Francisco Martínez (EHI, Tallinn University)
– Palm down or thumb up: the fare depends on the gesture you do by the road.
– In Russia, even Lenin seems to hitchhike, standing with a hand in his pocket and the other pointing up towards the future.
Fig 1. Terje, the walk between rides. Hitchhiking in Russia.
Hitchhiking is a way of travelling by charity, a sort of begging tourism. This practice of mobility is gaining popularity in Russia, paralleled to the disappearance of traditional ways of travelling cheap in the country.
There are indeed multiple modes of hitchhiking in Russia and not all of them legal. We can of course find the traditional one, idealised by the ‘Beat Generation’ and the ‘Hippies’. I mean the one of rising up the thumb and moving through hundreds of kilometres, crossing cities with impossible names and listening to truck cabin philosophy.
This is the mode of hitchhiking that the writer Igor Saveliev describes in his novel ‘Off the Beaten Track: Stories from Russian Hitchhikers’, in which he affirms that a new golden era of hitchhiking is happening… in Russia.
“Once I was hitching myself to recall the good old days. I had to take off my wedding ring and tell everyone I was 22 and not 28. If you are picked up by a long-distance truck driver and it turns out that you’re the same age, it’s a bit embarrassing: It looks as if he works to feed his family, spends his fuel on you and you’re, well, a slacker”, writes Saveliev.
Huge distances, hostile weather, unpopulated areas, difficult language – this sounds serious enough to dissuade any adventure in Russia, or – maybe not. According to Patrick Laviolette, this could indeed be an incentive for hitchhiking explorations, since it intensifies the ‘intimate-sensing’ of the activity.
Moreover, this anthropologists of Tallinn University holds that technologies are crucially conditioning the practice of hitchhiking yet not killing it. In his view, multiple technologies determine the way people prepare for the adventure. And even during the trip in itself, for instance, by facilitating communication with distant people or acceding to information. Nonetheless, hitchhiking (as any adventure) is about finding oneself and breaking with quotidian patterns. Hence the ubiquity of the technological world might equally be one of the reasons to escape and disconnect from routines.
Hitchhiking is an activity that brings about moments of loneliness as well as clear ruptures of the solitude it engenders. Likewise, to adventure entails a starting point and certain behaviours. Similarly, the fact of depending on others feeds humility and respect. So hitchhiking is always a unique experience, in which we encounter different people, moods, smells, sounds, accents and landscapes along the road.
As confirmed by Terje Toomistu, curator of the exhibition ‘Soviet Hippies’, hitchhiking was already an important part of the ideology of the Soviet Hippies in the 70s. They even had a supporting ’systema’ parallel to the official one and in which the drivers could use tickets to get extra gas after picking up hitchhikers.
Currently, there are 10 clubs of hitchhiking in Russia, the oldest being founded in 1978. Terje has hitchhiked several times in Russia, visiting the Caucasus, Urals, and North-west region:
“Every moment, when I raised the thumb, it was an open point which could settle in an infinite number of ways. Each stopping car, which I climbed in, took over the lead of my destiny, opening doors and with them new realms. The good old Russia should be a paradise for each hitchhiker. It also seemed to me that Russians like to share their life, emphasizing what they value, what they like and dislike, making them often sounding like philosophers, but from real life, not from some drowsy libraries”, shares Terje.
She was travelling with two friends – all girls. “So that made it a bit more complicated, as not so many cars can fit in three travellers. But we surely felt more secure than hitching alone or in a pair. Well, at another time when we were hitchhiking in Komi towards Moscow, we were also three of us until it came hopeless. Then we had to divide and I was alone. I got a ride with a truck driver and we had amazing conversations all along the night towards Moscow. I was also sleeping at the back towards the morning. Although he gained my trust, I was still cautious enough to have a pepper spray in between my underwear. Of course, nothing bad happened, he was very friendly and nice to me”, remembers Terje.
