Elena’s invitation to the hitchhiker was not encouraging. ‘We’ll give you a lift if you want,’ she said. ‘But honestly I wouldn’t get in this car with us. For a start, the thing’s a wreck. The lights aren’t working. We don’t know what’s happened to them. We’ve already had one crash, and it was all my fault because I can’t really drive. And none of the rest of them’ – she gestured to me – ‘has the faintest idea where we are.’ The teenager looked nervous, but only for a moment. She handed her wicker basket to Oksana and squeezed into the back beside her. As we pulled out into the Sunday evening traffic heading towards Moscow, she was tearing an enormous gingerbread heart into four pieces and chatting happily about the fatal accidents she had seen. ‘Last week was awful,’ she announced with a grin. ‘There were bodies all over the road.’ We had two hundred miles to go and it was getting dark. ‘It’s really boring around here,’ she added through the crumbs. ‘I’m glad I’ve met the three of you.’

Russia is never really boring. Its unexpectedness, its wildness and its anarchy have fascinated travellers for centuries. My friends have a word for it: ‘ethnography’. Almost anything that goes wrong, from the privatisation of state industry to the plumbing in my flat, can be attributed, in their scheme, to the national culture. The idea is appealing because it takes the heat out of so many daily irritations. There’s nothing personal about it, I can tell myself as the civil servant blocks another carefully framed request. It’s just their culture. We have morris dancing. Whether I call it ‘ethnography’ or ‘tolerance’, some version of this openness, this readiness to set expectation aside, must be the only valid approach for me to take. But it’s easy to be detached when things are going well. It is much harder to stay calm when faced with imminent death.

‘Moscow is not Russia,’ my friends like to insist. ‘You really must come with us to the country.’ We have this conversation frequently. But this time there was no escape. Oksana’s little boy could have some time with his father. Elena’s campaign to retile her kitchen could wait another week. It was ethnography time again, a chance to sample the authentic life, uncluttered by cash machines and satellite TV. We made the idea sound like work, which meant that we could take off two whole days. ‘Let’s go to Andrei’s dacha and have a barbecue,’ Oksana suggested. We could look for mushrooms. Or heat up the banya. Or find that lovely swimming lake. We were enthusiastic by that stage. Even I had forgotten my English caution, my worries about dirt roads, the pile of books unread in the library. And then Elena clinched it. ‘Dad’s lending me the car. We can drive.’ The offer put a stop to any doubts. It also meant we didn’t take her seriously when she said: ‘Perhaps we ought to take a man with us. You know, in case.’

I ought not to have laughed. I think I blame the fluffy mule: there’s a new sticker for cars in Russia – a stylised high-heeled shoe in a red warning circle. Female drivers are encouraged to fix it to their bumpers. Elena’s father, who meant it kindly, had just bought one for her. However much I wanted to believe in ethnography, this was too much to bear. I had never read the Russian Highway Code, and I had not changed even an English wheel in ten years, but I was determined not to let the insult stick. Besides, most of the men I know can’t fix their tappets either. ‘I can drive as well,’ I said. ‘We’ll be OK.’

I’ve been a passenger in lots of Russian cars: real ones, not the imported Saabs and BMWs the new rich drive. Ladas and Zhigulis have features that are all their own. Handbrakes may or may not work: ‘It’s just for decoration,’ my friend Sasha once explained. New drivers must be shown each special feature of the gears and clutch. ‘Just force it’ is a common tip for Lada owners. Russians display a fatalism that has not been seen in Britain since the MOT was introduced. Broken windows can be patched with polythene or insulating tape, fittings lurch about, and my enthusiasm for seat-belts is treated, like my other worries about safety, as English eccentricity – charming but pointless. They also say that I am too involved with death.

We set off on a beautiful autumn morning, leaving avenues of birch and lilac in favour of the ring-road traffic jam. The highway has its own unwritten rules. One: you must not wait behind the car in front. Instead, you have to weave about from lane to lane, mounting the hard shoulder and even driving on the verge, barging in beside any driver who is careless enough to leave a promising-looking gap. White lines, like handbrakes, are for decoration. Two: oncoming traffic will evaporate if you insist on your priority. There are no crash barriers between the streams of cars. Their absence presents an opportunity that is too good to miss. Novice drivers begin by nipping across to overtake a single bus or cart, but as their confidence increases they learn to barrel up the wrong carriageway as if it were an extra lane. Three: traffic-lights are a last resort. Most contests are resolved by other means. ‘Of course I saw that it was red,’ Elena assured me as we cruised past honking trucks and waving fists. ‘I just knew it wouldn’t matter this time.’

This may sound attractively Byronic – or Lermontovian – but there are memorials every half mile or so along the main routes out of town. Some are granite stones, the largest of which may well have been engraved with portraits, names or dates; some are sculptures contrived out of tyres; the simplest are just plastic flowers tied to a tree. They testify to a mortality rate that has been rising steadily since Communism collapsed. They are put up without the blessing of the state, and they speak of an attitude to road safety that refuses government control. This, too, is ethnography in a sense. In Soviet times, the state issued directives on everything from cabbages to child-rearing, and circumventing them became a national sport. Most people still believe that minor infringements of the law – such as speeding, or driving up the wrong side of a motorway – can be easily settled with a well-judged bribe. Traffic police collude in this by offering variable rates. You can pay the higher price and get a real ticket (with receipt), or you can pay in cash and keep the change.

