Snow backs up Russian traffic for 100 miles, 3 days

  • Article by: ANDREW ROTH , New York Times
  • Updated: December 3, 2012 - 9:27 PM

Towns blocked exits, stranding nearly 10,000 vehicles.

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A bulldozer removes snow in Red Square in Moscow, Russia, early Thursday, Nov. 29, 2012. A snowfall hit Moscow on Wednesday with temperatures falling to about 0 degrees Centigrade (32 degrees Fahrenheit) .

Photo: Alexander Zemlianichenko, Associated Press - Ap

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MOSCOW - The snow came down hard Friday, more than 2 feet in places, the first big storm of the year. But in Russia, where the winters are long and difficult, it was nothing out of the ordinary, it seemed.

Then some localities apparently decided on their own to close the exits on the M10 highway between Moscow and St. Petersburg, a 400-mile stretch.

The ensuing traffic jam -- 100 miles long by some estimates and involving 10,000 vehicles -- trapped some motorists for three days and forced senior Russian officials to go on television Monday to mollify thousands of angry drivers.

The response came after state television broadcast images of weekend travelers huddled for warmth in idling cars, and after order seemed to break down among drivers left to fend for themselves in the subfreezing temperatures.

Roadside cafes gouged those wanting sausages and loaves of bread, and the price of cigarettes was reported to have shot up tenfold.

On a helicopter flyover Sunday, Russia's minister of emergency situations saw what for many had become a familiar landscape: a queue of snowbound tractor-trailers stretching for dozens of miles.

Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev said the country was facing a transportation crisis and that the blame could not be placed, at least not wholly, on the Russian winter.

"The elements are the elements, and similar incidents happen in all countries, especially in northern ones, but the question is in the organization efforts to end this situation," Medvedev said, the Interfax news service reported.

The din of complaints in the news media and on social networks refocused attention on the fragile state of Russia's roads, which are prone to gridlock, even in the region around the Russian capital and in St. Petersburg, the second-largest city. When traffic clogged the Moscow beltway for 16 hours in 2001, drivers reportedly tried to persuade others to drive backward down the highway to escape.

Years of underinvestment on Soviet-era infrastructure have left the M10 rarely free of traffic jams on the best of days, prone to nasty bottlenecks in several small towns that lack bypasses.

"We called all night to the Ministry of Emergency Affairs in Moscow and in Tver," one driver told a radio station. "Everyone said, 'Guys, we know what's happening, but we can't help you with anything.'"

As the M10 gradually reopened Monday, Medvedev and his deputies discussed future options, including mobilizing military engineers to avoid similar traffic jams or to aid stranded drivers.

"Let's say that this is not a European road -- it's kind of a Russian road, forested, dark and covered in snow," Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin said at a meeting with Medvedev on Monday.

"So you can imagine the level of despair for some drivers."

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