Russia’s two problems are duraki i dorogi – fools and roads. The author of this, perhaps most popular, saying about Russia, has been debated for a long time. Most often it’s attributed to the 19th century writer Nikolai Vasilyevitch Gogol. The apocryphal saying that Russia’s biggest problems are “fools and bad roads” is often repeated across the length and breadth of the country. But Gogol is said to have written that almost two centuries ago. Latter-day jokesters have a follow-up to it: “One problem causes another.” The misery is doubled when the two intersect.
Most often it is attributed to Nikolai Gogol, but sometimes also attributed to Pushkin, Saltykov-Shchedrin and even Karamzin. However, it is not possible to find an author among writers of the XIX century. This saying, however, first appeared publicly in a sketch - "The Land of Heroes" - by popular stand-up comedian Mikhail Zadornov during the perestroika years. He said: "Nikolai Vasilievich Gogol wrote: 'Russia has two misfortunes: roads and fools.' In that we maintain enviable persistence to this day." It’s possible that Zadornov needed the Gogol reference to avoid censorship.
Given the alcoholism rampant in many parts of the country, the Russian word for fool (durak) is also liberally used for drunken hooligans. Of course, the word is used in an endearing and affectionate way as well. Along with fools, Gogol had a problem with Russian roads in the 19th century. The advent of the automobile and modern asphalted roads doesn’t seem to have changed too much in the smaller places away from Moscow.
After a thousand years, the Russian state still has not learned how to build safe and solid roads. Judge a government by its roads. An adequate road network is one of the necessary factors in the economic development of any country. Roads reflect a government’s ability to project power and to harness bureaucracy for the common good. Russia has a paved road network less than 10% of the size of the US's, and only 5% of its total road network is considered to be "good quality".
By 2018, it was planned that about 9,000 kilometers of highways and roads in Russia will be transferred to federal ownership by 2021 before a major rebuilding project to boost the country's road infrastructure and the national economy. The trend will continue after 2021 with additional 8,300kms of road becoming the property of the Federal government. Federal highways are usually of much better quality in Russia, and the transfer of ownership will speed up their reconstruction and building, authorities say.
The measure will increase the share of federal highways by a third from the current 50,000kms. At the moment, more than half of regional roads are of inferior quality in Russia, and authorities hope that tighter spending control would help. After the election win this year, President Vladimir Putin has pledged to spend up to 8 trillion rubles (about $130 billion) on road infrastructure by 2024.
Infrastructure problems are proving to be a major setback for the Russian economy, according to Economy Development Minister Maksim Oreshkin. "We are underinvested here, the quality of infrastructure does not correspond to the level of Russia's development and is a serious obstacle on the way of economic growth," he said in December. The World Economic Forum put the quality of Russian roads at the 114th place in global rankings. Road infrastructure in the country scored only 2.9 in the rating, where 1 is extremely poor and among the worst in the world and 7 extremely good, among the best in the world. Russian infrastructure, however, is on an upward trend, the Forum added.
Federal Road Agency (Rosavtodor) is a federal executive authority, which provides public services and administers the state vehicles and roads facilities, including registry of motor roads, and provides state services related to transport safety in this area. Federal Road Agency is an authorized competent body in the area of roads and road facilities, which executes the obligations arising from the international treaties signed by the Russian Federation, in its capacity if public services provider and public property administration.
The Russian road network covered a total length of more than 1.28 million kilometers at the end of 2012. The network spanned 927,000 km of nominally paved roads including 39,000 km of expressways, along with 355,900 km of unpaved roads. The country’s highway network comprises 50,000 km of federal highways and 527,200 km of regional public highways. The length of the federal intercity roads is 53,000 km, with 50,000 km assigned to the Federal Road Agency, and the remaining 3,000 km – to “Avtodor” State Company [the voluntary Society for the Promotion of Automobilism and Road Improvement, formed in 1927)]. The Trans-Siberian Highway comprised seven federal highways. Stretching 11,000km from St. Petersburg to Vladivostok, it is one of the longest highways in the world.
During the 2000s, by some estimates annual spending on Russian roads doubled to $20 billion a year. But statistics showed that Russia’s network of paved roads gradually retreated. According to the World Economic Forum’s Global Competitiveness Report, Russia ranks number 125 out of 139 countries on the quality of its highway infrastructure.
