COMMENT: Russian stoicism a valuable tool
Do Russian politicians ever experience Moscow's mega-jams first hand?
Eating a stone's throw from Moscow's notorious Lubyanka was an unusual experience last week, but then as so much of Russia is unexpected, it pays to keep an open mind.
Once the country's most feared interrogation centre during The Terror of the 1930s, the building is now being given a lick of paint and indeed, its former occupants, the KGB's successors, the FSB, are reported to have smart gyms and shops nearby as they too turn full bourgeois circle to almost certainly what would have been Stalin's disapproval.
Renault Russia took us to that smart restaurant in what is fast becoming an extremely attractive part of Moscow and indeed, the French automaker is now quite a fixture of the Russian capital itself, having established a firm presence right in the heart of the city, at its Avtoframos plant.
We were there for the Moscow Motor Show as well as plant visits in the capital and Togliatti and despite all the gloom surrounding Russia at the moment, domestic television was predicting a record attendance for the event that is now open to the public.
'Avtoframos' - a bit of a clunky bolting together of the Russian word for auto then France and Moscow - is working in very close co-operation with partner AvtoVAZ in Togliatti and the two - with Nissan - are looking to extract maximum value from the tri-partite business.
Togliatti itself was one of Russia's foremost 'monogorods' or one-industry cities so beloved of Soviet Union central planners and despite the severe pruning engineered by newish AvtoVAZ CEO, Bo Andersson, that has seen many thousands of job cuts, it is still a colossus of a site some 520 miles South-East of Moscow.
AvtoVAZ makes around 70% of its component needs itself- already a mightily impressive figure - but that doesn't stop seeming convoy after convoy of lorries along the hour-or-so route from Samara airport - all bringing their supplies to the vast factory.
The theoretical capacity of the plant has huge potential, but in these straitened times, that may be for another day, although a bird's eye view from the HQ's tower block immediately puts into perspective the scale of this behemoth of a site.
Landing back in Moscow from Togliatti, we encountered our first genuine mega-jam for which the city is infamous, although by chance we stopped right by the towering tank trap memorials, left to mark the spot where the German advance halted in WWII, just 18 miles from The Kremlin.
Stuck in one of these jams for what seemed an eternity, it is staggering how the city fathers or rather the Mayor and President Vladimir Putin, cannot see this as an issue of pressing concern.
On a previous visit, as a dignatory was being limo-borne complete with howling siren near The Kremlin, I saw surrounding streets blocked off, so maybe the politicians have a Potemkin view of the city as endless, empty roads.
But for ordinary Muscovites it's been the same for years and plunging auto sales or not, the market will eventually rebound and make the snarling, choking slog in and out of Moscow even worse.
It means every chance drivers get for a bit of free space, they floor the accelerator as a I found out when a taxi recreated the Bourne Supremacy Moscow car chase on the way back to the airport.
I was talking to a Russian about the traffic and casually mentioned London's congestion charge as a possible solution.
The look of sheer incredulity I received convinced me Russians will take a long time - having been relatively newly acquainted with the ability to own a car - to suddenly be penalised for having one.
But that pragmatism and stoicism, which has served Russians so well in the past and today, was echoed by some advice I was given by sitting opposite Renault Russia general director, Bruno Ancelin, soon to be EVP, product planning and programmes of the Renault Group.
Talking in that restaurant near the Lubyanka, Ancelin's take was to approach Russia with an open mind.
"You are not in Europe here - not in the US," he told me. "Not so long ago, it [Russia] was [the] Soviet Union.
"I am an open-minded guy. My first act here was not how to develop the automotive industry, but I want [ed] to seize immediately the culture of the country, to understand the mind-set of the people."
Vast traffic jams and a weather system that would challenge just about any capital city on earth, are tiny cogs in what go to make up Russia's enormous wheel.
There are clearly huge political ructions at the moment that transcend those more mundane day to day elements, but Russians seem an eminently practical people who have had to contend with a huge range of challenges for centuries.
Rumours of further sanctions to target the auto industry as the Ukraine crisis continues are circulating, but much like the Iranians, most people here just want to get on with earning a living in a sector they happen to have been pretty good at in the past.
Today (4 September) brings more talk of a Russia-brokered ceasefire in Ukraine and the chance for both sides to call a halt.
The car business can only hope they can get back to normal after a year of seismic market upheaval and news last week finally confirming a revival of Russia's scrappage or recycling scheme, could add 170,000 units by this New Year's Eve to a market down 23% in July.
Ernst & Young CIS CIS automotive sector leader, William King, tells me the stimulus might provide a 10% boost to the market, while Renault remains pretty confident it can ride out the sales storm affecting the whole sector.
This is particuarly relevant given the relative paucity of car ownership in Russia, with a motorisation ratio of just 275 vehicles per 1,000 people.
News of Ancelin's return to Paris will benefit him in more ways than one too.
At the Avtoframos plant in Moscow last week, the Renault Russia general director was mulling the effect of Moscow's decision to ban certain European Union foodstuffs as the sanctions climate toughens.
"Today, you can't find enough European fruit," he said. "And no more cheese from France, which is a pity for me."
However, mindful of his position in Moscow, the French director diplomatically added: "But I bought some Russian cheese, which is excellent."