Transportation in Russia often entails traveling or transporting goods over incredibly long distances. Most of the rivers travel only north and south and paved roads are difficult to maintain in places with extreme weather. Thus railroads have traditionally transported the bulk of goods and passengers. This is changing quickly as more people get their own cars and trucks. Locally, in rural areas, you can still see many people using horse-drawn peasant carts.

In the post-Soviet era, Russia’s transportation infrastructure has continued the process of deterioration that began in the last years of Soviet governance. The systems also suffer from a Soviet administrative design ill-suited to a market economy: modes of transportation are vertically integrated, placing control of all aspects, from equipment production to station management, under the same authority.

That handicap, together with the long distances covered by roads and railroads, adverse climatic conditions, and the stress of the post-Soviet transition, places Russia in need of massive overhauls in all aspects of its transportation system. Modes of ground transport have dominated passenger traffic. According to a 2006 poll, 82 percent of Russians have traveled by motor vehicle, 64 percent by railroad, and 15 percent by air. [Source: Library of Congress, October 2006 **]

Transportation in the Soviet Era

The transportation system during the Soviet period was organized in the form of vertically integrated monopolies controlled by the central government. Thus, for example, the same administrative agency owned and operated the airports, airlines, and enterprises that manufactured aircraft. [Source: Library of Congress, July 1996 *]

Ticket buying was often a hassle. Sometimes passengers arrive hours before the train arrived and lined up behind the ticket window. Arguments and fights sometimes broke out when people tried to butt in lines. Those caught on the train without tickets have to pay five times the normal price.

People commuted on cheap public transportation of buses, trams, subways and trains. The fare for a ride was about seven cents. Trams in some towns had only one destination—the local factory. People were collected in the mornings and dropped off in the late afternoons.

The Soviets built the largely unused BAM railway (See Railroads), which parallels much of the Trans-Siberia Railway but is further north, at great expense. Plans that didn't make it off the drawing boards included building dams near the Arctic to flood Central Siberia and using nuclear bombs to build massive canals to link major rivers. The Russians have proposed digging a 100-kilometer tunnel below the Bering Strait to link the United States with Russia and proposed building longer tunnels from the Russian mainland to Sakhalin Island and from there another tunnel to Japan.

Travel in Mud, Winter and Permafrost

Transportation in Siberia and the cold areas of Russian is often easier in the winter because the vehicles can travel on the frozen waterways. Major rivers and lakes become frozen overland transportation routes. In St. Petersburg, you can take a taxi ride on the frozen Neva river in an air cushion taxi vehicle for around $5.

In many parts in the Arctic the only means of transportation other than helicopters, ships and planes are reindeer sleds. In some parts of Russia, horse-drawn sleighs are more common than cars on the frozen dirt roads.

Describing springtime Russian mud, Fred Hiatt wrote in the Washington Post: "it was everywhere, and it was not the benign glob of childhood pies. This mud was thick, squelching, voracious. And there was nothing but mud—no asphalt road or safer ways round. Jeeps set out across it and pitched and rolled and swivelled like sailboats on a dangerous sea. Eventually, like all vehicles, they succumbed. Then you stepped down, lifted your foot, and found that boot had been left behind...It is easier to walk with flippers here.”

Permafrost also presents challenges. Under the pressure from wheels, railroad tracks and foundations, permafrost turns to mud. To keep them from sinking road beds have to be insulated and buildings erected in logs. Permafrost is incredibly hard and almost impossible to dig by hand. Pick axes bounce right off it. Miners use explosives, high-powered pressure water hoses that rip away permafrost layer at surprising speed but also at great expense. These hoses can eject 32,000 liters of water per minute from 100 meters away at pressures reaching 300 pounds per square inch.

Oymyakon (600 kilometers miles northeast of Yakutsk) is the world's coldest inhabited place. According to the Guinness Book of Records, it has unofficially recorded temperatures as low as -72 degrees C (-98 degrees F). Cars in Omyakon often last only a couple of years. The windshields have double panes with air between them to keep them from becoming opaque with ice. Sometimes it is so cold tires split open and brittle metal cracks when you hit it. People often drive in groups. One man got a flat tire and while he trying to change it his hand froze to the wheel. He tried to chew his hand off but before he could finish he froze to death.