The lack of infrastructure investment dropped Russia to 93rd globally in quality of overall infrastructure in The Global Competitiveness Report 2013–2014 prepared by the World Economic Forum. China and India were placed at 74th and 85th, respectively. According to another report, this one by Renaissance Asset Management, barely half of Russia’s road networks meet minimum riding quality and strength measurements. All this leads to a highway fatality rate in Russia that is higher than in Brazil, China and India.
The World Bank said that Russia's highway infrastructure was seen as one of the key restrictions for economic growth, with only a third of all federal roads meeting quality standards. World Bank data suggested that Putin did not prioritise road construction during his Presidency and spending on roads fell to 1.5% in 2009 (compared with 3.5% spent by China) from 2.8% of gross domestic product (GDP) in 2000.
Low oil prices and a fall in budget revenues in 2015 forced the government to reduce spending on infrastructure, though this was partiallycompensated by recovery of the accumulated pension system and money from the National Wealth Fund. Under to the Federal Special-Purpose Program entitled “Development of the Transport System of Russia until 2020”, the total amount of investment to be spent onexpanding highway infrastructure is planned at RUB 2.7 trln ($47 bln at a RUB/USD rateof 55) or RUB 550 bln per year. This was 17.8% more than was spent over the previous five years (2011-15), and assumed average annual growth of about 3.3%. However, the economic crisis forced the government to decrease budget spending, including forthe construction and repair of federal roads. In 2015-16, the government had planned to boost spending on road infrastructure by 15-20% and the reduction essentially returned spending to the level seen in previous years — RUB 500 bln.
Total spending on federal roads was estimated in 2015 at 0.5% of GDP over the next five years (RUB 500-600 bln) vs. 0.7% for the previous five years. In addition, consolidated spending of regional budgets to support regional roads, including Moscow, accounted for another 0.6% of GDP (RUB 600-700 bln) vs. 0.9% for the previous five years. Thus, total budget spending on road infrastructure declined to 1.1% in 2016-20 vs. 1.5% in 2011-15. This was a moderate level of expenditure, which made it possible to gradually improve road infrastructure and implement several large-scale projects. However, it would not allow infrastructure to expand at a pace exceeding overall growth of the economy.
In July 1929 Valerian Osinskii set out from Moscow’s Red Square in a Model A Ford, to test four foreign model cars to determine which best stood up to the rigors of Soviet roads. ‘It is simply amazing,’ Osinskii noted, ‘how people can live and work inasmuch as movement on these “roads” is simply impossible.’ So poorly maintained were Voronezh’s provincial roads that they provoked ‘wonder whether someone fearing the invasion of an enemy intentionally spoiled [them] to make movement more diffi cult. . . . In truth,’ Osinskii wrote, ‘our attitude toward roads is one of the clearest manifestations of the survival of barbarism,’ which he likened to ‘Asiaticness, indolence, and idleness’. During the Great Patriotic War, German intelligence had failed to realize how poor the Russian roads were, and the German transport was not designed to cope with such deep mud as they developed when it rained. German motorized transportation was useless many months of the year. During winter and muddy periods the entire supply and transportation system would have been completely paralyzed if supply columns of horse-drawn wagons and sleighs had not come to the rescue. These vehicles were in use throughout the Russian campaign and were looked upon as vital for the prosecution of the war.
War could never have been waged in the vast swamp regions of Russia had they not been made accessible by improvised corduroy roads. Some wooden roads were constructed by laying down ribbons of planks spaced the width of the vehicular tread. In constructing the corduroy roads it was important to select logs about ten inches in diameter and place them in several layers. These were the most important static improvisation of the entire Russian campaign and many operations in swampy forests and in the mud of northern and central Russia were feasible only because of the construction of such roads. The first corduroy road was built soon after the Germans crossed into European Russia; the last one during the westward retreat across the German border. In the intervening period hundreds of miles of corduroy road had to be built or repaired during the muddy seasons in order to move up supplies and heavy equipment.
From the first days of the war, the intensity of the movement of troops and motor vehicles along the roads exceeded all expectations. It was necessary to ensure the restoration, and in some cases, the construction of new highways, the organization of high intensity traffic on them.
