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Bourgeois Muscovites Hear Roar Of the Road

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TO read the level of prosperity in this town these days, watch the road. Call it the Zhiguli Index - the accelerating number of cars on Russian streets.

Muscovites detest the traffic, recalling the quieter days when Moscow's broad boulevards were sparsely traveled by any except foreign diplomats and party officials.

Yet a growing number are throttling around the rugged streets with that humble staple of the Russian road, the Zhiguli - close cousin to an ancient model of Fiat.

Since 1993, the ranks of car owners in Moscow have been swelling by more than 20 percent per year. This is all the more remarkable in a country where official statistics show seriously declining incomes and rising prices.

''The number of Russian families is growing that can afford a car,'' says economist Nikolai Lvov. He now estimates that about 15 percent of Moscow families have incomes high enough to buy a simple, used Zhiguli.

Not all these families will buy a car, of course. Moscow still has one of the most timely, cheap, and architecturally impressive subway systems in the world. But in a city where it still is not considered ''normal'' to have one's own set of wheels, it is becoming more and more possible.

The Moscow barometer

Moscow is where the money is in Russia, so in the country overall, fewer than 1 in 10 families can afford a car, according to Dr. Lvov. But the car-buying trend is spreading nationwide: Goskomstat, the state statistical commission, estimates there are nearly 13 million cars in Russia, a 10 percent jump over last year.

''I'm astonished that despite the complications of modern Russian life and falling standards of living, Russians had three times the new Russian cars and foreign cars last year that they had in the late 1980s,'' says Sergei Radovsky, head of the Automobile Laboratory of the Institute for Scientific Research.

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