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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Want to Know What's What? Take a Taxi

Everything worth knowing about Moscow I've learned from taxi drivers.

With five years of cabbing under my belt, I have observed many of the changes in the society from inside a Moscow cab - both the official Volgas and the chastniki, or "private" cabs.

When I first came to Moscow six years ago to work at the American Embassy, getting a cab was a fairly simple matter. There were far fewer foreigners here then, and we were watched over much more carefully.

In this city of 9 million people, I had the surprising good fortune of being picked up several times by the same driver. In different parts of the city, at various times of day, there was jolly old Boris, innocently inquiring why I was out so late, whom had I been visiting, what did I think of Moscow, etc. I figured he was either working for my mother or for some other, slightly more sinister organization - but after I joked about it to a friend over the phone, Boris disappeared from my life forever.

But "real" taxi drivers then were wary of foreigners and, when they could be induced to talk, were more likely to boast about their country, to say things like, "Yes, you may have more things in the West, but here it's better, people are warmer. No? " to which I would invariably assent.

By the end of my first tour, things were changing rapidly. I took a cab to the embassy on Revolution Day, Nov. 7, 1988, and congratulated the driver on this greatest of socialist holidays. "What holiday? " he grumbled. "This should be a day of mourning, not a holiday. Look at those idiots marching - why? " All of this to an American diplomat! I realized new times had arrived.

I returned to Russia in 1990 - by which time commercial relations were the name of the game. People were beginning to feel a financial pinch, and there were lots of chastniki on the roads. I developed a real style: open door, state destination and suggested price, then withdraw very quickly, in case the" driver decided to drive off with your head still in the car.

I rode in cars, ambulances, trucks, and once I even nagged down an empty Intourist bus to take me to the Praga restaurant. The driver wanted 50 rubles (a little less than $2 then), and I rode in lonely splendor, listening to his tape of Bruce Springsteen's "Born in the U. S. A".

Those were the days when my admission of U. S. citizenship was usually followed by a marriage proposal from the driver, or an offer to go into business at the very least. I was able to follow the political situation closely - everybody was complaining, and they weren't choosy about their listeners. I heard all about how "Gorbach" had ruined the country, how things were better under Stalin, how the government was totally corrupt.

Now I have my own car - but my sporadically working Moskvich considerately provides me with ample opportunity to dip into the taxi scene. Like a lot of things, it's much less fun these days. It's expensive, people are gloomier, and it has become more dangerous. I'll just hold on and see what the future will bring.