“What is Basil Saying? Where is Oversize Lyokha? And How is Platform Trailer Vadim?”
Kommersant Explored How Truckers Are Convoying to the Moscow Ring Road to Protest
Alexander Chernykh and Katerina Shcherbakova
December 3, 2015
The protests by truckers that have taken place over the past three weeks because of the introduction of the Plato payment system are nearing their climax. On Thursday, drivers around the counters waited for President Putin to mention their problems and promise to get to the bottom of them in his annual Address to the Federal Assembly. When this did not happen, truckers begin forming the convoys that will attempt to travel to Moscow and block the Moscow Ring Road.
The Meeting Place Must Be Changed
The protesting truckers should have been in Moscow a few days ago, but the traffic police have been successfully countering them all week. Nationwide, traffic cops have been stop suspicious drivers at every post, checking their documents for several hours, looking for explosives or narcotics in their cargo, fining them for not having first-aid kits and fire extinguishers, and simply turning the most active of them around. This has seriously complicated coordination of the protests: several times, police have shown up right at secret meeting places. To learn the location of another such spot, we had to spend two nights in an online dialogue to convince suspicious drivers that we were reliable. Ultimately, our source did send us a telephone number, a contact name, and the address of a small roadside cafe around 200 kilometers from Moscow. We were given strict instructions to not mention the exact location at all over the phone.
When we got there, it turned there was no more need for conspiracy: the drivers had been been made by the police the day before.
“They didn’t even hide,” smiling in amazement, says Viktor, a young trucker from Novgorod the Great. “I had thought I would never notice if I were being tailed. This business is not my thing. But in this case it is all very simple. That passenger vehicle over there arrived after us and has been sitting next to the cafe for a suspiciously long time. Then a Gazelle [light truck or van] with an antenna on its roof parked next to it.”
When the bored drivers decided to go for a ride in a passenger car, the suspicious automobile immediately pulled out behind them, tailed them for the duration of the trip, and then parked in the exact same place. After this, some of the drivers decided to take their trucks to another stop and drove toward Moscow, but within several kilometers they were all stopped by traffic cops, who asked where the convoy of trucks was headed.
“The guys thought they could outfox them. They said they were really going to Petersburg and were just looking the U-turn on the highways,” recounts one of the drivers who has stayed behind. “But the cops told them they would escort them to the regional border. So they traveled with a motorcade.”
A roadside cafe chockablock with truckers is an ordinary sight for those who travel federal highways at night. But this time the setting resembles a black-and-white Soviet film about revolutionary sailors and striking railway workers. Several drivers sit at a table in the corner and noisly discuss where protesters set out for Moscow and where they got stuck. The situation is aggravated by the fact that the protest has no unified leadership, truckers from different cities do not know each other, and communications between individual convoys have to be established right now.
Mysterious phrases break through the buzz of the conversation.
“What is Basil saying?”
“Where is Oversize Lyokha?
“How is Platform Trailer Vadim?”
“He says he has thirty platform trailers behind him.”
“We are confused ourselves,” gaily remarks Viktor to universal laughter. “We are confused about the highways, the days of the week, and about life in general.”
Communication between the convoys is maintained by delegates, trucker drivers who have got behind the wheel of passenger cars to get past the traffic police posts.
“Andryukha traveled to the Don Highway and talked with the groups [of truckers] parked there. In some places there were a hundred trucks, in other places, thirty,” explains Vova, a well-built man in a sweater. “We have to get the lay of the land, to understand how many trucks in all are planning to convoy and what people’s moods are. Meaning the protest movement is looping back on itself. Tonight, everyone should be on the line so that the coordination is tighter the closer we get to Moscow.”
No one knows the exact number of protesters involved, even the date is still under question, but all the truckers know what they have to do: get to the Moscow Ring Road on Saturday, get into the far right lane, and reduce speed to the minimum allowed.
