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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Here's a Toast To 60 Years of Traffic Police

Yesterday, Wednesday, was a big day in Russia. You think I'm talking about the presidential election, don't you? No, I'm talking about the 60th anniversary of the founding of the GAI, or the State Motor Vehicle Inspectorate.

I became aware that the traffic police were gearing up for a celebration when I drove last week to Tula: the home of Tolstoy, the Russian samovar and Alexander Lebed -- it's his parliamentary constituency.

Road signs were misleading. On more than one occasion, I started out on what looked like a road covered in asphalt only to lose myself on what turned out to be a dirt track. But, despite the lack of convenience for drivers, the roads were strung with fairy lights to congratulate the dear GAI.

I found myself having one of my periodic fantasies about what I would do if I were the president of Russia. Womack's Decree No. 1: Conscript all GAI officers and send them to the stroibat, or army construction battalion, to mend the potholes in the roads.

In what other country do able-bodied men stand on street corners waiting for drivers to make mistakes so they can extract bribes from them? They are highwaymen in gray uniforms. "Do you have GAI in England?" asked a Russian friend of mine who spent the whole of last year conscientiously attending driving school, only to be reduced to buying his licence for $400 when he realized it was completely impossible to obtain it legally. He had no printable words to express his feelings.

We all have our tales to tell about the GAI. One of my own funniest experiences was when I was reprimanded by the GAI because my husband, in the front passenger seat, was drunk. It was after a party. I was sober at the wheel. The officer could pin nothing on me. Suddenly his eyes lit up. "Your passenger has been drinking," he declared triumphantly. It took me about half an hour to convince him that was not his business. "Nu, smotrite -- well, watch it," he said as he finally ran out of pretexts for fining me and let me go.

The GAI may be as popular as mosquitos, but let's remember there are two sides to every story. To hear the police point of view, I drove out to the GAI post at Khimki, where Senior Lieutenant Alexander Ilychenko was sitting in a bullet-proof vest monitoring the flow of traffic at the start of the highway to St. Petersburg. What did he think of the drivers passing by?

"There are all sorts," he said. "Some are decent and some are, to put it mildly, not very pleasant. They can get aggressive, especially at night. A colleague on the road out to Minsk was stabbed in the face three nights ago."

Lieutenant Ilychenko, 25, used to work in a textile factory but it went bust so he followed several of his relatives into the GAI, where at least he knew he would have job security. With a wife and 3-year-old son to care for, he survives, but hardly wallows in luxury, on his salary of 1,100,000 rubles ($220). He says he is against corruption.

Working shifts, he watches a 41-kilometer stretch of road. Since the war in Chechnya started, he has had to check vehicles for possible terrorists. He also attends road accidents.

Yesterday he was planning to have a drink at home after finishing his shift. Cheers to the GAI, then, on their 60th anniversary. I guess they are human, too.