Russian Tough Guys

Daniel Brooks

Russian men are tough guys. Being tough seems to be baked into their genetic code. Perhaps it’s a legacy of Russian history with all of its periods of collapse, renewal, expansion and inevitably, another collapse followed by more glory. Interspersed are wars and the need to keep one’s head low. One strategy is to have a rough exterior, something like verbal armour. Perhaps the Russians simply enjoy being tough. I wish I knew. If I did, maybe I could be a tough guy, too. 

For several years, I’ve been taking my car to a car repair shop in the town closest to our home named Pavlovskaya Sloboda. Men in town are tough but the area surrounding it is rapidly gentrifying. When we moved to the area in 2004, Pavlovskaya Sloboda had one Russian style grocery store. To buy meat and cold cuts, we had to order it across a counter, a lengthy process. We had an outdoor market in town run by Armenians, Georgians and Tadzhiks with whom haggling was a must. A guy cutting meat would give us a good deal on pork. In those days, the market sold affordable stuff. Recently, it burned to the ground, caused by a grease fire at a Georgian restaurant next door. No one believes the fire was accidental.

Nowadays, there are two, high-end grocery stores in town selling food I can’t afford, just across the street from one another. Another three, premium priced retailers are within a 10-minute drive. We have a new market made to look old, with red brick interior walls, black concrete flooring and black steel overhead. Such an interior goes hand in hand with overpriced food and a Vietnamese food stall selling mango milkshakes, the latest craze in Moscow. The market is always nearly empty. When we visited the new market, people manning the vegetable stalls went into a frenzy, trying to unload their tomatoes and other slow-moving product. I wonder how they make any money. At such prices, somebody needs to rethink their business strategy.

The town of Pavlovskaya Sloboda is surrounded on all sides by gated communities, over-populated by turreted and expensive homes, many featuring Grecian columns. This is the effect of a road called the Nova Riga, leading from the centre of Moscow. It has brought an army of wealthy Russians to the area with money to burn. They arrive in SUVs, German and other large vehicles, many of which are black. The women in these vehicles are often tougher than the men. When they come down the road, get out of their way. I always do. They need to arrive immediately to their oversized homes down the road, 200 meters away. Everyone needs to let them have the right of way, including on-coming traffic in the opposite lane. Many are looking at their smart phones as they drive. This invading horde surrounds the decent, hard-working town of Pavlovskaya Sloboda. It doesn’t matter, the town is full of tough guys and remains stubbornly middle class. It’s been assigned a discount store, a pawn shop, a bank offering dubious loans and has grey buildings dating from Soviet times, ideal for men of steel. We’re glad Pavlovskaya Sloboda is still there.  All else is overpriced and mamby-pamby.

My car repair shop is in a typical Pavlovskaya Sloboda neighborhood, a part of town that doesn’t care about what the neighbors think. City planning overlooks or perhaps welcomes an absence of architectural uniformity instead of requiring it. Mansions are next door to shacks, across the street from a government office whose function isn’t clear, down the street from a row of ramshackle garages and just up the road from a banya, popular among men with reddened skin who go outside to smoke wearing a towel. In winter, steam rises up from their heads along with the cigarette smoke. These guys are born tough.  

When I get my car fixed, first question I’m asked is not hello but what’s wrong. I am scowled at, even though behind the façade I can see I’m welcome as a loyal customer who has been overpaying year after year. Perhaps the reaction is caused by an inner turmoil going on in their minds as they decide whether to lay down the law and then fleece me, or the other way around. After checking in, I’m told to go somewhere on the premises to get my car fixed in a way that I cannot possibly understand. Once I arrive at the garage assigned to me, a mechanic gets excited about placing my car in the right spot. There is a lot of hand waving going on. Anyone who gets their car cleaned in Moscow at a ‘moika’ or car wash, knows what I mean. As I drive into the garage, the mechanic keeps telling me to go faster and when it’s time to stop, it needs to be done immediately as if I might lose control and smash into the welding equipment. After that, I’m told to do something in an incomprehensible way. Today, while getting my headlights fixed, the mechanic shouted, ‘avariki’. When I didn’t understand, he shouted ‘avariki’ louder and louder. They turned out to be emergency lights (avarinie signali); he wanted to see if they worked. When I came home, I shouted ‘avariki’ at my dog, Chuck Norris. He had no idea what I was talking about.

Even the bookkeeper is tough. Paying her for goods and services involves two pieces of paper, each of which I have to sign twice, then add my last name and initials on each page in blue (not black) ink. The bookkeeper has a traditional helmet of hair, equal in height to the dimensions of her face.  I never give her exact change and she despises me. I don’t expect her to say thank you but if she said, “all the best” (vsego khoroshego) I wouldn’t mind. I’m of course a foolish foreigner who inevitably blurts out thank you.

I remember going to get my oil changed at a shop in Seattle, when I lived there. Everything was done in the fastest possible way, following a script. I was given a discount card when I signed up and I was provided with a discount. No one was tough. Then I lined up to have my oil changed on something like an assembly line. Two of the mechanics working on my car were women. They were fast. The whole thing was over and done with in a heartbeat. Afterwards, off I was sent off with a big “thank you”.  

In Russia, car repair shops have yet to grasp the need for such efficiency. It’s all about staring down one’s clients, making sure they are submissive, providing a huge estimate and then adding some costs on top.

My car repair shop has a vending machine that produces espresso made with robusta coffee, non-dairy creamer and sugar. It gives me a massive jolt when I drink it. I usually have two.  Everybody knows me. The shop has free wifi that works well. I can sit in their waiting room and write stuff waiting for my car to be fixed. Sometimes I tell the people running the shop that I can’t stand them and hope not to see them any time soon. Toughness is a two-way street. This kind of thing would never happen at Jiffy Lube. 

Copyright, Daniel Brooks, 1 March 2019