Staunton, November 23 – Roads have been one of the chief bottlenecks for Russian development, with far fewer kilometers of road than the country’s size needed, many population points not connected by paved highways, and the quality of roads so low that they must be repaired almost constantly.
Russians defend this situation by pointing out that they are a northern country with a severe climate and until recently relied more on railroads than on highways and trucks than most other countries do. But the expression “fools and roads” as Russia’s two great misfortunes remains rooted in the Russian psyche.
The situation at the end of Soviet times was truly dire. After Russia became independent, it was still the case that 167 of 1837 district centers did not have hard-surface road connections to oblast and republic capitals and that approximately 250,000 small and mid-sized population centers were not connected to others by paved roads.
And that does not even take into account that many of these roads were impassable because they were poorly constructed and because the government’s arrangements made it profitable even in the 1990s for companies to build bad roads because they could make more money by repairing them than by doing the right thing in the first place.
In fact, during the first post-Soviet decade, Russia built only 365 kilometers of new roads, all around or connected to Moscow. The situation elsewhere continued to be a disaster, constraining economic development, raising questions about the territorial integrity of the country, and threatening Moscow’s ability to move its military forces around.
Since Vladimir Putin came to power, the situation has improved. Between 2000 and 2018, the total length of automobile and truck roads rose from 584,400 kilometers to 1,529,400 kilometers, although some of this was achieved by reclassifying streets and including what had been trucker routes into the highway system.
As a result, the average speed on Russia’s highway system increased, lowering the costs of moving goods and people from place to place, and safety did as well, with deaths from automobile accidents falling by 26 percent in the last five years alone, a figure Moscow hopes to improve upon by 2024 (lenta.ru/articles/2020/11/23/dorogi/).
Except in the immediate vicinity of Moscow, almost all these roads are at best two lanes wide and not limited access, meaning that the Russian Federation does not have a highway system like that of Germany with its autobahns or the United States with its interstate highway network.
Now, the Russian government has decided to change that and to use highway construction as a means of escaping the current economic crisis. It has announced plans to build a countrywide network of high-speak, four or more lane highways and to pay for this massive project by making most of them toll roads (futurerussia.gov.ru/nacionalnye-proekty/avtodor-razrabotal-koncepciu-razvitia-seti-skorostnyh-avtodorog-v-rossii-do-2035-g and profile.ru/cars/dorogo-no-bystro-s-pomoshhyu-platnyx-dorog-rossiya-potixonku-proshhaetsya-so-svoej-vtoroj-bedoj-431910/).
Whether it will succeed in this effort, of course, remains to be seen; but the reliance on tolls and the recognition that highway construction can be a motor of economic growth mean that there is perhaps a better chance now than at any time in the past to link more of Russia together with highways and to rely on them the way most other countries do.