The Price of Russian Gasoline

Russia – 1992. My translator’s mother, who had a broken leg at the time, hops into the small Russian made Lada (see this picture and think of a ripoff of a 1970s Corolla). She makes her way into the passenger’s seat. Her daughters also squeeze into the tiny car. Four people with thick cold-weather gear pressed and sautéed into a tin can.


We pull out of the parking lot after church on a Sunday morning and head for lunch. Fifty feet down the snow-packed road, the engine stops. I have a terrible feeling because I know the exact reason why it’s not running. 

At that point, the oldest daughter informs me, in her direct Russian way, to make the car “go.”

Make it go American!”

I don’t bother offering an opposing view.

She even motions with her arm to make the thing go because one, we’re all hungry and two, her mom has limited walking ability. She can’t understand just why I let the car engine die in the first place.

And all I can think of is that it’s my stupid fault that this poor lady is going to have to disembark this tin can, shuffle across the very slippery snow and ice (with crutches in sub-zero weather), and make it safely back to some semblance of shelter before we can get an alternate ride.

Or eat lunch. Which is important.

It all started with an assumption a day earlier.

For the record, the car was parked in the garage (pictured above) for the winter, which lasts about 98 months out of the year in northern Russia.  Below the garage is a small, dug-out, dirt basement. I am guessing it’s where Russians hide on occasion.

Or listen to Radio Free America.

My translator and I were on a mission to retrieve the car but found that it was out of gas. In the garage, stairs led to the small basement. In the dark basement, a few containers stood defiant of the arctic weather. They were also full. I asked the translator what exactly was in the containers. She had no helpful information. 

The man, her dad, who had filled the containers and left them there was at that time in Africa and therefore, unavailable for comment.

I opened the top and smelled the contents of the containers. My nose assured me that it was gasoline. A logical line of reasoning.

I thought, “great. Gasoline. Let’s fill up the car and get going.”

I emptied said liquid into the faux Toyota and we were off – for about 50 yards. After the engine died, we pushed it back to the garage and determined that the liquid was not, in fact, gasoline, but water.


To this day, I do not know why a grown man would store water in gasoline cans – instead of, say, GASOLINE. But I digress.

I tried siphoning out the excess water, but much remained in the tank. Too much. So, because I am really smart, I later added lots of gas to dilute the water.

Yes. Really.

To my surprise, the little car would actually start and stay running, as long as I left the ignition on.  Which is what I had done the Sunday morning in question.

Because water doesn’t really mix well with gasoline (who knew?), the water eventually drowned out the internal combustion process (again) and left us all stranded there 50 yards from we had met for worship.

The subzero temperature didn’t make for a pleasant walk the two miles back to their home either.

Eventually, some nice Russian mechanics removed the gas tank and poured out the water that I had installed while floundering around in that dark garage hideout-basement a few days earlier. Those few days were not pleasant. But they were certainly a few days of misery that I could have avoided by simply paying more attention and assuming less. Maybe I could have lit a match and checked for combustion.

Or maybe not…

What I do remember was that the price of that “gasoline” was pretty high.

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