nationwide. In 2005 railway worker Oleg Shcherbinsky crashed his car into a Mercedes carrying Mikhail Yevdokimov, governor of the Altai region in southwestern Siberia, killing the official. Yevdokimov’s car had been speeding down the highway with a flashing blue siren, and Shcherbinsky was convicted in the official’s death. The conviction sparked nationwide protests by drivers and was eventually overturned after United Russia decided to lobby on Shcherbinsky’s behalf. Late last year United Russia backed down on a proposed tax increase on car owners following a wave of protests by drivers’ lobby groups.
The Kremlin, of course, is wary of grassroots dissent. But unlike Russia’s marginalized liberal opposition, drivers are difficult to discredit as fifth columnists or effete cosmopolitans with suspiciously Semitic surnames. (Car ownership is so closely associated with masculinity here that a Russian man who can’t diagnose car problems or tinker under the hood may as well be a eunuch.)
"There are 4 million drivers in Moscow, and 4 million votes is enough to get any party voted into Parliament," says Anton Nossik, a Russian Internet pioneer and editor of the business website BFM.ru. Car ownership, he says, "is something that speaks to the masses. Almost every family has at least one driver, so [authorities] cannot incite the population against drivers the way they incite them against the oligarchs."
Nossik was one of the Moscow drivers who recently affixed a small blue bucket to the top of his car and drove around a posh neighborhood with his camcorder, recording the reaction of traffic cops. In the video of the stunt posted on the Internet, Nossik is pulled over by a young cop who says he just wants to check whether it is an actual siren atop the car. Nossik complains that he was pulled over for no reason, while officials with actual sirens speed along at will.
"We all live in Russia," the cop says as he hands back Nossik’s documents.