During the Great Patriotic War, 91 thousand km of highways, 90 thousand bridges and other artificial structures with a total length of more than 930 thousand km were destroyed in the territory of the USSR. During the road support of military operations, road builders have restored, repaired and rebuilt about 100,000 km of roads, over 1 million m of bridges, more than 30 million cubic meters of sand, stone and timber have been harvested and transported for the construction of roads.
The Road of Life was the only road that connected the besieged Leningrad with the country. Deliveries of food on cars on the ice of Ladoga Lake began in late November 1941 and continued until April 1942. During this time, more than half a million Leningraders could be evacuated along the ice route.
Russia's President Dmitry Medvedev said in 2009 "The national economy lost $175 billion from traffic accidents over the past five years. That is comparable to overall health care expenditures of the same period".
The Russian climate is harsh; the summer heat can melt asphalt, and in winter, ice and spiked tires splinter the roads to pieces. Local road services can’t seem to make asphalt more resistant to Russia’s horrendous conditions. Worst of all, they often create chaos on the roads by starting road construction at peak hours. In Summer 2010, road construction leading to Moscow’s Sheremetyevo airport was organized so ineptly that even pilots were late for their flights.
In areas of permafrost major arteries do not have an asphalt surface even though they are vital Federal highways. Attempts have been made to put down proper paved surfaces, but the road immediately turns to mush the moment it thaws, making repairs impossible. For most of the year, the driving is excellent. The roads are frozen solid. It is only in the summer that the road periodically becomes impassable. In the autumn the road freezes back and becomes even better than most soil roads. In the dead of winter there is no problem as vehicles drive over the frozen highway.
It seems like Russia could do something about the roads in permafrost areas. After all, America built the Alcan Highway in Alaska under similar conditions. The construction crews built a modern 4 lane divided highway over permafrost - and it functioned very well -- year-round. However, it does require a lot of digging out for the road (a very large trench, much wider than the actual road and quite deep) and backfilling with rock and gravel. This allows the heat from the road to dissipate so the permafrost does not melt and cause the road to break up. It just costs money and time - neither of which the Russian government is willing to spend on a mere road.
Road conditions and driver safety norms differ significantly from those in the U.S., especially outside of major metropolitan areas. Even thoroughfares marked as major routes on maps can be two-lane roadways, and some routes have heavy truck and bus traffic, while others have poor or nonexistent shoulders. Asphalt quality varies widely, and roads outside of cities are often poorly illuminated.
Local driving regulations are strictly enforced, and violators are subject to severe legal penalties. Avoid excessive speed and, when possible, do not drive at night outside of major cities. Roadside checkpoints are commonplace.
Drivers are often dangerous and erratic. Ice and snow make driving in winter especially hazardous. Road conditions can be poor in rural areas. Winter weather, which tends to last for six months or longer every year, can escalate rapidly and cause extremely dangerous travel conditions. Proper vehicle maintenance and winter driving skills are essential.
One of the largest transport projects of the last two decades, the M11 route, opened in late 2019. The Russian President officially opened the new motorway on November 27, 2019 and also participated in a test-drive, enjoying the motorway’s views from his Aurus limo.
The new motorway between Moscow and St. Petersburg is 669 km (416 mi) long and runs through the Moscow, Tver, Novgorod, and Leningrad regions. Named "Neva" (after the river in St. Petersburg), it’s one of the largest infrastructure projects in contemporary Russian history, with an estimated total cost of 520 billion rubles ($8.1 billion), provided by the state and private investors. Just to compare, the recently-built Crimean Bridge (also called the Kerch Strait Bridge) cost less - just 228 billion rubles ($3.8 billion). The route from Moscow to St. Petersburg is one of the busiest in the country and the old and free M10 motorway had been failing to handle the ever-increasing traffic. But the new M11 aims to take part of this burden on itself: transit traffic will be redirected to the M11, while local traffic to the M10.
On different sections, the M11 has four, six, eight and even 10 lanes (each 3.75 meters wide). The new motorway cuts travel time to just 5-6 hours (on the old M10 it takes around 10 hours to reach either city). During winter, the speed limit is set at 110 km/h (68 mph), but in spring it will be increased to 130 km/h (80 mph). The M11 is a toll road. Fees for cars are 1,820 rubles ($28.40) on weekdays and 2,020 rubles ($31.50) on weekends.
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