Urban Transportation

In the Soviet era, People commuted on cheap public transportation of buses, trams, subways and trains. The fare for a ride was about seven cents. Trams in some towns had only one destination—the local factory. People were collected in the mornings and dropped off in the late afternoons. The virtually free transportation of the Communist era has either disappeared or gotten expensive. As of 2005, people paid about $25 a month for public transportation. Mass transit has been shut down in many places as a result of fuel shortages and lack of spare parts.

Although the high price and scarcity of passenger automobiles required Soviet citizens to rely on public transportation, Soviet policy makers gave low priority to civilian transportation. Only six Russian cities have underground systems--Moscow, St. Petersburg, Yekaterinburg, Nizhniy Novgorod, Novosibirsk, and Samara. The extensive and decorative Moscow subway system, built in the 1930s as a showpiece of Stalinist engineering, remains the most reliable and inexpensive means of transportation in the nation's capital. [Source: Library of Congress, July 1996 *]

Elsewhere, buses are the main form of public transportation. In cities, tramways supplement bus service, accounting for one-third of the passenger-kilometers that buses travel. The Russian Federation continues the Soviet-era 70 percent state subsidy, which keeps fares artificially low. This subsidy has been a drain on the budget and has blunted the public's demand for alternative modes of transportation. The system's infrastructure and vehicle fleets require extensive repair and modernization. *

In Moscow, there are subways, buses, trolleys and trams. You can get around the Kremlin and Red Square area well enough on foot. To get to other places you will to rely on public transportation or taxis. Moscow has an excellent underground Metro systems, city buses and the 350-stop trolleybus system. Unless you know the Cyrillic alphabet it difficult to read the stops and signs.The tickets for bus, trams and trolleybuses (buses connected to electric lines over the buses) are the same. They need be validated in a turnstile when entering. Private cars often serve as taxis. You can one flag down by standing on the sidewalk and holding at your hand to let passing drivers know you want a ride.

Moscow Metro

The Moscow Metro is the world's busiest subway system. Opened in 1935, it has 4,143 railcars, 158 stations, 158.9 miles of track and services 8.5 million riders a day or 3.2 billion passenger journey's a year. The 23½-mile-long line on the Moscow Subway between Medvedkovo and Bittsevsky is the world's longest subway tunnel. The layout is fairly simple: each line has a color and name; the name of the station is announced at each stop. The station are marked by big "M" signs. The trains are very frequent. No problem if you miss one. Rarely do you have to wait more than three minutes for the next one to arrive. Sometimes it’s only a minute between trains. The metro runs from 5:30am to 12:30am, after which you will have to take a taxi.

Some knowledge of Cyrillic necessary to decipher Moscow metro system. The system is fairly well organized and logical. The most confusing thing is dealing with stations in which you change from train to another. Sometimes a single station can have different station names for different lines. The Metro fares are ridiculously cheap, about 20 cents a ride. Passengers used magnetic cards which are placed in a machine when you enter the station and when you leave. The price of a ticket is the same regardless of the distance and number of transfers. The tickets ar available in denominations of 1, 2, 5, 10, etc, rides and monthly passes. A 10-ride tickets is very convenient.

The Moscow Metro is sometimes called the "world's most beautiful subway. Some of the stations are adorned with chandeliers and engraved arches. Other have art-nouveau stained glass windows and Stalinist mosaics. Komsomolskaya Station is decorated with mosaics, crystal chandeliers and stained glass.

Some of the best Stalinist architecture is underground the Metro. Mayakovskay Station has overhead mosaics, soaring marble arched sand pillars and a stained glass ceilings. Ploshchad Revolutsi (Revolutionary Square) is lined with marble niches with bronze statues of famous athletes, soldiers, farmers and factory workers. Novoslobodskaya has stained glass windows. Kievskaya metro station features or ornate gallery that looks like something from a baroque palace. From the outside Komsomolskaya station looks like an Orthodox church. In recent years it has become overrun with beggars and homeless people.