In her view, “hitchhiking in West-Europe can be more complicated, as hitching on highways in not allowed and you have to run between petrol stations. However, in Eastern Europe you rarely have huge highways, so you can stop the cars wherever, which makes it more flexible and perhaps enjoyable”. She concludes: “Probably people still remember the old times when hitchhiking was favoured with a sense of collective environmental responsibility and support for vagabondage, hence drivers keep picking up travellers by the road”.
Nonetheless, neither hippies nor the beat generation invented the thumb-up exploration. This practice was already common in Britain and the United States before World War II. There is even a Hollywood film of 1934 in which Clark Gable appears hitchhiking with a gorgeous woman: www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ar-hnj5Zsk4.
Further on, the practice of hitchhiking in Russia is much more varied than the rise of the thumb and fantastic long travels across the steppe. For instance, urban hitchhiking has been a crucial way of commuting within post-socialist cities. Palm down or thumb up: the fare depends on the gesture you do by the road.
Fig 2: Reuters / Vostok Photo.
It is of course possible to move for free within Russian cities. I mean to practice the classic hitchhiking based on the charity of the drivers. For instance, I rose up my thumb in St. Petersburg with my friend Nastia, who loves unexpected encounters, risk and the experience of different speeds. I tried to tell her that I had money to pay a taxi, but she rather preferred to explore the taste and elasticity of time.
The two other alternatives of (paid) hitchhiking in Russia are the ‘bombily’ (illegal taxis) and the spontaneous drivers who give you a drive if it’s on their way and need some money. Still in Russia there is no proper collective system to share a car, like for instance the German Mitfahrgelegenheit. There are in Moscow over 40.000 unlicensed taxis, which give you a drive after seeing your standing by the road with the palm down. These taxis are of course cheaper than the 9.000 official ones. Nevertheless, since September 2011 there is a municipal campaign to erase the ‘bombily’ from the cityscape. Police controls and fines of 150 euro are more and more frequent in the Russian capital. For instance, between March and September 2012, 680 drivers got fined and 416 cars were confiscated.
It was in 1925 when Muscovites saw a taxi for the first time. Already in 1932, the fleet of Renaults and FIATs was substituted by the locally produced GAZ-A, a Soviet car co-produced with FORD. The described (paid) urban hitchhiking was the norm indeed when I lived in Moscow. Everyday I jumped into a car to cross the huge megalopolis, accumulating incidents and anecdotes. Once I went out of the Propaganda, a club in the city centre of Moscow. It was around 3:00 am and I had no more than 120 rubles in my pocket (3 euro). To make things worse, it was raining and I got a bit tipsy. I stood by the road for half an hour, trying unsuccessfully to convince someone to give me a drive to Prospekt Vernadskogo (south-east) for that price.
Finally, a clapped-out Lada stopped and the driver, a middle age man with golden teeth and dirty clothes, accepted to drive me home. Noteworthy, he was not talkative and opened his mouth only twice to repeat: you got the money with you, isn’t it? We haven’t even come out of the boulevard ring of Moscow when the car ran out of fuel. The driver, unruffled, told me that he had no money so in order to drive me home I had to pay in advance. Not only that, we had also to pull the car for half an hour to the next petrol station.
Popsovy music and Russian chanson dominate in the bombily. The drivers are usually immigrants who strive to survive as better as they can. Ksenia, a friend from St.Petersburg, describes as an adventure her trips from Kupchino to the city centre. If the choffeur says ‘there’s no need to wear the seatbelt, I’m a good driver’, he’s just trying to hide that the seatbelts do not work. Ksenia also told me how she entered with six friends (four seated, two laying) in an official car with two agents. That was the first surprise, the second one came when the agents asked for money once they arrived.
So hitchhiking is indeed part of the Soviet/post-Soviet road-scape. As writer Sergei Dovlatov says, in Russia, even Lenin seems to hitchhike, standing with a hand in his pocket and the other pointing up towards the future.
NB This article is a revised version of the one recently published in Spanish in the newspaper Russia Hoy: