Magazine

Zil lanes: From Moscow to London 2012

  • 29 July 2012
  • From the section Magazine
Zil
Image caption A late Brezhnev-era Zil by the Moscow World Trade Center (completed 1979)

The special Games Lanes for Olympic athletes and officials, which have given rise to jams and infuriated some drivers in London, have been branded "Zil lanes". The nickname comes from the infamous traffic lanes in Moscow reserved for the most senior officials of the Soviet Union travelling in their black Zil limousines.

Kutuzovsky Prospekt, the grand Stalinist 12-lane highway sweeps from the Moscow river through the grey high-rise suburbs, past the huge victory memorial and out to the wooded countryside west of the Russian capital, which has been the playground of the country's leaders for almost a century.

This was the location of the most infamous of the Soviet Union's rezervniye polosy, or reserved lanes.

It was one of the great ironies of Communist Russia that the socialist leaders - who were supposed to be protecting the interests of the proletariat - themselves lived lives of privilege, comparable to those of Western leaders.

Image caption Anyone driving in a games lane faces a £130 fine

And one of the great privileges was to be swept through Moscow's then limited traffic in the back of a grand Zil limousine, right down the centre of the road.

Contrary to popular myth, there weren't many of these reserved lanes. The two main ones were on Leninsky Prospekt, on the way to the government airport at Vnukovo, and on Kutuzovsky Prospekt, the route to the grand dachas - country houses - reserved for the very top of the party leadership.

Exactly when the lanes started operating has been forgotten. Josef Stalin had an army of men with red flags who blocked all roads on his route so he didn't need them, but certainly by Leonid Brezhnev's era (1964-82) the Zil lanes were up and running.

These ran straight down the middle of the giant highways, in the place of central reservations, and were only for the use of emergency vehicles and the highest echelons of the Soviet leadership in their grand but ageing Zil and Chaika limousines.

Although the lanes weren't strictly necessary - private car ownership was so limited that traffic jams didn't really exist until the 1980s.

So what became of Moscow's Zil lanes? Did they die with the last of the old-style Soviet leadership? The one to Vnukovo stopped operating when the airport lost its status. But the lane on Kutuzovsky Prospekt survives to this day.

Every evening, as Muscovites sit stuck in some of the worst traffic jams in the world, they can watch their leaders sweep past to their dachas.

The Zil and Chaika limousines are gone, replaced by black high-powered top-end German cars with flashing blue lights on top, and accompanied by one of the most hated sounds in Moscow - the squawking migalki, the peculiarly aggressive sirens fitted to Russian official cars.

Image caption Kutuzovsky Prospekt and the Victory Park

So if you get stuck in traffic in London during the next two weeks, fuming at the cars sweeping down the Olympic "Zil lanes", spare a thought for the Muscovites who have to put up with it every day of the year.

And at least the Olympic vehicles won't be squawking at you.