How to take a Taxi In the Soviet Union.

By Elizabeth Benedict

Aug. 4, 1991

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MY first morning in the Soviet Union, I strode through the lobby of Leningrad’s Hotel Moskva and out toward the street, Baedeker in hand and three packs of Marlboro flip-tops in my shoulder bag. I quit smoking years ago, but I’d been told these were essential for catching cabs (“Palm a pack and hold out your arm” was a friend’s advice). Given my limited grasp of the Cyrillic alphabet, which made reading even a subway map an ordeal, I planned to catch quite a few cabs in the next five days, shuttling between museums, interviews and a trip to the palace complex in nearby Pushkin. Wrapped around my waist, girdle-like, was a money belt crammed with five- and one-dollar bills, almost an inch thick: the form of payment cabbies would expect once I had lured them with high-status American cigarettes.

I stepped through the doorway and reached into my bag, about to take my friend’s advice, when I was surrounded.

“Taxi! Taxi! Where to?”

“Hotel Astoria.”

“Five dollars,” two or three young men said in unison.

I shook my head. I’d been told the fare should be “a dollar and a pack of Marlboro’s” but I couldn’t bring myself to make such an absurd offer. “Two dollars.”

“Five,” they cried.


They waved me away disgustedly. But someone appeared from the wings. “O.K.,” he said. “Three.”

And no Marlboros? I quickly found that they were not the precious commodity they had been when my friends had visited. Theywould not serve as a taxi whistle or as valuta, Russian for hard currency. A few days later I learned that if I walked 30 feet from the door to my hotel and flagged down an ordinary metered taxi, I would be expected to pay, in rubles, what the meter read, and that a 20-minute trip to the other end of the Nevsky Prospekt, to the Hotel Astoria or the Hermitage, would cost about 3 rubles, or 10 cents. In the meantime, I haggled in English with the guys outside my hotel, though even if I could point to my destination on a map, I often had no idea what the fare should be. “How much to Klimov Pereulok?” I asked a cabby leaning against his grimy Lada. It was the street of a writer I was going to interview.

“Ten dollars.” It looked to be quite a distance. But 12 minutes later, when I handed over two crisp fives, more than the average monthly salary in the Soviet Union, I knew I’d been fleeced. Yet when I took metered cabs, running up fares of 1 ruble and 50 kopecks, less than five cents, I’d give the driver a 10-ruble note and feel guilty for not leaving more. If the driver smoked, I’d add a pack of cigarettes, though I never got over feeling slightly cheapened by the gesture, as if I were tossing peanuts to a zoo animal.

Cabs that took dollars were plentiful near tourist spots, but elsewhere in the city, particularly at rush hour, cabs of any kind were hard to come by. Planning to get to the Kirov Theater on my last evening for a performance of “Giselle,” I stood examining my map at an embankment on the Fontanka Canal. Even if I could find a cab, in rush-hour traffic it might take an hour. Then I noticed it was a straight shot down the Fontanka Canal and up the Kryukov Canal. The evening before I’d passed the Kirov on a water-taxi tour of the canals ($10 for an hour’s ride). Now I was only a block from the stand where I’d hired the small runabout, at the intersection of Nevsky and the Fontanka Canal. I sprinted along the stone embankment and down a flight of steps built into it, to three taxis with outboard motors. “Kirov Theater,” I announced. “Five dollars.”

A moment later, I was zipping up the glorious, traffic-free waterway in a city that guidebooks call a “Northern Venice.” There was a set of steps at the bridge across the street from the theater. I made it in seven minutes. (A glorious but limited mode of transportation — I saw only two spots where water taxis congregate: where the Moika River and the Fontanka Canal intersect with the Nevsky Prospekt.)

If taxi rides over dry land were less exotic, they offered vivid glimpses of life in a city groping to change everything from its name (the week before, citizens had voted to restore the name St. Petersburg) to its economic system. There was little variety among cabs; they all had worn shocks, balding tires and plenty of Western rock-and-roll classics on the radio. The difference was in the drivers. The middle-aged man who drove me to and from the Piskarov Memorial Cemetery, where 500,000 Russians who died during the Siege of Leningrad are buried in mass graves, charged what the meter read: 15 rubles (50 cents). He was a silent, careful driver, almost funereal in demeanor, and taken aback when I gave him 30 rubles. On leaving the Kirov, I was eager to return to my hotel and agreed to an inflated $5 fare. Seconds later, a French couple also going there joined me in the back seat. The driver slipped the car into gear and took off. “Five dollars for all of us?” I asked.

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He turned around and smiled demonically, “Five you, five them.”

“That’s good business,” I said.

“I am Russian businessman,” he said, grinning again. “Want caviar?” A jar appeared in his hand. “Ten dollars. Good price.” We drifted into the wrong lane. I motioned for him to look at the road. “Why not caviar? Champagne, vodka?” He pulled a long, slim box out of his glove compartment and thrust it into the back seat. A necklace of amber-colored beads. “Very good price.” He looked back again. Three of his teeth were capped in silver. I pointed to the windshield and the oncoming traffic on the Anichkov Bridge, decorated on four sides with bronze equestrian statues. To our right was a lavish baroque palace painted fuchsia, covered with beige columns and muscle-bound male caryatids, and on the radio the Beatles were singing, “The best things in life are free but you can keep them for the birds and bees.”

On my last, hectic afternoon I treated myself to a car and driver to go to Pushkin, about 15 miles south of Leningrad, and then to the airport. I’d made the reservation the day before at a taxi counter in my hotel lobby. For $12 an hour, I’d get a driver who speaks “little bit English” and drives a Mercedes. (My travel agent had offered to book a Soviet car with English-speaking driver for $25 an hour through Intourist.)

My young driver’s English was more than sufficient, and once he told me he was a student at “the Sports Academy,” majoring in race-car driving, I knew I was in good hands. He let me off at the gate to Pushkin’s Catherine Palace, an almost quarter-mile-long palace painted an eye-piercing bright blue, the dizzying architectural centerpiece of the vast czars’ estate where young Pushkin had gone to school and lived for a time as an adult. As I mounted the marble stairs, a man in uniform waved me off. “Closed,” he grunted in English and turned away.

“Closed?” Didn’t they know I’d come all the way from America, and rented a Mercedes to boot?

“Want to go in?” a voice said. I spun around and saw a young man in jeans and a sweater, gripping a walkie-talkie. “Come with me.” Had I stepped into a Russian novel, or was this “The Wizard of Oz: Part 2”? He led me into the lobby, gave me a pair of blanket-thick brown flannel slippers to put on over my shoes, to protect the palace floors, and explained that he was the producer of a television movie being shot upstairs, a Japanese-Soviet joint venture called “Dreams of Russia.” We plodded up the marble staircase and into — my mouth dropped — the Palace’s giant ballroom, the middle of a movie set. The ceiling looked like the Sistine Chapel, the walls seemed to drip gold, and the floor was covered with sheets of plastic bubble wrap, which made popping sounds every time I took a step.

The crew was Japanese, and the 30 or 40 Russian actors were contemporaries of Catherine the Great, bedecked in white wigs, velvet gowns and gold-braided livery uniforms.

“Quiet on the set!” someone must have called out in Russian.

A hush fell over the glittering room. All eyes were on the star (Catherine the Great?), a woman in a gold lame hoop ball gown the width of a walk-in closet. I glanced at her feet; brown flannel slippers covered her dainty monarch’s shoes. I was sure that if I clicked my heels together, even swaddled as they were, I would find myself in Kansas.

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