High-speed, four lane escalators carry people as far down as 200 meters into the underground stations. The station were designed to double as air raid and civil defense shelters, which is one reason why the escalators are so long and fast. Most are stations are spotlessly clean. Russians who have traveled abroad say they are much “more civilized” than the ones in New York.

Taxis in Russia

Taxis are generally very cheap but sometimes drivers try to gouge foreign tourists. There is no real system of taxi licensing. Taking a taxi often means going out in the street and flagging down any car that passes by (a “gypsy” taxi) and paying the driver $1 or $2 for a ride.

There are two kinds of taxis: official taxis and unofficial "gypsy" taxis. In Moscow, the official taxis are yellow and have a taxi sign on the roof. In regard to which one to take, there are two lines of reasoning. One advises foreign travelers to stick with more expensive official registered taxis for safety reasons. The other line of reasoning is take the gypsy cabs. They are cheaper, more convenient, more adventurous and more Russian. Russians say there is little risk in taking them. Young women do it all the time, late at night, and rarely have problems.

There are different prices for Russians and foreigners. Russian taxi drivers generally don't expect a tip from Russians but sometimes they do from foreigners. Avoid taxis that have another passenger inside. Sometimes they are muggers. Also avoid the groups of taxis drivers that gather around train and bus stations, tourist hotels and places frequented by tourists. You are better off and less likely to get ripped off or robbed if you flag a driver down on the street.

Official Taxis operate sort of like cabs in the United States. You can hail one on the streets, catch one at a station or taxi stand, or have one called for you by phone (there is often a charge for this). To page a taxi, the easiest thing to do is have someone at your hotel call one for you. Metered cabs don't use their meters. Even if they do they negotiate an off meter price. Their fares are generally about the same as the gypsy cabs unless the vehicle is very nice or the taxi has been paged. Taxi drivers arranged through hotels sometimes speak English. Sometimes they are good people to show you around. Often, it doesn't cost much to hire a taxi for a whole day especially if you have two or three people to split the costs.

Gypsy Taxis are essentially any driver who chooses to stop and give you a ride. This way there is never a problem finding a taxi because every motorist is a potential taxi driver. Generally you stand on the side of the road and flag cars as they pass. When someone stops you negotiate a price and the driver decides whether its is worth his while. If you are not pleased with a driver, you can wave him on. Expect to pay about $1 for every 15 minutes you are in the vehicle. Drivers prefer foreign customers to Russians because they feel they can charge more. In Moscow, for example, foreigners often pay $10 for a ride that would cost a local person $2. They price you get depends on your bargaining ability.

Reforming Soviet Era Transportation

As with the rest of the economy, the transportation and telecommunications infrastructures of the Russian economy continue to bear the imprint of Soviet central planning. The Communist Party priorities shaped those systems, and they are generally inappropriate to serve the needs of a market economy. Many analysts contend that inferior transportation and communications constitute a major impediment to Russian economic growth. The infrastructure eroded seriously in the late Soviet period and requires much modernization and reform, for which Russia relies heavily on foreign investment and aid. [Source: Library of Congress, July 1996 *]

In the first half of the 1990s, market forces shifted some of the demand among the various transportation services. Russian policy makers had not prescribed the proper role of the transportation sector in the new economy. However, officials indicated that Russia will follow the Western model of assuming government regulation of transportation systems while reducing state ownership of those systems. *

Many state-owned transportation monopolies have been dissolved, but some monopolies such as public transportation are expected to remain in place. The role of government will be to ensure that the systems are commercially viable and allow private systems to emerge. The government also will continue to be responsible for maintaining the quality and availability of the road, air, and water infrastructure and for maintaining standards of transportation safety. *

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, U.S. government, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, and various books, websites and other publications.

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© 2008 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated May 2016

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