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Car Culture in Russia Shifts Into High Gear

When Sasha Uiden bought his car two decades ago, he shared the potholed roads with some trucks, buses, and a few other privately owned automobiles.

Today Mr. Uiden still navigates potholes, but he must also dodge oncoming BMWs designed for the slick autobahn asphalt, not for the lunar-like surface of Russia's aging highways.

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He laments the 20 minutes he recently spent in chas peak or rush-hour traffic.

At the end of a drive, he padlocks his 20-year-old, dent-free yellow Lada into a tiny steel shack that is a 40-minute walk from his high-rise apartment.

Uiden's experience is typical of drivers here. A marginally improved economy and increased consumer choice have put more cars on Russia's roads than ever before, with a record number of women now behind the wheel.

Some urban Russians take a dim view of the surge in traffic congestion and dearth of parking places.

But others call the rise in car sales - the streets are crammed with Mercedes, Toyotas, and Fords - an indicator of economic progress.

Most economists would agree. Whenever per-capita income in a country reaches around $6,000 a year, car sales rise steeply. At $5,300, Russia's per- capita income is slightly lower, but still follows the pattern.

What's more, economists forecast market demand in developing countries like Russia to more than make up for lagging car sales in North America, Japan, and Europe.

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And that increase in car ownership, observers say, will alter the country's landscape and the lifestyles of Russians as it has elsewhere in the world.

Since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, car ownership among Russians has more than doubled. That's the case in Nizhni Novgorod, Russia's third-largest city.

Officials here project an increase of 10,000 privately owned autos a year. And in the nation's capital, Moscow, the 3 million private cars clogging the streets will rise another million by 2005, according to officials at City Hall.

The principal reason for increased car ownership is that consumers have more money and more choices than before. Car buyers in Soviet times could face as many as five years on waiting lists, where Communist Party elite took priority.

Today, Russians can plunk down their rubles at any car dealership. Optimism is high enough that more middle-class Russians will buy cars that one of Russia's top automakers - Gorkovsky Avtomobilny Zavod, based in Nizhni Novgorod - has formed a partnership with the Italian auto giant Fiat.

Problems associated with an influx of cars are not unique to this old Volga River city. The road-warrior behavior of many drivers can leave pedestrians shaken, if not injured.

"Unfortunately, our drivers don't follow the rules of driving," says Nina Chatalina, vice director of the city's transportation department.

Surprisingly, the number of road accidents has actually declined here in proportion to the increased number of cars, according to department statistics. With nearly twice as many cars on the road today as when the Soviet era ended in 1991, reported accidents have increased by 50 percent.

Mrs. Chatalina credits the good news to an increase in road-safety precautions, such as traffic signals, safety belts, road dividers, improved street surfaces, and police vigilance.

Residents of Nizhni Novgorod have also found a way to combat car theft while they dine out - they pick up a Happy Meal at the local drive-through McDonald's.

A drive-through supermarket is eagerly awaited by Tatiana Danilova, who saw one on her first trip abroad to Australia last year. "Everything was designed after thinking things through twice," the secretary recalls with awe.

Mrs. Danilova aspires to car ownership. Her choice: "A Jeep - you can drive it anywhere." And a house with an attached garage to put her new vehicle in.

Velvet Seats?

Growing along with the number of automobiles are such car-related phenomena as vintage auto clubs, car magazines, auto shows, and customized interiors - velvet is a favorite seat cover. Thankfully, bumper stickers are rare, and vanity plates still unavailable.

But lots of car alarms can be heard. Antitheft devices such as Lojack are popular with those who can afford them.

Women Slip Over To Driver's Seat

Nina Yevtushenko is one of the growing number of Russian women getting behind the wheel. The director of a driving school in Nizhni Novgorod, she only recently obtained a driver's license.

"Women are more independent, and it's more convenient if both the husband and wife drive," Mrs. Yevtushenko says.

As with many driving schools in Russia, her business is prospering. What's more, she says, 30 percent of her students are female, and many of them are older. "A car is more of a means of conveyance than a luxury now," she adds.

Nascent feminism may have something to do the growing number of women drivers. But according to sociologist Zara Saralieva, the phenomenon has more to do with economic freedom. "Most of the women driving the cars don't own them," she says. "They belong to husbands, and they have permission to drive them."

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