In Russia, everyone should have a camera on their dashboard. It's better than keeping a lead pipe under your seat for protection (but you might still want that lead pipe).
The conditions of Russian roads are perilous, with an insane gridlock in the city and gigantic ditches, endless swamps and severe wintry emptiness of the backroads and highways. Then there are large, lawless areas you don't just ride into, the police with a penchant for extortion and deeply frustrated drivers who want to smash your face.
Psychopaths are abundant on Russian roads. You best not cut anyone off or undertake some other type of maneuver that might inconvenience the 200-pound, six-foot-five brawling children you see on YouTube hopping out of their SUVs with their dukes up. They will go ballistic in a snap, drive in front of you, brake suddenly, block you off, jump out and run towards your vehicle. Next thing you start getting punches in your face because your didn't roll up your windows, or getting pulled out of the car and beaten because you didn't lock the doors.
These fights happen all the time and you can't really press charges. Point to your broken nose or smashed windows all you want. The Russian courts don't like verbal claims. They do, however, like to send people to jail for battery and property destruction if there's definite video proof. That is why there's a new, growing crop of dash-cam videos featuring would-be face-beaters backing away to the shouts of "You're on camera, fucker! I'm calling the cops!"
Dash-cam footage is the only real way to substantiate your claims in the court of law. Forget witnesses. Hit and runs are very common and insurance companies notoriously specialize in denying claims. Two-way insurance coverage is very expensive and almost completely unavailable for vehicles over ten years old–the drivers can only get basic liability. Get into a minor or major accident and expect the other party to lie to the police or better yet, flee after rear-ending you. Since your insurance won't pay unless the offender is found and sued, you'll see dash-cam videos of post hit and run pursuits for plate numbers.
And sometimes drivers back up or bump their pre-dented car into yours. It used to be a mob thing, with the accident-staging specialists working in groups. After the "accident," the offending driver–often an elderly lady–is confronted by a crowd of "witnesses," psychologically pressured and intimidated to pay up cash on the spot. Since the Age of the Dash-cam, hustle has withered from a flourishing enterprise to a dying trade, mainly thriving in the provinces where dash-cams are less prevalent.
And then, sometimes, someone will jump under your car at a crossing, laying on the asphalt, simulating a badly hurt pedestrian waiting for that cop conveniently parked nearby. This dramatic extortion scheme was common, until the Age of the Dash-cam. Oh, and there are such juicy, triumphant tales about of would-be extortion victims turning the scheme around and telling the cast members to pay them money or they're going to jail for this little performance! Don't try it.
While those lucky enough to traverse the Russian roads with an American or other Western passport are hassled less, the Russian Highway Patrol is notorious throughout their land for brutality, corruption, extortion and making an income on bribes. Dash-cams won't protect you from being extorted for cash, because your ass shouldn't have been speeding. It will however keep you safer from drunks in uniform, false accusations and unreasonable bribe hikes.
The other side of the Russian Wild Wild West is the sloppy online content policy. In the US, we can't really watch anything slightly more serious than a subway fight or one car rear-ending another, as diligent censors quickly nab any videos with bad injuries, too much blood or other overly violent content.
Russian websites go for the uncut, the horrible accidents–trucks flipping over, people being smashed into pieces and sedans flying up in the air and exploding. Given that television programing is mostly vacuous and heavily censored, dash-cam videos are very popular in Russia. It's uncensored–drama, comedy, tragedy, horror, thriller and educational genres fused into one super-genre of "dash-cam." Who needs Klitschko when you can watch to tough guys box in the street?
It's not all for kicks and voyeurism. The Ru CHP LiveJournal community is where all the major crashes, fights and deaths are aggregated. These are followed by a barrage of troll comment threads. Vicious stuff. Sometimes seeing a BMW and its driver pulverized by an oncoming truck while the Internet makes jokes is good driver's ed. Additionally, before YouTube diligently deletes most of the road rage videos–lest the sensitive Americans be traumatized by seeing people screaming "I will kill you bitch" and pummeling each other in the head with steel pipes, crowbars and car wrenches. Ru CHP also backs these up on a Latvian server.
To better understand and navigate this community service, here's a Russian Dash-cam Video Thesaurus for the blog tag cloud. It is comprised of purposely misspelled hick and thug slang and phrases used sarcastically…while people die. Ah, Russian humour.
поциент – "Patient." The poor bastard, the dumb idiot in the video getting pulverized, run over or smashed into. A wordplay of "potz," the Russian translation of the Yiddish "schmuck."
летчик – "Pilot." The idiot who zooms by and crashes in the grand finale of a video.
слабоумие и отвага – "Courage and dementia."
последние секунды жизни – "Last seconds of life." Videos featuring persons before and after fatal accidents.
кетай как всегда пиздец – "China is always fucked." Clips from China that feature severe crashes and frequently feature passerbys ignoring the bodies and car debris.
кирпичи – "Bricks" (as in "shitting bricks.") The audio track often features the driver panting or shouting the entire Russian vocabulary of swears at the top of their lungs. Used for videos with near misses or close shaves.
железобетонное очко – "Anus of Concrete." Honorific given to drivers who, faced with sudden danger like a huge truck coming head-on, remain calm, only saying "shoot" or "darn" quietly in the background, and efficiently steer away from danger, displaying some seriously fucking great driving skills.
наварра – The infamous video featuring a certain black Nissan Navarra pick-up swerving to the oncoming freightliner and being smashed into a cloud of small particles. The metaphor for a gruesome, intense, fatal accident.
There's another thing you should know about, hotrod: "The Drifters of Vladivostok." There's a particular flavor to disaster clips from Vladivostok. The far-Eastern port city uses Japanese sedans with right hand driver's side almost exclusively. There are readily available sporty Nissans and Toyotas fresh off the ferries from Japan a short distance away. As a result, the teenage population has access to many fast, powerful, inexpensive cars. The city of Vladivostock is much like San Francisco in terrain, with hilly streets and limited visibility. So you have these kids who barely know how to drive, armed with very powerful Japanese cars and cheap, used autos–often fitted with aftermarket nitrous systems. They regularly drive like crazy and perform some violent drifting maneuvers, intentionally over-steering and redlining the engine. The steep hills, the narrow, badly-maintained roads, right-hand vehicles drifting wildly on left-hand roads result in some cinematic, idiotic crashes. And that's the flavor of Vladivostok: The spice of suddenly smoking tires and sound of crumpling plastic.
But there are moments of humanity among the crashes, in between the skidding, the burning, the kicking. There are dash-cam videos with happy endings. At a city accident scene, you could see as many as twenty cars pulling over, drivers running out to the scene. And then there are the resolutions, a sort of "brotherhood of the road" moments–forgiveness seen only on long-distance, intercity highways, especially between truck drivers. This comes from the recognition of the fact that on a 300-mile stretch of uninhabited territory, help can only come from passing vehicles and not emergency services. Most Russian long-distance routes East of the Ural Mountains are that way. There is really only one highway like that in North America: the Western Canadian to Alaskan Stretch of the Pan-American Highway.
It's common in the Russian winter for light passenger cars to swerve off the road. Imagine a lone Ford Focus tipped-over in a pile of snow by the road. Imagine pulling over, rescuing the deserted traveler from hours of waiting for costly rescue services. The comradery between strangers, shoveling the snow and hailing a freight truck or tractor to pull the car out. The kudos. The cheers. The knowledge that you could be very well be next.
And don't you forget it. Aside from the kindness of strangers, it's just you and that little gadget versus the hell that is the other people on the road.
This story originally appeared on ANIMALNEWYORK on June 13, 2012, and was republished with permission.
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