Early in the evening, about two months ago, I got a call from my husband explaining that, on his way home from work, an insane driver had cut across 8 lanes of traffic to ram full force into the passenger door of our silver-hued Toyota Camry*. We were both, understandably, shocked – my husband is an excellent driver (he has been on the road in Moscow for 10 years, and this is his first collision!).
Thankfully, my husband (and the other driver) weren’t hurt. The accident happened under the best possible circumstances, to be honest. It was a few kilometers away from his office, and not only in Moscow’s center, but right in front of the Kremlin. This meant that there were a ton of witnesses, video camera’s and road police ready to spring into action. A painstaking process of talking to authorities, documenting evidence and signing papers that can take up to 5 hours in traffic-choked Moscow, took only about 30 minutes because of the location. The blue-uniformed ГАИ (Russian Road Police) rushed to the scene, with angry Kremlin officials yelling orders through walkie-talkies to clear the road. They filled out all the papers (with no bribes!), and had my husband, and the at-fault Lada driver on their way in record time.
The ensuing weeks had economist husband making the rounds to various police stations, insurance offices, and car repair shops. Thankfully, the car was still in working condition, with just a big, ugly scrape on the passenger side door. This meant that, in the weeks before we could take the car into the repair shop, we were driving around Moscow in a car that looked a bit like the Phantom of the Opera – with one side of the car clean, shiny, and white, and the other side grotesquely disfigured.
Our disfigured car experience is a fantastic example of what I call Moscow’s VIP mentality.The residents of Russia’s capital are obsessed with status. Twenty years out of the Soviet Union in a city awash with corruption, floods of new oil money, and stockpiling 80 percent of the country’s wealth, the rule here seems to be that the biggest, meanest, richest, most intimidating person wins.
You can see this rule on the roads. People don’t generally obey posted traffic rules. You go as fast as you can, and always yield to the bigger more expensive cars. The big, black, foreign-made SUV’s can generally do whatever they want. This is one of the reasons why I don’t drive in Moscow.
But there’s another version of the VIP mentality for pedestrians. The more expensive your shoes, your cell phone and your purse, the more people respect you. Young, pretty girls with Louis Vuitton bags, or men in expensive Armani suits with gold-plated Vertu phones get excellent customer service, and are respected. Conversely, the elderly and those from outside of Moscow with cheap clothing are brushed off and treated rudely.
I sensed this mentality when I first came to Moscow, and can attribute at least some of my professional success here to being young and more than less good-looking. I also noticed a slight shift in the way I was treated at work, on the metro, and in stores after I traded my cheap Walmart purse in for a more expensive brand name handbag at Christmas last year.
Economist husband and I definitely noticed a decrease in respect on the road after his car was damaged this summer. Driving around Moscow in a disfigured car meant more cut-offs in traffic, and less respect from other drivers, and people in the streets.
Sometimes this thirst for VIP (pronounced “veep” in Russian) status extends to the ridiculous. It’s especially funny to see Russians trying to demand exceptions to the rules when they’re abroad. They wave around their expensive cell phones, luxury rental cars, or designer goods. A friend of ours tells a story of traveling to New York on business with a Russian colleague. In attempting to demand a better room in an expensive hotel, the Muscovite colleague slammed his diamond-studded cell phone down on the desk, exclaiming, “Don’t you know who I am?!” Not surprisingly, the NYC desk clerk was unimpressed with the designer phone, and our friend’s colleague was left without a room upgrade.
I’ll leave you with a few favorite Muscovite vocabulary words:
- Elite-ny (элитный): It means elite, and is a popular marketing word.
- VIP (ВИП): Pronounced “VEEP”. This word can be found in lots of funny places. There are veep movie tickets (in the center of the hall), veep menu items (usually just more expensive than other items), veep clubs (you have to know someone, have a body guard, or pay a big bribe to get in), or my personal favorite, just stuck to a shop in large letters. I once saw a VIP sign hanging in a dingy wooden kiosk selling instant coffee and stale pastries under a bridge.
- Rohs-kohsh (роскошь): It means “luxury”.
- Luxe (люкс): This, like “VIP”, is also a popular prefix. Moscow offers luxe hotel rooms, luxe coffee machines, and luxe parking spots for those in need of a power trip.
- Eks-klyoo-SIV-ny (эксклюсивный): Exclusive in English. If it’s exclusive, it must be better. Russians love to flaunt this adjective when mentioning their recent purchases or privileges.
All for now. Hope we’ll get our car fixed soon!
*I had originally written “cream-colored Toyota Corolla.” I’ve never seen my husband so appalled at something he read on the internet!! The correct term, I’m proud to announce, is SILVER Toyota CAMRY. Big difference, I’m told. Leave it to me to make a mistake when it comes to cars….!
**More on Russian VIP and spending mentality here