Editorial Notebook

October 22, 2005|By WILL ENGLUND

The price of a gallon of gas has skittered down a little, and in any case the sense of fresh insult with every visit to the pump has started to wear off. But a $41 fill-up still has a way of turning one ex-traveler's thoughts to the workers' and drivers' paradise that was Russia in the twilight of communism. Cars were ridiculously cheap, gasoline was so cheap you could fill your tank with the change you found under the seat - and yet the streets and avenues were magnificently free of traffic. What a paradox! What a triumph of economic engineering! What a lesson for America!

The Soviets performed this feat by the simple act of decreeing that gas and automobiles would be affordable for every man or woman engaged in the heroic task of building communism. Just one catch - affordable didn't mean available. In a cheap car with cheap fuel, heroes could barrel along the boulevards, if they could find a way to scrounge up both car and fuel from enterprises that were less than enthusiastic about selling them for such unprofitable prices.

Automobiles were so hard to come by that lucky new owners would sometimes inflict a battery of dents and scratches as soon as they took possession just to make their cars less attractive to thieves. Gas was so hard to come by that you always traveled with extra.

In April 1992, an Australian and an American set out to tour the farm belt of Russia, specifically to see about the terrible fuel shortages there. The Australian had connived to get his hands on seven jerrycans of gas, which he laid out neatly in his trunk together with a large corned beef. Rear-end collisions in those days of dodgy brakes were so frequent on Russian roads as to be almost not worth remarking on. "I hope," said the jovial driver to his companion, "you've got your asbestos underpants on."

The car, in fact, did not burst into flames, and as the decade ticked by, Russians grew accustomed to better brakes and plenty of free-market gas. But the old skills, from the rough-and-ready days, didn't desert them.

In November 2001, a dusty foursome of news-gatherers joined Andrei Babitsky and Rakhmatkarim Davlatov, reporters with Radio Liberty's Russian and Tajik services, as they drove their gray utilitarian van from Tajikistan into Afghanistan. The van was a venerable Russian model, and it needed gas every day. In the town of Taloqan, this meant driving out to the gas-sellers' district. Wooden shacks stood back a little from the road, and as the van came to rumbling, screeching stop (old-style Russian brakes), a boy would leap up and get the order, then reappear with the owner of the stall, lugging a time-worn jug of bootleg gas and a large funnel.

It would be explained to the owner that the motorists wanted good gas, not bad. This sometimes sent him back for a different jug, but most days, most owners would insist that theirs was the finest gas in all of Afghanistan, made fresh by someone's cousin just this morning. But Mr. Babitsky and Mr. Davlatov would ask to see.

The boy would hold out a can, and the owner would pour some of his gas into it, through a black, greasy piece of cheesecloth. The Russian and the Tajik would examine it closely. They'd swirl the gas in the can. They'd smell it, as if it were a particularly interesting and full-bodied Burgundy. They'd dip their fingers in it, and rub them to check for granularity. They'd hold their hands up to the light, and smell their fingers. They'd taste them if they had to. The owner of the stall waited expectantly. The small boy stared up, curious and excited. Thumbs up? It meant everyone springing into action, gas going into the van, the passengers standing on either side of it, rocking it to get the gas past a haphazard crimp in the line. Then everyone shook hands all around; the whole transaction couldn't have taken more than 20 minutes, at the most.

It was an interesting lesson in getting by when the system doesn't work - and, who knows, maybe a valuable one, too. A few more mega hurricanes in the Gulf of Mexico, and a lot more social breakdown, and this could be us. Better lay in those jerrycans now - and don't forget the cheesecloth.

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