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Changing Lifestyles : Russia Has New Luxury--and Some Old Habits : Alas, Soviet-style indifference to individual suffering also thrives. Witness the tale of the drunken pedestrian on the Jeep hood in Moscow.

June 22, 1993|ANDREI OSTROUKH | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

MOSCOW — It was a warm Friday night. At 11:45 p.m. I was driving home in my Russian-built Niva Jeep, listening to soft jazz on the radio and looking forward to a late-night chat with my wife about how we would spend our summer vacation.

Then my car hit a man. Or rather, a man tried to stop my car, which was moving at 40 m.p.h., by jumping on the hood with outstretched arms. The man was dead drunk. His odor spoke for itself. Maybe he thought it would be fun to catch a car.

I braked but it was too late. The car hit him anyway and he landed nearby, face up, smiling. His head was covered in blood. If I had been going a little faster and my brakes had not been new, he would have been nothing but a statistic.

Of the 35,000 Russians who die each year in auto accidents, almost 30% are pedestrians, according to the State Automobile Inspectorate, known as GAI. A GAI report found that in 1991, pedestrians caused 51.2% of the accidents in Moscow and themselves made up 70% of accident victims.

That night, I felt like the victim. Over the next five hours, I passed through the clutches of a surreal system that does not appear to have changed a bit since the old Soviet days of guilty-until-proven-innocent--and the old Soviet indifference to individual suffering.

We were on the Garden Ring Road, a major Moscow artery, the bloody-headed drunk and I. I was trying to grasp what had happened. Of course, I could have run away, leaving nothing but a sprawled body behind. I have seen such victims on Moscow streets. All it takes is a truck or a bus coming right after the car that hit the victim to drive over the body and kill him for sure. Many drivers speed away, fearing that the police will check their blood for alcohol and drugs.

I praised my overcautiousness--I had not had even a glass of beer that day--and tried to assure myself that I was innocent: I was sober and had done all I could do to avoid the accident.

Within five minutes, while I was still trying to understand what had happened, a patrol car with two police officers arrived. The man was lying in the middle of the road, and vehicles were whizzing by.

The two short cops--a captain and lieutenant--tried to make me feel better by saying: "This will mean no more than 10 years (in jail). We just do not give more than that. Ha-ha-ha!"

They called for an ambulance, but neither bent down to see whether the man was alive. He was still lying on the pavement, without socks, his arms flung wide.

The medics came after 20 minutes, in two vans and from different parts of town. They argued for 10 minutes about who would take the injured man to the hospital. Like the police, they did not bother to have a look at the victim. Nevertheless, they concluded that he had suffered "shaken brains"--a concussion.

"To get it, you have to at least have brains," said the captain. "This (expletive) doesn't."

Finally, the crews loaded the man into an ambulance and left. It was now 40 minutes after the accident, and the police began thinking about witnesses. Finding none at hand, one officer walked into the middle of the road, lifted his baton and ordered the first two passing cars to stop. The drivers became the witnesses. They supplied their names and addresses and signed the papers without reading them. In two minutes they were gone.

After another half an hour, the captain suggested that I move my car out of the middle of the road.

" Ladno, OK, now we will take you to the doctors," he said. It was time for my alcohol test.

We got to Narcological Hospital 17 at about 2 a.m. to find a long line of "patients" escorted by police. Most were clearly drunk, and testing them was a waste of time. But everything has to be done officially, meaning another hour's wait for me.

The hospital did not have a phone, I was told, but the police kindly let me go find a public phone to call my wife.

Yes, my wife was worried. I told her what had happened. She understood that I was innocent and said she would not go to bed without me.

I was given both urine and breath tests. In Russia, no--I repeat, NO--drinking is allowed when driving. Under Russian law, a driver with alcohol in his blood is automatically at fault in an accident, even if the other party is drunk too.

The doctor asked me to close my eyes, stand up and touch the tip of my nose with my index fingers. She--such jobs are poorly paid and usually occupied by women--wrote out a document saying I was sober. I signed it. The cops took me off to the police station, openly sympathetic now that they were told officially that I was sober, hence innocent.

A police major ushered me into his office and sent my buddies back to patrolling the streets. It was a tiny, dark room with a bed and desk. The bed looked untouched. The major had had a busy night. He sat me down and began complaining about his life. I told him an old joke, and in 10 minutes we were pals. Then we began tackling the paperwork. It was already 3:30 a.m.

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