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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Why Is Yeltsin Driving Bus 653?

"Respected passengers. Don't forget to punch your tickets. An inspector works on this line," says the bus driver, making the obligatory announcement to caution against free rides.


Instead of rushing toward the ticket punchers bolted to the wall, however, the passengers burst out laughing. One middle-aged man nearly collapses as he slaps his knee and clutches his stomach.


The voice making the announcement was a dead ringer for the chirpy, upbeat speech of former president Mikhail Gorbachev. Driver Andrei Gutov, 31, spices up his route for bus No. 653, past apartment buildings and factories, by mimicking the voices of well-known politicians. His repertoire includes presidents Boris Yeltsin and Leonid Brezhnev, and Duma deputy Vladimir Zhirinovsky.


"It's just a little game I play. It's always nice to see people laughing in the rearview mirror," says the baseball-capped, mustachioed Gutov. "This is a boring ride for them and a boring job for me. Over and over I make the same circle 20 times."


Gutov's entertainment offers passengers a welcome respite from their hard times. "Oh, if it were only true that comrade Yeltsin was one of us, that the president would actually drive this bus," says teary-eyed, red-faced Muscovite, Yury Andronovich, 56, after hearing Gutov tell passengers not to forget their belongings in Yeltsin's halting, nasal drawl.


"It's nice to know there are still some people with a sense of humor," says Dima Lisanov, 26, who works as a mover. "I feel good after that bus ride."


Gutov has been driving buses for more than eight years and offering political intonations for about five. It all started when he was sitting around a table with friends one day, making jokes and doing impersonations. "Suddenly, Brezhnev happened," he says, recalling how he stumbled upon the leader's slow slurred speech.


"Then I tried out Zhirinovsky, Yeltsin, Gorbachev and others. Brezhnev, though, I don't do anymore. I haven't heard him on television or the radio for so long I've almost forgotten what he sounds like," says Gutov.


When the weather is warm, Gutov has been known to give performances several minutes long, during which concerned passengers have walked up to the front of the bus to peer through the partition and ask if he's sober. "Don't worry," Gutov says. "Drinking, at least on the job, is categorically out of the question. I see everything, especially the road in front of me."


A shorter, less scenic route -- a half-hour long loop from the Fili metro station -- and a broken heater have decreased the frequency of Gutov's impersonations recently, from several announcements per ride to just a few a day. "When I'm cold and in a dull mood, I don't feel like having fun with the crowd," says Gutov.


Many passengers who ride the bus regularly still have not heard Gutov's spoofs, and some don't care to. "There aren't any creative bus drivers on this route," affirmed Nadezhda Rodizhina, 68. "This is a region strictly of and for workers. We don't need reminders of politicians here. We don't need funny bus drivers and exhibitionists."


Gutov started driving Moscow buses four years ago after he came to the city in search of work, leaving his wife and two daughters in his hometown in Ukraine.


"I'm not making millions now, but it's enough to feed myself and my family and to be able to visit every few months," he says, adding he currently earns 12 times more than he did driving a bus in Ukraine.


A trained mechanic, Gutov holds no real hope of opening up a shop, but he does hope for what he calls a "normal life," where he can earn a decent salary and live with his family at the same time.


But then he adds with a smirk, "Maybe I'll try to study a bit of English, so I can add Clinton and Madonna to my repertoire."