The Chechen and the Lada

394px-Bundesarchiv_B_145_Bild-F088839-0023,_Berlin-Friedrichshain,_Geparkter_PKW_LadaThe protesting Lada came to a stop at the curb, coughing enough blue smoke to be mistaken for a two-stroke engine. An olive skinned man at the wheel flashed me a semi-toothed smile and waved me into the passenger seat. Had the lines for the taxi-bus not been at least an hour long or the #31 trolley-bus not looked like an even more epic journey than usual or had i not been struggling beneath a load of damp laundry that required two camping backpacks and an extra-large shopping bag to carry, i probably would have waved him on. (How i ended up in this situation, with all that laundry, after a cross-city trek by public transport at rush hour is a long story of its own; a tale of craven, Western debauchery and lack of will. But its point was to lead me to the moment of decision with the Lada.) It wasn’t just the smoke. That poor Lada looked like it was held together with two by fours and bailing wire, and i’d been in Russia long enough to know that it might actually be repaired in such a manner. Ralph Nader be damned, i didn’t have much choice.

We reached speed in a miraculously short amount of time given the clatter from under the hood and the fact that it was a Lada Riva of some considerable age. Formal introductions hadn’t even been made through the smoke choked cabin when my new friend spied another fare. There was plenty of physical space to make a controlled stop for the third member of our party. We didn’t. It was a grinding, shuddering, nearly run the curb and kill the guy who wanted a ride emergency stop. Few things are more exciting than gypsy cabbing in Russia. Doing it in a car with no brakes would prove to be a religious experience.

I was assured that it would just be a short detour, and who was i to argue? We’d only gone four blocks, which didn’t help me or the laundry much. With destination and price settled, we were off as fast as the little Lada would carry us into a desolate, industrial area of post-proletariat-wonderland decay. Going fast, at least significantly faster than the posted limit and dangerously fast considering the vehicle, was a blessing: it managed to clear the smoke from the cabin. The driver hit every apex on the deserted streets, chirping the Lada around corners…when you don’t have brakes it’s the only way to drive. I summoned every ounce of self control, refusing to step on the imaginary brake for fear of putting my foot through the floorboard ventilated by rust goblins. And soon enough we came to another terrifying halt. The second fare looked like he was thanking his chosen deity when he put his feet back on solid ground, and we left him in a cloud of oily smoke.

Now we had time to get to know each other. I admitted my citizenship, which pleased my driver greatly. He told me that he was Chechen, a doctor and much persecuted. (This was shortly after Putin launched the Second Chechen War.) We were, he surmised, natural allies. The most important thing to know about the Chechen is that he hated Russia and Russians with fervor.

We were on a long, wide straight and the Chechen pushed the Lada to its limit. Assuming that the speedometer functioned, we were doing at least 100 km/h on a 40 km/h road. The Chechen was emboldened by his American companionship, shouting insults out the window at Russian pedestrians. He began chanting “Russian Swine” in English, wanting me to chant along. I demurred for a while, but then came to the conclusion that the only way he’d put his hands back on the wheel and watch the road was if he could hear me chanting. So i chanted, loudly enough to be heard over the protesting engine.

He did focus his concentration on the road, but that only made things worse. Seeing a babushka crossing the street, the Chechen aimed the Lada at her…not right at her, but on a line that would result in her demise if she wasn’t quick enough of wit and foot to take one step backwards. I saw the look on her face when we passed by, it was less than half a meter away. She lost several years of her life, and that pleased the Chechen greatly. He let loose a cackle as if he’d avenged his people.

We had to make a ninety degree right onto Grazhdansky Prospect at the base of a bridge. We did not look both ways. We didn’t even slow down entering traffic, and this time the icy grip of Newton overpowered all my faith and hope. Sliding across two lanes of now angry traffic travelling our intended direction, we ended up needing several evasive swerves through oncoming traffic to return to our side of the road before cresting the bridge. With nothing to hold onto and no faith to practice, i prepared to die a painful, perhaps fiery, death.

The Chechen dodged and swerved the stretch of Grazhdansky leading home; i think he would have employed the sidewalk (a not uncommon Russian driving technique) if he had operational brakes. I ticked off the landmarks along the way. Each one represented a bold refutation of Zeno, and if my luck held out i might live to tell the tale. But i wasn’t safe yet.

To drop me off chivalrously required making a left at a traffic light. As we approached it was red, but there was no way, even with everything the Lada had and the abuse the Chechen was willing to put her through, we’d make it before it changed. At this point, blowing the red at a three way intersection was the best option. We were going too fast to stop for oncoming traffic. The light turned green, and traffic led by a bus in the left lane was moving. The Chechen might as well have been Han Solo saying, “Never tell me the odds,” as he asked the Lada for more. At the intersection he yanked the wheel and stomped on whatever was left of the brakes. Horns blared. The bus and the car in the right lane tried to stop. The Lada tore loose from the asphalt, sliding through the intersection under control that was not much more than hopeful. I got a good, long, slow-motion and too-close-for-comfort look at the bumper of a city bus.

But the Chechen managed to almost stick the landing. He couldn’t stop in time, so we hit the curb in front of the dormitory with both sidewalls. For a long second, the driver’s side of the car lifted and we teetered. And then the Lada fell to earth with a tired quiver, she shook and groaned like an old mule ready to be shot. I scrambled out as fast as my wobbly legs would carry me, paying the pittance the Chechen required and being willing to empty my pockets for having made it home alive.

I stood on the curb with my pile of laundry, now feeling the first symptoms of nausea from the carbon monoxide poisoning and my brushes with death. The Chechen smiled and said, “Bill Clinton is a friend of the Chechen people. When you return to America, tell him that I say thank you.” And with that he left me, ready to kiss the ground, in one last cloud of smoke. I promised that i would deliver his message, and i’ve never gotten around to fulfilling that promise. That feels wrong, since my promise was made in one of those moments of supreme elation and thankfulness to be alive. So if you’re reading this, Bill, there’s a Chechen doctor out there somewhere who loves and thanks you for your friendship with his people.

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~ by Lex on October 29, 2009.

2 Responses to “The Chechen and the Lada”

  1. What a story. You clearly were not meant to die then… we saw a Lada in Australia this summer.

    Gypsy cab made me think Vardo – but the Lada is not very Vardo-like at all.

  2. Oh i love Ladas…i hope to someday bring one from Canada, particularly a Niva (what could be better than a 4×4 Honda Civic?). They speak to my belief that cars, the daily driver type, should be simple. I like the idea of being able to fix a vehicle with bailing wire…but i’m a weirdo.

    This story is just the tip of the Russian gypsy cabbing iceberg. Most of the silliest moments of my life have occurred riding around with a stranger in Russia.

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