“Picture this. At the same time, we drive onto the ring from different directions and take up positions in our rightful lanes, one and two,” describes Vova, his eyes blazing. “And our Moscow activists switch to passenger vehicles and driver alongside us in lanes three, four, and five. You thus end up with a giant snail: five lanes on the Moscow Ring Road in both directions. And in Moscow, two such snails are enough for everything to short circuit and grind to a halt,” he says, smiling proudly.
The truckers do not know what they will do next.
Heavy Duty Arithmetic
The date when the snail was to crawl on the Moscow Ring Road has been postponed several times. Now the truckers have seemingly come to a final agreement. On Thursday (December 3, 2015) at noon, they will watch President Vladimir Putin’s speech to the Federal Assembly.
“This whole time, nobody has reported about us and our demands, neither Channel One nor NTV,” Victor says with resentment in his voice. “Only the Internet has written about us, but radio and TV have been silent. We are waiting for the address in order to see whether Putin knows about the problem or not, whether he intends to do something or whether we are ‘uninteresting’ to him.”
“I think he doesn’t decide such issues. It is all done for him. Well yeah, the Rotenbergs are his friends. But the law was passed while Medvedev was still president, and he signed this ‘rubbish.’ Maybe Putin just does not have all the information,” says a young driver, a little haltingly.
“Personally, I am fed up with this uncertainty,” wearily says a very thin young man with close-cropped hair as he approaches the table. He is Alexander, a convoy delegate who recently returned from Rostov. It is evident he can barely stand on his feet from lack of sleep, but he shakes hands with everyone and sits down at the table.
“Putin should say it clearly: pay, guys. That is what we have decided and we are not going to change it. It would be good if he came out to the people and told them straight in the eye.”
“And then what?”
“Then I’ll sell my truck, pay off my loans, and go live in some other country.”
Currently, Plato charges 1.53 rubles per kilometer, but beginning in March of next year this rate will double, to 3.06 rubles per kilometer. Self-employed truckers are completely certain that the new toll system will bankrupt them within a few months. To prove this, they discuss their incomes and expenses in detail, citing figures.
“Well, look. A freight run between Petersburg and Moscow costs 36 to 40 thousand rubles. This is considered a very good rate for a round-trip run,” says Viktor. “But almost 20 thousand rubles of this sum goes for fuel. The exact figure depends on the truck. European trucks use less fuel; American trucks use more. Russian trucks use even more.”
On the road, truckers need to fuel up themselves.
“You can see yourselves what the prices are like in the cafes. You go into eat and you spend no less than 300 rubles, sometimes a whole 500 rubles. You run up a food bill of no less than two or two and half thousand rubles during a run.”
A run lasts from three to five days. Moscow is closed at night to trucks, so they often have to idle on the approach to the capital.
“As a result, I have one, at most two runs a week,” says Viktor. “Excluding fuel and food I make 16 to 18 thousand rubles per run. And that is if nothing has broken down on the road. It can happen that you run over a piece of metal and burst a tire. Then you hand over that 18 thousand for repairs. You haven’t been home for an entire week, and you show up with no money.”
In addition, there are monthly expenses on routine maintenance of the truck—topping up the oil, making small, preventive repairs—whose costs come to about 20% of the fuel consumed over a month.
“I also pay 40 thousand a year in motor vehicle taxes,” the drivers says, bending his fingers. “Plus around six thousand for insurance. And I am registered in Novgorod Region, where the rates are tiny. Vovka pays twice as much in Leningrad Region.”
Vovka nods in agreement.
“And there is the excise tax for fuel, seven rubles a liter,” continues Viktor. “And I also have to pay for vehicle inspection, tire replacement, and all expendable supplies. We all here are just barely earning the minimum, and they are trying to finish us off with a new tax.”
According to Viktor, he puts between 100,000 and 150,000 kilometers a year on his truck.
“Next year, the toll will be 3.06 rubles [per kilometer],” the trucker reminds us. “So I will have to pay at least 400 thousand rubles [approx. 5,500 euros at current exchange rates] to the Rotenbergs. Meaning to Plato.”
The truckers have no idea where they will get the money. Officials at the Ministry of Transportation have tried to persuade them that their wallets will not suffer because their customers will end up paying the difference.
