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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

On the Road in the Outlaw Nation

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The road from my dacha to the center of Moscow provides endless opportunities for traffic cops to lay in wait. On weekends, they stand at the turn-off to the beach, to focus on nabbing drunk drivers. On weekday evenings, they hide in the bushes off the wide part of the highway just outside the city, to catch those speeding to the dacha. During the morning, they stand on the side of the road cutting through a bedroom community on the outskirts, where the relative breadth and length of the stretch between traffic lights tempt drivers to exceed the 60-kilometer-per-hour speed limit.

Drivers who see the cops on the other side of the road flash their headlights to warn drivers moving in the other direction. This gesture of solidarity is practiced by drivers the world over but, as often happens in Moscow, the scale of the phenomenon can be staggering. Some days, every single car coming in the opposite direction flashes its headlights at me. I have generally been touched by this helpfulness, but a friend recently said she thinks it all wrong. "How are we ever going to start observing the laws if our whole society is a community of outlaws who warn one another when they see cops?" she asked.

Not much chance, I thought the other day as I sat in my car on the side of the road in that bedroom community. The cops had an assembly line going: They pulled cars over, invited the drivers into the patrol car, from which the drivers emerged 30 seconds later having paid a bribe. When it was my turn, in the space of 15 minutes the officer had violated laws and rules at least half a dozen times: by failing -- and then refusing -- to introduce himself; by attempting to coerce me to get out of my car and into his; by claiming that my driver's license was invalid; by demanding that I produce a power of attorney to drive the car, which is registered in my name; by threatening to tow the car; and then by threatening to tow the car with me in it. Then he let me go (I had in fact been speeding).

On my car radio, City FM, a news station recently launched by the state natural gas monopoly Gazprom, was reporting that members of the National Bolshevik Party had staged another in a series of inventive street protests. Rather, this was a river protest: The NBP members had sailed past the Kremlin in a boat with a banner on it. I switched to Ekho Moskvy. It's a recent hobby of mine, comparing the two Gazprom-owned stations. Conventional wisdom is that, having failed to seize control of Ekho's editorial policies, Gazprom is trying to put it out of business by pitting it against a more lushly funded station. They have also created good news radio. I wanted to see if Ekho was on top of the boat story. I also wanted to know what was written on the banner, something City FM had judiciously omitted.

Imagine my surprise. Ekho buried the story at the bottom of its newscast. And this was the item: "Supporters of Eduard Limonov have hung an anti-government banner on a boat." Translated, this means: "We are not mentioning the National Bolshevik Party by name because a government agency recently said the media shouldn't, and though there is no legal basis for this ban, we'll obey it anyway because we are so terrified of getting shut down. We are not broadcasting the phrase on the banner because we are scared that will get us punished under the new law on extremism." Just so you know, the banner on the boat said, "Putin, get out of the Kremlin!" I want to get that kind of information from my news radio. Otherwise, it truly makes me feel like a member of a nation of outlaws who wink at each other because they have spotted a cop down the road.

Masha Gessen is a Moscow journalist.