MOSCOW — They can be seen pacing up and down the dividing line or standing in wait at tricky corners where motorists will sometimes bend the rules to save a few minutes on Russia's decrepit roads.
They are the traffic police, known for their gray uniforms and the white-and-black batons that flash out to wave a driver to the curb. And they are also known for their love of bribes, large and small.
It is one of the most notable displays of corruption pervading Russian life, and hundreds of jokes poke fun at the payoff-prone cop. There were plenty told this week, the 64th anniversary of the State Traffic Control Inspectorate.
Even police acknowledge bribe-taking is a fact of life, but say traffic cops aren't the only ones to blame.
"Bribes are accepted because they are offered," said traffic inspectorate spokeswoman Lyudmila Tosheva. "There's no such case where you can blame one side or the other."
Though they lament the corruption, some drivers find relief in the institution. A bribe is often an easy way to avoid the bureaucratic hassles of paying for a formally issued ticket.
"It's an old habit," said Sergei Pozhedayev, a sales manager at a Moscow auto shop. "If you break the law a little, just give them 50 rubles [$1.70] and you go on your way."
Russian law allows police to confiscate motorists' licenses for even minor violations, meaning the driver usually has to spend half a day paying a fine at the bank and going to the police with a receipt to get the license back.
"It's very convenient," said a Moscow driver who identified himself as Sergei. "Let's say that I haven't gotten my car inspected and I get stopped; it's a lot easier for me to slip a little money into his pocket on the spot."
The lack of discipline has its dangers. Though the country has a zero-tolerance law for drunk drivers, policemen will look the other way for a price, though it could cost hundreds of dollars.
The chief of Russia's traffic police, Lt. Gen. Vladimir Fyodorov, said Monday that 29,000 people died in traffic accidents in Russia last year. In the United States, the number was more than 41,000, but Russia has far fewer cars on the road because they are too expensive for most Russians.
Bribes are also a crucial source of income for traffic cops, whose salaries are about $60 a month. Some drivers sympathize.
"We all have to get by somehow," said 23-year-old Yuri Abramov, a truck driver. "That's how they do it--by taking from us."