“Yeah, the customer will pay me more, but he will raise his prices. I will go into his store and pay more,” says Viktor, shrugging.
In addition, the Ministry of Transportation has not taken into account the fact that truckers have to run empty for many kilometers.
“I live in Novgorod the Great. It is a small city. We have nothing to transport,” says the trucker. “The largest freight turnover is between Moscow and Petersburg. For me to get to a customer in Petersburg I have to travel 200 kilometers, mileage I pay out of my own pockets. Dropping by home is 200 kilometers there and 200 kilometers back. And so it goes every time.”
“I am from Tver. We have work for a fifth of our drivers at most. Everybody else goes to Moscow or Petersburg,” confirms the man sitting next to him at the table.
“Listen, but even if you are traveling empty, you are still damaging the road, no?” I ask.
The truckers eye me suspiciously. Stating that trucks have negative impact on the road surface is a grievous heresy to them.
“Look at the ring roads in Moscow and Petersburg,” they argue. “Cargo vehicles are forbidden from driving beyond the second lane. So what is the lowdown? In the left lanes, where only passenger vehicles travels, the ruts are much deeper and the bumps bigger than in the lanes where trucks travel.”
“And most importantly, what are we paying for?” asks Alexander. “I traveled though Totma just now, the snow was coming down, and they were putting down asphalt? Right under the snow, can you imagine? And they are demanding money from us for this.”
And yet the drivers point out that Platon will be a blow not just for them but for all of small business. Alexander quietly tells us about a small furniture factory in Saratov owned by three young men his age. The factory used to send three truckloads a day to stores in Moscow and Petersburg, but in recent months, they have been sending three truckloads a week.
“They say that because of the crisis all their supplies have become more expensive,” recounts Alexander. “The parts and the leatherette are from China, their furniture has become more expensive, and people don’t want to buy it at the new prices.”
If the factory now has to pay its driver an additonal five or six thousand rubles for each run, it will simply go bust.
“And it is local people who work there, not Uzbeks. I have talked to them. They make 40 to 50 thousand rubles a month, good money. I went into the cafeteria, and there you can eat for fifty rubles, without a markup,” says Alexander. “Who is going to win if the factor closes and dozens of people lose their jobs? Who wants that?”
“That is why we private drivers are so worried< he says, turning to me. “We see our customers, talk with them, and realize that many of them will just not be able to cope. This road toll will finish them off.”
“Well, what are we all going to do?” Viktor asks angrily from the other end of the table. “My daughter is five months old. My wife is taking care of her and cannot work for now. And my wife has a problem with her milk, she has been underfeeding her. We have been buying dry milk now. A can costs 1,200 rubles and lasts for a week. Figure out how much that comes to for a month.”
“I don’t mean this is such an unbearable amount,” he continues with such fervor it immediately becomes clear that this is big money, why hide it? “But it’s another fifteen hundred for diapers. Then it’s something else, and something else again. Now it’s this Plato,” he says angrily. “What am I supposed to? What are we supposed to do now? Where do we go? To be honest, all we know how to do is drive trucks.”
The other truckers look at him in silence.
An eighteen-wheeler slowly passes the window.
“There is another one driving under the black flag,” someone at the table scornfully utters. “Profiting at our expense, the bugger.”
Due to the fact that some drivers are involved in the protests, there has been a deficit of free trucks in recent weeks. Customers have begun offering two times as much for runs, and many private drivers have gladly agreed to haul their goods. But, in order to save money, they also have not installed the Plato system. The striking truckers regularly ridicule them on CB radio, but they prefer to remain silent.
“Well, so what should we call them?” one of the drivers asks me indigndantl. “Strikebreakers? What kind of breakers are they? They’re out-and-out ‘reptiles’ is what they are!”
Viktor recounts how he recently quarreled with his father-in-law, who is also a truck driver, but said that resistance was useless and installed the Plato system.
“The war hadn’t even begun, and he had already surrendered,” said the driver, outraged. “I told him so. I said, ‘You are my enemy, and I don’t want to know you.”
