This article originally appeared in Lonely Planet Russia, Ukraine & Belarus
In the United States, it’s the IRS. In the Soviet Union, it was the KGB. In England it’s Manchester United fans, but in the new Russia, motorists and passengers alike loathe, fear and despise the ubiquitous members of the Gosavtoinspektsia: GAI. GAI (“gah-yee’) are traffic officers who stand at intersections throughout the country looking for signs of vehicular misbehaviour. Actually, they can pull you over for anything they want.
And they do.
But what makes them really annoying is that theyE’re entitled to impose on-the-spot fines. Oh, yeah, one more thing: if you don’t stop when they wave you over, they can shoot at your vehicle.
On my last trip I got pulled over twice in one day, while riding in two separate vehicles. I thought, “What makes these guys tick? How do they decide whom to pull over? And is it exciting to be an armed traffic cop?’. I mean, their New York City counterparts would give a limb for the opportunity.
In the interests of fair play, I spent a rainy Monday morning with some of the guys at St Petersburg GAI Central.
7 AM: Roll Call
No big surprise, kinda like Hill Street Blues with shabbier uniforms. Hot sheet covered, accidents discussed, criminal element lamented. I learn that GAI guys work two days on, two days off, and they have regular beats.
9 AM: Meeting with Captain Sergei (not his real name)
“Yes, we can shoot at your car. No, I can’t tell you how many officers we have, but there are enough to keep control of the situation.” I asked him what a foreigner can do if he should disagree with an officer’s charges against him. “Well, his documents will be confiscated and then he can go to the address on the ticket the officer gives him and get them back…”
10 AM: Parking Lot
Sergei leads the way to his spanking new Ford Escort GAImobile. We’re off to check out the boys on patrol. Obeying the seat-belt law, I fasten mine. Sergei ignores his, peels out of the parking space, turns on the revolving blue light and, in blatant violation of every St Petersburg traffic law, does 120 km/h (80 mph) through narrow city streets; he runs all red traffic lights, honks and shoots truly terrifying looks at motorists he passes - which is all of them.
10.30 AM: Checkpoint on the St Petersburg-Murmansk Highway
There are GAI checkpoints at all major roads leading out of the city. We arrive in time to see one incoming and one outgoing car being tossed by Kalashnikov-wielding officers. They salute Sergei, who leads me into the checkpoint station house where he proudly shows off the station sauna (it’s a four-seater). Has another officer demonstrate the state-of-the-art computer system (it’s a 386 running MTEZ). They dial in to the GAI Server and the officer stumbles through the log-in (so clumsily that I was able to write down the telephone number, login name and password) and after five minutes he gives up and instead proffers the hand-written hot-sheet.
11.15 AM: Racing Through The City
Screeching through residential neighbourhoods, Sergei is explaining how the officers we’re whizzing by are trained professionals - they spend six months in the GAI academy after their army service. We pass about half a dozen stopped cars, and Sergei is saying, “He’s checking documents… This one’s checking insurance…that one’s investigating a stolen car…”
He can tell all that by passing them at speed. Amazing.
Sergei says he’s been in ‘many” high-speed car chases and I believe him totally.
Not out of idle curiosity, I ask him how long it takes to fill in an accident report. He says a minimum of one hour.
Checkpoint on the St Petersburg-Vyborg Highway
This is exactly the same as the first checkpoint, except this one is on the road leading to Finland and there’s no sauna. There’s an enormous pile of cash on the desk. The checkpoint officer tells me that their radar gun is ‘out for repair’, but helpfully points out one of the other pieces of crime-fighting equipment present: the telephone.
Sergei says that radar detectors are ’unfortunately not prohibited here’. That’s Russian cop lingo for: ‘They’re legal’
12.15 PM: Racing Home
As we careen home, Sergei spots a stalled pick-up truck at an intersection. His face a mask of pure anger, he screeches to a halt, tickets the hapless driver, radios his number plates (to ensure follow-up action) and we drive away.
As we tear back to the station house, Sergei suddenly stops to let a dump truck, for whom the signal is green, pass through an intersection, and (I swear) says solemnly, ‘You know, even though I have this siren on, I still have a responsibility to maintain safety on the roads’.
And people say these guys aren’t dedicated public servants.