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Russians finally beat high-octane fear of gas


MOSCOW -- Russians, struggling valiantly to keep up with their fast-changing society, are now being dazzled by yet another Western innovation: the gas station, the newest arrival on the streets of Moscow.

This development has come about despite stiff official opposition. Government regulators have regarded gas stations as highly dangerous -- indeed, likely to blow up at any moment.

"Gas stations were considered more dangerous than the atomic bomb," says Ilya A. Kolerov, 29, the first of the new gas station entrepreneurs. He had to persuade the city government that it was no longer necessary to require such a business to be at least 300 yards from thoroughfares.

"It took a long time to persuade the functionaries that with modern technology we should be able to locate gas stations closer to roads," says Mr. Kolerov.

Russian society has long maintained an unusual relationship with the culture of cars. The Soviet Union only reluctantly allowed its citizens to own their cars; communism was always uneasy with an individual behind the wheel, his life and his direction in his own hands.

Attitudes toward gas stations were also influenced by an unusual concept of safety.

Airplane passengers, now as in the past, fly happily without seat belts or life vests under the seat. People will stand during takeoff and landing. But when children go off to summer camp, the bus is preceded by a police escort and followed by an ambulance.

Maybe this helps explain why scientists tinkered away at nuclear devices in crowded Moscow neighborhoods while alert authorities stood careful guard against a more ominous threat -- gas stations.

They were so well hidden that anyone new to Moscow was convinced there were none. That was very nearly the case.

In 1992, according to government figures, this city of nearly 14 million people had 250 gas stations. The average time for waiting and pumping a tankful was 40 minutes -- assuming there was gas to be had. Other times, motorists waited for hours, hoping gas would arrive.

All of those stations were run by the state. Then, Mr. Kolerov and others discovered a change in the law that made it possible for private individuals to sell gas themselves.

Mr. Kolerov, who at the time worked in children's book publishing, knew a good thing when he saw it. He and his backers got into the gasoline business.

"It looked like an attractive intellectual opportunity," he says.

Within weeks of the change in the law, eager sellers were pulling up rusty, beat-up tanker trucks on the shoulder of the road and pumping gas from truck to car. The sides of the tankers always warned "Very dangerous, flammable."

In the past few months, the process has been refined. New gas stations have been sprouting up on the main streets, among them 30 owned by Mr. Kolerov's company.

And Russians, some of the world's most abused consumers, find themselves in the enviable position of adjusting to more service -- as Americans adjust to less.

For the past several weeks, Russian motorists barreling along gritty Dmitrovskoe Shosse in northern Moscow have been startled to encounter a new, gleaming white building, so sparkling clean it almost hurts the eyes.

It's emblazoned with bold blue and red letters proclaiming, "Ilya Kolerov and Company."

Attendants, dressed in blue overalls, handle each pump and offer service with a smile.

"I've come here since the day it opened," says Sergei Eslinger, 34, who was driving a well-used white Volga. "It's the best gas station in Moscow."

Sergei Linkov, a 30-year-old lawyer driving a Ford Taurus, said he patronizes the station because it is open 24 hours a day, unlike the state stations.

He tried the station after watching an interview with Mr. Kolerov on television. "He's young and aggressive," Mr. Linkov says. "I feel I can trust him. If he's a good guy he might be selling good gas."

Thanks in part to Mr. Kolerov, the number of gas stations in the city has risen to about 300. There are also 5 million cars -- enough, Mr. Kolerov suggests, for 3,000 stations.

With a steady line of cars flowing through Mr. Kolerov's station, business would seem lucrative indeed.

"It's not as easy as it looks," Mr. Kolerov cautions. "The new economy had an effect on bureaucrats. When they heard the word 'gasoline,' they immediately began to imagine huge profits."

In addition to other burdensome taxes, gas stations have to pay a tax of 25 percent of their receipts -- total receipts, not profit.

"What was even worse," Mr. Kolerov said, "numerous Moscow functionaries -- fire inspectors, sanitary inspectors -- began to pay too much attention to gas stations."

That's a delicate way of saying they began lining up for bribes.

As a result, in a country rich in oil, gas prices are extraordinarily high. Low-octane gas costs the equivalent of $1.65 a gallon, high-octane $2.05 a gallon -- in a city where workers are paid an average of $100 a month.

Now, at least, Russians are getting a little service for their money. Mr. Kolerov has plans for even more. It's a little premature, he says, to think about checking the oil or washing the windshield for his customers.

"But we are thinking of introducing a credit card."

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