Unofficial Taxi in Moscow

Another interesting culture phenomena was private “taxi”.  I have never seen people give a ride to strangers so easily.  I couldn’t understand what you talk with the drivers about, but I got very interested to learn about this deal.


taksi golosuyuschieYes, that “private taxi phenomena” always amazes my foreign friends, who visit Moscow. When you need a ride somewhere in the city – you just lift your hand and in mere seconds one or several cars will stop.

Most likely these cars will not be official taxi cabs, they will be private cars. Drivers who are not in a hurry and want to make some extra cash for gas often do what we call “bombing”. They give rides to strangers for a modest remuneration. These cars are not equipped with a meter (and do not have a special color or signs), you typically just negotiate the price before starting the journey. Sometimes a driver says: “Sorry, I am going to a different part of town”. But in most cases they take you.

oscow.jpg?w=768&ssl=1 768w" sizes="(max-width: 240px) 100vw, 240px" /> Traffic on a typical day

Surprisingly, that practice is quite safe. Cases of robberies or other bad events associated with this “bombing” practice are rare. Most drivers are your fellow citizens and they do not have any malicious intentions. They will safely transport you to the destination and will usually tell you their life story on the way. You will also get engaged in a conversation about Moscow traffic jams, government policies and important worldwide events. And will have a chance to listen to music that you normally do not listen to (although a driver will always ask whether the music disturbs you and will immediately mute the radio if you have an incoming phone call).

This phenomena of unofficial cabs emerged in the early 90s, when so many people lost their jobs and had to find other ways to feed their families. I will write a separate post about official cabs in various historical times, but that was the time when official taxi service provided by the State seized to exist and it was almost impossible to find an official cab. At present there are thousands of official cabs in Moscow, but people still use unofficial taxis. Old habit.

Taxi_woman_NYI really enjoy taking unofficial cabs since there is always a great story to be heard during the ride. On the top of my list is the story of one woman, which I heard more than 10 years ago. It is quite rare for women to work as unofficial cab drivers. This woman in particular did not look like she belonged there. Here is her story. In Soviet times she used to work in a large official organization and hold a significant position. That was the time when currency exchange was an illegal deed, you could get imprisoned if caught when trying to buy US dollars at the black market. That was exactly what happened to her. She lost her job, went into jail, her husband vanished, her life was completely destroyed. When she got released from prison, USSR did not exist any more and currency exchange became an ubiquitous part of everybody’s life (inflation was so bad that the only way to save your money was to convert it in foreign currency immediately upon receiving. When she was under trial – she was pressed for information about “other members of criminal group”, her friends or colleagues who also hunted for currency exchange. She stayed strong and did not succumb to an offer to reveal names and, when she was released from prison, people whom she saved from the same fate gave her that car as a present. And that present really helped her and eventually led to our meeting. I was stunned that this woman was not bitter about the unfair situation she got into. She said that one has to accept what life throws at us and think about the future rather than mull over the past. Russian women are incredibly strong!

There were many other stories, some I remember, some not. One really funny story involved a driver, who took me to the airport. A man in his late 50s. He asked me whether I was traveling to Turkey. I said that I was traveling to a different destination. But he kept saying that it was a great pity that my destination was not Turkey and I was curious and asked him why. He answered that he had been to Turkey many years ago and bought himself two pairs of great pants, but now they got worn off. If I were traveling to Turkey, he would’ve asked me to buy him those pants. Oh, and btw, there is no shortage of pants or any other wardrobe items in Russia now, shopping malls are everywhere and they explode with goods. But he sincerely thought that the really good ones are sold in Antalya and was completely sure I would help him if only I were flying there.

There are many more stories, big and small. A boy in his 20s, who is madly in love with his new girlfriend and needs cash to take her to movies and cafes. An old gentleman, whose granddaughters asked him to send them to relatives in Armenia for school holidays and he had already booked tickets for them and needs to buy them before midnight. A guy who had a date with his lady that evening and ordered cooked shrimps from a fancy café and needed money to pay for them (we actually stopped by this café on our way and the intense smell of shrimps accompanied us on the rest of the way. My experience with all those people was pleasant and I learned a lot from them.

Traffic under the Kremlin walls

Traffic under the Kremlin walls

Having said all that though, I would not recommend any foreigners to use unofficial cabs if they are alone in the city. Firstly, I think that being an insider here, I can quickly scan whether the driver is just an average muscovite, who needs some cash or he could be dangerous. Secondly – I know prices and can negotiate a good deal (native Russian is a key for that). And finally, migration of people from other CIS countries brought many criminals and bad drivers to the city. It is better to be safe than sorry, so we tend to avoid cars that are shabby and old and drivers, who speak with heavy accent and ask whether you could know directions to the city center. Foreigners do not have enough knowledge or intuition to successfully filter all that. And now, there are thousands of official cabs which people can use. I will write more about official cabs in a separate post.

My prediction is that the phenomena of unofficial cabs will disappear in the next several years – either with the government regulations for taxi service or just naturally.

Leave a Reply

  • oleg - 8 years ago

    Well, I would not recommend using those cabs for a different reason: most of the time they don’t know where to go, and you have to do a bit of explaining, which requires knowledge of the city and the language, both things most of the foreigners don’t possess.

    Also it is hard for a foreigner to distinguish the “migrants” (are they more dangerous comparing to the locals I don’t know, too much noise around the topic): they cannot pick up the accent, they don’t look too much different to moscovites on a grand scheme of things, falling under “white Caucasian” category.

    Personally, I stopped using them a while ago, unless I am really forced to.

    Oleg Z.

  • Anonymous - 8 years ago

    Thanks for posting my question on the top of your blog!! It is fantastic that you launched this blog to share a lot of stories. Congrats! Makiko