Saturday, July 3, 2010

Window on Eurasia: A Marie Antoinette Moment in Moscow?

Paul Goble

Staunton, July 2 – Echoing the advice Marie Antoinette infamously gave in the run-up to the French revolution that peasants without bread should eat cake, Moscow Governor Boris Gromov suggests that Russian drivers fed up with traffic jams should travel about in helicopters,” a mode of transport that means, he says, “you don’t need roads.”
“I use a helicopter,” he continued. “You too must buy a helicopter instead of a car,” he advised the residents of the Russian capital. There are “approximately 400 helicopters” in Moscow already, and there is far more room for them in the air than for cars on the city’s limited road stock (
While many are likely to dismiss Gromov’s remarks as nothing more than the arrogance all too typical of many of Russia’s powers that be, his words, precisely because they touch on two aspects of the lives of ordinary Russians – bad roads and radical income differentiation -- are likely to enflame public opinion more than broader critiques usually do.
On the one hand, Gromov’s unfortunate turn of phrase may force the Kremlin to fire him, lest his words generate a response directed at the Russian leadership as well. And on the other, his outrageous remarks may save him because if the center got rid of him that might lead to demands that other officials including more senior ones be ousted as well.
Such implications were suggested by Moscow commentator Anton Razmakhnin, who drew and explicit comparison between Gromov and Marie Antoinette, suggested that the governor’s remarks “could be simply an attempt to joke or perhaps self-conscious cynicism” (
“One can joke either from weakness or from absolute certainty in oneself and in one’s position,” Razmakhnin continued, adding that “certain facts” of the case suggest that “the second variant” is the more likely, a conclusion that if true may save Gromov but perhaps not others in the political class of which he is a part.
That is all the more likely because of the other things he said. Gromov’s comment came as he insisted that the Moscow oblast government he heads is not responsible for the massive delays occasioned by reconstruction of the Leningrad Chausee to Sheremetyevo airport. Instead, he said, “all this belongs to the city of Moscow,” which is headed by Mayor Yuri Luzhkov.
The oblast head said that there had been discussions in 2008 about transferring responsibility for this highway from the city to the oblast, but nothing came of those talks. Now, he said, “by law, we [in the oblast] do not have the right to spend money on objects belonging to others.”
The situation on the highway to the airport has become so serious that many passengers have been unable to arrive in time for their flights. On Monday of this week, officials said, “the airport lost 700,000 Euros (1 million US dollars)” because of numerous no-shows and delays occasioned by traffic.
This traffic jam, like so many other things in Russia, has attracted attention not only because of its size but because it is in the capital and affects that part of the population that either owns a car and/or travels by air. But the problem with highways in other parts of the country are frequently much worse.
Last year, in particular, YouTube and other media outlets featured pictures of roads swallowing up not only cars but large trucks in parts of the Russian Far East. Moscow promised to address that problem but so far has done little. Now, those who were victims of that and other road problems probably view the Sheremetyevo traffic jams as a kind of revenge.
For more than two centuries, Russians have said that their country has two major problems: roads and fools [in Russian, “dorogi i duraki”]. The traffic jams in Moscow are the latest evidence of the former, and it seems likely that Gromov’s remarks will be taken by many Russians as evidence of the latter.

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