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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Traffic Tickets Help Moscow Bond Together

We feel so much closer to one another these days, all of us who live in Moscow and at least occasionally drive a car or ride in one. The petty conflicts of days past seem forgotten. We have something greater to unite us now. Six-hundred-thousand rubles ($104) for not wearing a seat belt. More than 1.2 million for speeding or drunken driving. The new traffic-violation fines.

We are witnessing the change of ritual, change of habit and change of the economic system. In mere days, people who take taxis have developed the habit of reaching for the seat belt just after they shut the door behind them. Seat belts that used to be rolled away now lie on the seat waiting to embrace you with the dispassionate gravity of the new fines.

I got in a cab the other night and reached for the seat belt. "Yes," the driver acknowledged solemnly. "You had better. This is a pricey enterprise these days." He followed it with a story, possibly apocryphal, about a friend who was "fined" 300,000 (no receipt) because he, the storyteller, riding in the passenger seat, was not wearing his seat belt.

It had been years since the Moscow GAI stopped fining people for not wearing their seat belts. It used to be a sign of our superiority. I would get in a cab in Petersburg, for example, and after the driver said, "Throw that seat belt over your shoulder, will you?" I would say: "What? They still stop you for not wearing your seat belt? In Moscow they don't." We can still assert our advantage, though, by underscoring the seriousness of the matter. We cannot just "throw" the seat belt over our shoulders; faced with the risk of losing 600,000, we have to go all the way and buckle up (no facile comments here about people who are unfazed by the risk of losing their lives but are awakened by the threat of parting with $100).

In Petersburg, incidentally, there is also a new kind of bonding. The governor has ordered gypsy-cab drivers to declare themselves and pay taxes. To enforce this rule, GAI officers are instructed to inquire whether the driver and his passengers are acquainted. So now when you get in a cab, the conversation goes something like this:

"Will you take me to the Moscow Station?" "How much?" "Twenty thousand." "Thirty." "Twenty-five." "I'm Misha." "I'm Masha." "Those bastards."

The eternal argument between the cities goes on. There is no need, really, to point out that the example above illustrates just how much more provincial Petersburg is -- for the true mark of a capital is that people bond anonymously, on the basis of knowing not each other's names but each other's problems, the shared burden of living in the center of the universe. And Moscow leads the way as usual, the first Russian city to impose a market system on the traffic cops. Consider the absurd situation that existed before the fine hike: Where the rules called for the driver to pay, say, 15,000 rubles at the bank and then present the receipt to the GAI to get his license back, he was willing to fork over 30,000 on the spot just to be done with it.

Now we have a discount system of fines: The road cop will charge you 300,000 instead of 600,000, and that way he makes money, you save money, and that's as it should be.

Masha Gessen is a staff writer for Itogi magazine.