We hit the lorry later that night. Since leaving Moscow we had been driving for about nine hours. We had made a detour to look at an ancient church. We had also visited the swimming lake. So it was well after 11, the roads were empty, and we were stone cold sober. But it was also dark. A pile of rubble – not the first – loomed at us suddenly in the middle of the road. Elena swerved to miss it. There was a crunching noise, not really a crash, and the front of our grey Zhiguli buckled under the oncoming lorry’s offside wing. Two minutes later, after an eerie silence, we were all out on the verge: the three of us, the lorry driver and his dog, his wife, their boy, and his mother-in-law. The man appeared to be amused. ‘I hope you girls have got a rich friend,’ he said. It looked as though the usual rules – comradeliness, humour, creativity – were about to be applied.

At 2 a.m., as we sat round the fire at the dacha, I heard that an acceptable arrangement for damages had indeed been reached. But I had not been there to witness it. We were all talking at once by the side of the road when suddenly the conversation faltered. It was like the first stirring of a tribal memory. ‘What are we going to do with her?’ someone asked. Soviet custom had it that foreigners and policemen do not mix, and the tradition hasn’t gone away. It took a while, but when a car eventually appeared, Oksana and the driver’s wife flagged it down and bundled me into it. ‘Just go to the dacha and sort the place out,’ Oksana said. ‘We’ll deal with the police.’ My driver was a man on his own. The seat-belts did not work. I was not quite sure of the route. But the paranoias of the Anglo-Saxon world had faded from my mind. We chatted about the sorry state of the Russian Army. We found the dacha. I gave the stranger a handful of 100 rouble notes – neither of us affected to check how many – and we said goodnight.

Elena and Oksana turned up in the small hours with two policemen, who had come along to make sure that the car was roadworthy, but one of them also had a question for me. It was not about my passport. Oksana had been reading a second-hand edition of P.G. Wodehouse in English. The paperback was in her coat pocket at the time of the accident. The younger policeman, noticing the cover, mistook it for another of his favourites, Agatha Christie, and soon he and Oksana were talking happily about their ideal England, a country where people drank their Earl Grey at four, a land of spaniels, shooting parties, prize-winning pigs and serial poisoners. Wodehouse gained another Russian fan. His English was so accessible (and so unchallenging) that Oksana and the cop, poring over it at the station, had found only one word they could not translate. Now they wanted my help. We didn’t have a dictionary, and I’d never needed the word in Russian, so I resorted to signs. When these didn’t work, I found an old paper napkin and drew my best newt. ‘See?’ Oksana was delighted. ‘We do have them in Russia!’

If she had been in England, Elena might have spent the following morning looking for a garage. I kept this thought to myself as we cooked a three-course breakfast and planned a half-day mushroom hunt. The West has been telling Russia what to do for long enough. Besides, the police had told my friends that the car was fine, notwithstanding dents and scratches. That seemed to settle everything. We talked about translating fiction as we rummaged through rough grass and bracken picking russulas and ceps. We were still discussing books when we set off back to town, which is why it took a while for anyone to notice that the engine was about to boil. At the same time, the indicators packed up, which also meant that we were without hazard lights. It was Sunday afternoon, four o’clock or so, and we were five hours away from Moscow. The car smelled wonderfully of damp woods.

The fluffy mule ensured that gender, not nationality, defined us when we stopped to ask directions. ‘Three girls in a car!’ The men could count. ‘Horror! Where’s your husband, sweetie?’ We found a garage nonetheless. The mechanic thought we wanted petrol, which he hadn’t got, and hadn’t had for days. But then he saw the front of the car. He disappeared into a shed and came back with a crowbar. He used this to wrench at something underneath the engine and then to bash at something else. Still wordlessly, he fitted a new gadget in the space he had just made. That fixed the overheating problem. The lights were another matter. Elena produced the emergency vodka from the glove compartment. The man didn’t acknowledge it. Instead, he ripped something off the lower end of the dashboard, pulled at a length of plastic wire, and simultaneously put the vodka in his pocket. The lights worked for the next ten miles. The cash price of this service was less than five dollars.

We managed to get back to Moscow. At one point, just before we picked up our hitchhiker, Elena asked me what I would do in England if my lights failed. I started to mutter something nostalgic about the RAC. ‘No,’ she interrupted. ‘Isn’t there something you do if your indicators don’t work? Something they used to do when they had horse-drawn carriages in London?’ An academic hates to say she does not know. As a result, we drove the next two hundred freezing miles, including a rush-hour stretch on the motorway, with the front windows open. I did the hand signals whenever we turned right, Elena did the left-hand ones. The hitcher fed us gingerbread and kept on talking about death. When we got back, she joined us in the flat. An anxious group of men – husbands, fathers and assorted friends – was waiting for us. They’d been so frantic with concern that they had polished off the whisky, the brandy and most of the beer. All that was left for us was sticky Soviet port wine.

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