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  • Writer's pictureMichael Laxer

Queen of the cabbies of Soviet Kiev, 1982

An interesting piece of Soviet social and transportation history, this brief article takes a look at the life and work of a taxi driver in Kiev, 1982. Olga Klimenchuk was a 27 year old "First Class" driver who lived with her 7 year old son and her parents on the outskirts of the city.

Kiev cabbies -- there were 5,000 of them at the time -- worked twelve hour shifts every other day. They were checked by a doctor prior to each shift and by 1982 had a computerized dispatch system.

Klimenchuk relates how she got into driving, the kinds of fares she gets, the types of items left in the cab (including, once, a doctoral dissertation) and her encounters with tourists from, among other places, the United States, France and a couple from Armenia who came to Kiev with nowhere to stay and ended up staying with her! She later went on vacation to Armenia and they hosted her in return.

She also talks of her run-ins with the traffic police of whom she was, unsurprisingly, not fond.

The article was originally published in Soviet Life magazine, May, 1982. We have added a photo of the Volga cab she would have driven and some background on this Soviet automobile make.


Driving a cab is the best thing for a woman who wants to keep pace with the life of a major city and to be seen, who likes speed and is sociable, and, of course, who wants to earn good money." This is how 27-year-old Olga Kamenchuk, one of Kiev's 5,000 cabbies, explains her choice of profession.

Olga lives with her parents and seven-year-old son in an apartment In Lesnoi, a new housing complex on the left bank of the Dnieper River. The pine woods which come right up to the development explain its name: Lesnoi is Russian for forest.

Olga gets up at seven, has a light breakfast of coffee, cheese or cottage cheese ("I sit all day, and I have to watch my weight," she says) and dashes off to a wailing white Volga at one of Kiev's four taxi pools.

In a matter of minutes she receives her manifest, gets an OK from the doctor ("I have a cosmonaut's blood pressure of 120 over 60," she laughs), checks the cab's exhaust system, climbs In behind the wheel, lakes a quick glance In the rearview mirror and turns the ignition key. The navy-blue cabbie's uniform becomes her, and the three gold stripes on the sleeve of her jacket mean that she Is a first-class driver.

Like all Kiev cabbies, Olga works a 12 hour shift every other day. She covers from 300 to 400 kilometers in her Volga. sometimes In heavy traffic. Fatigue creeps up only after she gels home, but her favorite hobbles—knitting and cooking •i can make 100 different kinds of cookies," she boasts)—help her unwind.

"I wanted to become a journalist alter high school," Olga says, and I took my exams al the university. I was unlucky and didn't pass. However. I lost no time and enrolled in a driving school, although my folks weren't exactly happy about this. They are engineers and would have preferred an easier occupation for their daughter. But I don't regard myself a failure, and neither do any of the other women drivers at the taxi pool."

The male cabbies call the women "queens" and behave In a most chivalrous manner. They don't object to the women receiving new cars more often than they do (it's Olga's fourth Volga in nine years of driving), or to their exemption from the graveyard shift. Olga considers such things superfluous.

At night, when the streetcars, trolley buses and subway trains are at their depots (Kiev's public transport system, which handles more than 70 per cent of the passengers, has received priority development in the city), the taxi drivers take over, driving couples home from late walks on the banks of the Dnieper, or partygoers from restaurants and friends' apartments. At night the fares are noisier and more talkative, but always well behaved.

Olga has noticed that when strangers find themselves together in the same taxi, they show a surprising spirit of solidarity. They might invite each other over to their apartments or, without giving it a second thought, gladly come to each other's aid and lend money if one of them comes up short.

"If a cabbie ever wrote a book about Kiev and its people, I'm sure it would be an engrossing narrative," Olga comments. "Cabbies are not only skilled drivers, but pretty good tour guides, amateur psychologists and even detectives. Once I spent a whole day tracking down a fare who left his dissertation in my cab.

"In general," Olga goes on to say, "people leave all sorts of things in our cabs. Women mostly forget umbrellas and purses, men gloves. We turn the articles we find in to the dispatchers office at the pool. Unclaimed items are passed on to the city's Lost-and-Found Department. I find Kievans more absent-minded on Monday mornings, when their heads are still muddled after the weekend. They are especially preoccupied and untalkative if they're late for work."

Olga is sociable and likes to keep the conversation flowing with her fares, but she always keeps her eyes on the road. Kiev has had an automobile boom in recent years, and the narrow streets in the older sections of the city are turning into bottlenecks. The municipal authorities are building beltways, expressways, cloverleaves, and over- and under-passes and widening streets to ease traffic congestion.

She tries to stay under the 60-kilometer-per-hour speed limit in the Ukraine (the only time was when she was rushing an expectant mother to the hospital). Olga finds encounters with traffic control inspectors not at all pleasant. "They have the amazing ability of popping up in the most unexpected places," she says. "They're much stricter with professional drivers than with other motorists."

Olga's first professional fare was a French tourist wanting to make an extended tour of ancient Kiev. Becoming a guide, Olga missed the "Do Not Enter" sign and turned into one of the protected streets. She realized her mistake when a traffic control inspector blew his whistle and waved her to the curb. Patiently, she listened in silence to his lecture on everything connected with the city's history and why it is being carefully protected. Then the inspector saluted and let her drive away, without marking a traffic violation on her card.

A number of Olga's former passengers have become friends. She has pictures of American tourists, including some from Indiana, and letters from a couple from Armenia, Ashot and Varsik Valesiyan, who had come to Kiev at the height of the tourist season and were unable to find accommodations in a hotel. Olga put them up in her apartment. Last year she spent her vacation in Armenia visiting them.

Olga takes part in the yearly competition held for Kiev taxi drivers. All contestants receive sealed envelopes containing the destination which they must reach by the shortest route and in the least amount of time. This is not an easy task: Kiev has more than 2,000 streets, side streets and squares, with an aggregate length of 1,513 kilometers.

"I can handle most minor breakdowns of my cab when Its driving," Olga says. "The mechanics at the pool take care of the major repair work. My taxi pool is a large enterprise, which uses a computer-based dispatch system. When my shift is over, I turn my cab over to technical services and hurry home to my son."

GAZ-24 "Volga":

Almost all taxis in the USSR in 1982 were GAZ-24-01s, a taxi model of the GAZ-24. These cars were reliable and easy to maintain and the taxi model had an interior designed to be easy to wash.

There were also station wagon and other utility models of the GAZ 24, including a wagon taxi model.

They were all manufactured at the Gorky Automobile Plant in the city of Gorky ( Nizhny Novgorod ) from 1970-1985.

(This post is an adapted version of a post on the original The Left Chapter blog from November 2018.)


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