MOSCOW — The baton comes down. It always starts like that. The traffic cop looms in the hard summer sunlight, in the semblance of a breakdown lane that runs in the middle of screaming traffic.
The stick -- and here we curse -- is pointing straight at us. "Now you'll see the real Russia," I mutter bitterly to my visiting mother. To the Russian driver, I wail: "Why? What did we do?"
"Bastards," he replies.
My husband frowns; we are almost to the airport to pick up his mother. They always get you on the way to the airport, when you are most likely to be desperate. You are about to miss a flight, or rushing to greet a visitor. Your job, your domestic peace, your nonrefundable plane ticket hang in the balance.
For Russia's army of crooked traffic cops, highways to the city airports are an excellent hunting ground.
Show me this document, the cop says. Show me that document. We root around in the glove compartment. An inspection card is expired by a few weeks. Triumph for the traffic cop! Well, he smirks, of course, I can't let you drive this car. You'll have to leave it here. You'll have to take a taxi.
We all know what comes next.
He and the driver huddle behind the raised trunk of the car, and negotiation ensues. The cops never like to be seen taking the cash. It's an inexplicable coyness, given that every passing motorist knows precisely what is transpiring.
"One hundred dollars," groans the driver, easing the car into second gear, third gear and gunning back into the flow.
This is what traffic police do here: They pull you over, and they collect bribes. Good luck flagging a squad car if you have a spot of trouble -- a flat tire, say. But if there's some sneaky spot, a lane that abruptly disappears or a sign hidden behind an overgrown branch, rest assured a policeman lurks nearby.
Well, so what, you say. The traffic cops are crooked. A trivial rite of daily existence; a hassle but not a tragedy; hardly worth discussing, really -- except when you consider that this is the tentacle of the great post-Soviet bureaucracy that most often touches many Russians. And so, in a sense, their greedy presence is the face of the state itself.
Rush hour after rush hour, traffic cops stand as pervasive, petty reminders that cynicism is not an affectation, but a requirement; that one false step can lead to a mess that strips you of time, money and another degree of equanimity.
But they manage to entangle the drivers too. Everybody plays along, everybody pays; the drivers and the cops feeding one another in silence, a living illustration of how we get pulled into bad systems in which we simultaneously create and are victimized by the corruption, until we are repressing ourselves.
Vyacheslav Lysakov runs a drivers' rights group called Freedom of Choice. He has little patience for the bribe-taking cops and even less patience for the drivers who pay.
"Before we start to look for trash in the eye of the traffic policeman, we should look into our own eyes," he says. "When I am asked, 'When will the corruption stop?' I always say that it will only stop when we stop paying bribes."
And, of course, he's right. But here's what I say, nevertheless: Pay the bribe! Because once I fumbled naively onto the path of the righteous and, my friends, it is a trail of sorrows.
If you pay the bribe, it may cost you $40, $60, maybe $100, plus 15 minutes and a few curses muttered under the breath.
If you don't pay the bribe, you have to go to traffic court. And it takes months to get a court date, and meanwhile you don't have a license, even if it's your American license.
And if you need to, for example, get that license back because you are leaving for a vacation in the United States and you want to drive while you're there, then you may (let's pretend this is hypothetical) have to hunt down the man in the bowels of the traffic bureaucracy who is powerful enough to get that license back. And that bribe will be plenty steep; lots more than you'd have paid on the side of the road. Hypothetically.
You travel to some sad sagging building where stray dogs howl at the doors and pay what you have to pay. At least that's over, you think.
But you are mistaken. When you get back from vacation, they start calling you up, because they have to put your license back in the court file. Only then do you realize that you have paid that big bribe just to borrow your license.
By now some weeks or months have passed, and at last you have your day in court. But when the moment arrives, the judge snaps irritably that the traffic police haven't properly assembled their case and slams the folder shut.
A new court date is set. You wait.
When at last your case is heard, the judge glances over the maps you have brought, listens to your earnest entreaties and concludes what you knew all along: You were entrapped.
And you think to yourself: I should have paid the bribe.