Kafka Is a Moscow Traffic Cop

Everybody believes their own country has the worst bureaucracy. Russians know it for a fact.

When a friend had to register a car she’d bought recently, I took pity on her and agreed to tag along. Besides providing moral support, I hoped to gain some insight into the workings of Russia’s most despised government agency: the traffic police.

It was a futile undertaking.

On a sunny Saturday morning at 11:00, we found a parking spot not far from a central Moscow police station. The low-rise buildings on both sides of the street were set off by fences and greenery, so it wasn’t immediately clear where we had to go. Then I spotted a banner tied to a fence marking the 75th anniversary of Russia’s traffic police.

Lucian Kim

There were photos of patrol cars, past and future, and of a police awards ceremony. The banner displayed the various abbreviations of the agency over the decades: ORUD, for Department for the Regulation of Street Traffic; GAI, for State Automobile Inspectorate (traffic cops are still called gaishniki); and GIBDD, for the State Inspectorate for Road Traffic Safety of today.

Nearby was a guard booth and a turnstile. Two cops, one with a Kalashnikov slung around his neck, stood chatting. My friend asked if we’d found the entrance to the motor vehicle registry.

“No, this is the exit,” one of the policemen said.

A couple of years ago, a poll showed Russians were more afraid of police than criminals.

It’s always advisable to laugh at the jokes of armed men. A couple of years ago, an opinion poll showed that Russians were more afraid of their own police than common criminals.

We entered a two-story building with a chipped white tile facade and walked down a corridor covered by dark vinyl wood paneling. Here we found an information board labeled: “Algorithm on passing through the administrative procedure of registration actions in the registration department of the AMTSMOGTORER No. 1 of the GIBDD GU of the MVD of Russia of the City of Moscow.” Below was an outline of the five easy steps to registering a car.

Lucian Kim

We followed the instructions and proceeded to Window No. 5 to submit an application. It was located in a room with pale mustard-colored walls and a window overgrown by a jungle of potted plants. A dozen people were waiting in front of us, some seated, others standing, all unhappy. There were no waiting numbers, just the tried and tested Soviet system of asking loudly: “Who’s last in line?”

Window No. 5 was a square hole in the wall that occasionally emitted a muffled female voice. Drivers would subsequently submit their documents through the same orifice. Reams and reams of paper were visible on a shelf in the back room. Window No. 4 was closed.

In theory, a special website allows citizens to apply for a patent or pay a traffic fine online.

Of course my friend could have signed up for an appointment on the internet. Vladimir Putin, for one, has championed the fight against red tape and trumpeted the advantages of e-government. In theory, a special website,, allows citizens to do everything from applying for a patent to paying a traffic fine from their home computer. But when my friend tried to sign up online, she found out that it takes two weeks to get registered, because the activation code is delivered by a 19th century institution known as the Russian Post.

So we waited an hour. When it was my friend’s turn, she handed in her documents. After about 15 minutes, they were returned to her with a printed-out application form and a payment slip for 1,500 rubles ($50), to be paid into an account at Sberbank, the state savings bank.

In the meantime, the number of applicants had grown and the line had disintegrated into a small crowd. When a stocky man waded into the waiting room and asked “who’s last?,” several people burst out laughing.

There was an unspoken understanding among this random cross-section of Muscovites that they were all in this together – and that good humor was an indispensable ally. Only one man lost his temper, and he was promptly silenced by the invisible woman behind Window No. 5.

There was an unspoken understanding that good humor was an indispensable ally.

A few years ago, terminals that accepted cash payments for mobile phone and utility bills popped up all over Russia, apparently with the exception of this particular police station. So we trudged off to the nearest Sberbank branch to pay the registration fee. When we got there, it turned out the bank was closed for repairs.

Luckily there was another branch only five minutes away. Here there were waiting numbers, air-conditioning and smiling female tellers in white-and-green uniforms.

We returned to the police station. What next? According to the instructions, my friend was supposed to take her car to a special lot where the engine number would be checked against the one in the deed. Where was the lot? My friend asked the Kalashnikov-toting cop guarding the entrance.

“I can’t tell you anything, I’m from a different department,” he said gruffly.

We asked a young man unscrewing his old license plates from a black Lexus SUV. He pointed us to a rickety white trailer behind a construction site.

Lucian Kim

About twenty people were waiting in front of the trailer. Cigarette butts littered the area in front of a dirty little window. A pot-bellied traffic cop appeared and announced that he’d accept 10 more applications and check their engine numbers before his lunch break. There was no special lot – the officer simply accompanied car owners to where their vehicles happened to be parked and peered under their hoods.

It was 1:30 p.m. Lunch hour was from 2:00 to 3:00. The young man who was first in line said he wouldn’t be going anywhere, just in case other people showed up in the meantime and formed a new queue. My friend and I sought consolation in the efficiency and predictability of a McDonald’s around the corner.

No wonder corruption is such a problem in Russia, my friend said. Yes, I replied, but it’s not only humiliating to waste away your day registering your car, it’s just as humiliating to pay a bribe. She agreed. It’s a no-win situation and one of the reasons Muscovites have been protesting since December. They don’t just demand free and fair elections, but a government that treats them with respect.

The fat cop came back with his clipboard and gathered the next group of ten car owners. My friend was the tenth, and after an hour it was her turn to have her engine number checked. We removed the old plates and returned to the police station to collect her new ones. She waited to be called into Office No. 2.

Lucian Kim

When she finally exited the office, she was in tears. The officer issuing new plates had discovered that her insurance policy was invalid. Due to the carelessness of her insurance company, the policy had been made out to a nonexistent person.

“Come back on Tuesday,” the officer said. It was 5:00, closing time, and the motor vehicle registry doesn’t work on Mondays.

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