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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

First Rule of the Road: Might Makes Right

A man is driving his car down a Moscow street when he passes a friend on the sidewalk. He wants to get the friend's attention. What should he do? Should he honk his horn? Should he roll down the window and wave? Valuable time ticks away as the man considers his options. He's running the risk of not catching his friend at all. He doesn't have time for these annoying rituals of politesse, he decides. He'll just drive his car right up on the sidewalk. That should get his friend's attention.

What's wrong with this picture? It's not the Moskvich roaring up over the curb. It's the friend smiling happily at the driver, as other pedestrians dive frantically for cover. "Sasha! What a coincidence!" the friend says. "Hey, new tires?"

There is a strange, passive-aggressive slant to the relationship between man and mashina in Russia. If you've ever stood on a street here -- and if you haven't, I'd be interested to know why -- chances are you've probably noticed. There are lots of little subtleties to the system. Nothing quite so banal and sweeping as people looking both ways and cars stopping at red lights. It's more along the lines of people charging recklessly into the street, only to be surprised when the cars almost run them over.

It's obvious that cars have the upper hand in this unfriendly alliance. Even the wheeziest little Lada has the power to mow down stragglers, should it choose to do so. In other parts of the world, cars are kept in check by things like law enforcement, mannerly drivers and various street signs and painted paths triumphing the rights of pedestrians. Here, signs are meant to be ignored, and the most protection a person on foot can hope for is a beep or a flashed-headlight warning before the car angrily descends. No sense in wasting good brake pads when you can just lay on the horn instead.

The system boils down to a sort of automotive-age food chain. The tadpole of the bunch, naturally, is the lowly walker, a person trapped in such a primary stage of evolutionary development that he can think of no more creative way to transport himself than by means of his own two legs. He practically deserves to be squashed like a bug, and the older and more infirm he is, the better.

But the struggle continues even after all the pedestrians have been eliminated and only the drivers remain. Not all cars are created equal, after all, and nothing quite drives that point home like the disparity between Russian and Western vehicle-manufacturing standards.

The Zhiguli defers to the Niva, which gives right of way to a Volga, which gets cut off by the Ford Escort, which gets driven off the road by the Volvo, which gets blown to smithereens by the inevitable Mercedes-Benz, driven by the equally inevitable 20-year-old who's probably feeling pretty hormonal. The walkers don't stand a chance.