Get the latest updates as we post them — right on your browser

. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

The Bane of Russia's Roads Turns 70

MTA traffic cop checking a driver's documents Monday on Lubyanskaya Ploshchad. Behind them, a banner commemorates the force's 70th anniversary.
Dmitry, a lanky man in his late 20s with close-cropped blond hair, belongs to one of the country's most despised groups. He's not a terrorist, criminal or government official.

He's one of Russia's 120,000 traffic cops, and on Monday, the 70th anniversary of the creation of the force, or GIBDD, President Vladimir Putin delivered a congratulatory speech.

"Today, GIBDD faces an array of tasks, the most important of which is providing for public safety and reducing the number of accidents on the road," the president declared. "Achieving these goals would mean saving thousands of lives."

Each year, there are 30,000 to 35,000 fatalities on Russia's roads. Over the last decade, there have been 312,000 deaths, more than the Russian death toll in the Afghan or Chechen wars.

A State Council session chaired by Putin last December identified three overriding reasons for the staggering accident rate: the incompetence of law enforcement officials responsible for road safety, motorists' notoriously boorish driving habits and, related to that, poor driving instruction.

All of that weighs heavily on traffic cops like Dmitry, who spent part of Monday monitoring cars on Dmitrovskoye Shosse.

"People just smear us with lies," said Dmitry, who refused to give his last name. "They shove their money in our face before we even open our mouths."

He added: "When officers refuse to take bribes and people are punished because they've broken the law, they hate us even more."

The traffic police appeared in 1936 following a government decree that tasked the new service with "fighting traffic accidents and the predatory use of vehicles, overseeing the training of motorists, and keeping an official account of the country's fleet of automobiles."

Seven decades later, it is unclear whether the traffic police have accomplished any of those goals. Last year, the president called driving in Russia "an undeclared war."

What's indisputable is that the public has a remarkably dim view of the traffic police.

A 2005 Levada Center study showed that 38 percent of respondents considered traffic cops the nation's worst-offending criminals -- trouncing terrorists, drug dealers and thieves.

And a 2002 study conducted by the Indem think tank found that seven out of 10 interactions between the public and the traffic police ended in a bribe. Again, the cops came out on top, beating doctors and teachers, also known for under-the-table transactions.

"I bribed my way through my driving exam for $200," said a Moscow eye surgeon who asked not to be named. "Everyone in my training group did this. The police would fail anyone who refused to pay."

On Monday, some traffic cops donned special white shirts and dress tunics to commemorate the anniversary.

In keeping with the upbeat mood, a spokesman for the city police department said officers would not be issuing citations for minor offenses.

Apparently, some of the traffic police were unaware of that.

"They just tried to shake me down for speeding," said Alexei, the burly, burned up owner of a shiny Nissan X-Trail, after being stopped by police on the Third Ring Road near the Savyolovsky train station.

"They wouldn't show me the radar photograph of my car, and they kept my documents and bargained with me for ten minutes until I threatened to call over their internal investigation department," said Alexei, who declined to give his last name.

Former traffic police head Vladimir Fyodorov noted Monday, in an interview with Interfax, that the force has no choice but to employ young men right out of school or the army.

Fyodorov, who ran the force for 12 years until 2003, also called on drivers to show more respect and understanding for traffic police. He noted that they suffer numerous ailments related to their feet, backs and lungs.

Interior Ministry statistics back up Fyodorov: According to the ministry, an average of more than 200 on-duty traffic cops are killed every year. Another 500 are injured.

In a sign of appreciation, the pro-Kremlin youth group Nashi fanned out onto major Moscow highways Monday to distribute milk cartons to traffic cops.

Young Guard, another pro-presidential youth group, gave the traffic police daisies.

Spokesman Vadim Zharko said the daisies were "a symbol of friendship and common cause."