“You remember how Stalin didn’t free his son from the Germans?” Victor asks unexpectedly. “Well, I thought that if Stalin did not spare his son, then why the hell did I need such a father-in-law. The boys here with me, they are my family.”
The Road to the Moscow Ring Road
Late at night, most of the drivers disperse to their trucks to sleep. Those who are participating as passengers stay up to drink with stringer photographers who have shown up from somewhere. The whole time well-built men drink vodka sourly at the next table. Suddenly, one of them approaches the drivers and screams at a photographer, allegedly, for taking a picture of him. The situation becomes heated instantly. The strangers began pushing and challenging the other men to “come outside and talk.”
“They look like titushky,” says one of the truckers. “We saw them today. They were hanging around that car that has been following us. Now they’ll start a fight, and the cops will show up and detain everyone.”
“No, they’re just drunks,” his comrade disagrees with him. “But it’s unpleasant all the same.”
A fight has already begun outside, and the drivers advise all outsiders to leave the cafe until morning. We go to warm up in the truck of Valera, a calm 49-year-0ld man who proudly tells us he has been driving big rigs since 1987.
“Take off your shoes and come in. We’re going drink tea now,” he cordially invites us into the cab of his truck as if it were a flat.
Hearing about the drunken comrades, he shakes his head disapprovingly.
“We are already losing soldiers on the way to Moscow.”
Valera ignites a small burner and puts a tiny metal teapot on it. As the water heats up, we thaw in the warmth and inspect the cab.
“I’ll have to sell the truck now,” the middle-aged driver says softly. “Although who wants it? I’ll get kopecks for it. Yes, it’s old, but I bought it that way on purpose, then repaired it myself. I am good with my hands.”
I ask him why private truckers would rather leave their jobs than work for a haulage company.
“A comrade of mine worked for a company. He made 50 thousand rubles a month,” Valera drily replies. “Only he spent one or two days at home a month. He gets back to Petersburg from a run, leaves his truck at the boss’s lot, gets on a commuter train, rides seventy kilometers, spends the night at home, and in the morning gets a call telling him to come in right away. Is that a life? I cannot take that anymore, I’m too old. And nobody can take it. That is why almost 80% of long-haul drivers are private drivers or tiny individual entrepreneurs who own a couple of trucks.”
We drink hot tea as Valera unfolds the sleeping berth.
“We all realize, of course, that the government suddenly needed money,” he says as we part. “We have got the turmoil in Syria, and missiles also cost money. But MPs should find other reserves to pay for this, not pay for it at our expense.”
In the morning, the drivers sleepily gather for a smoke next to their trucks.
“Policemen approached us last night and warned that everyone would be stopped at the nearest Road Patrol Service post and charged with extremism,” one of them grimly recounts.
“Come on, he was pulling your leg. What kind of extremists are we?” a comrade responds to him incredulously.
“Well, maybe he was kidding, but it is unpleasant in any case,” concludes a third driver.
While the drivers gather in the cafe, where they have planned to watch the president’s speech together, we drive to a Road Patrol Service post.
“We are not looking for any extremism here,” the police commander answers firmly as his subordinates snatch trucks and semis from the stream of traffic with waves of their batons.
“We are just in the midst of Operation Anti-Terror, and we are selectively checking all vehicles,” he explains in an official tone before adjusting a young policeman’s sagging reflective vest and walking away.
The policemen at the post copy down the license numbers and passport details of the truck drivers.
“Are you waiting for the anti-Platonists?” asks one of the policeman, unable to contain himself. “They won’t make it here. They will be stopped before they get here.”
Ten minutes before the start of the broadcast, the drivers suddenly change their location and drive a couple of kilometers to the next cafe, where about a dozen truckers are already sitting. The drivers silently listen to the president. They refrain from commenting on his speech, but with each passing minute they lose more and more interest in it. When the head of state begins talking about the problems of villagers, the drivers start telephoning their comrades and discussing different routes to Moscow.