No one quite knows how many of them there are out on the roads. But you can usually hear who they are when they talk, when they've taken a break from hours and hours of driving on America's highways.
Take the two guys who are resting in Red Lodge, Mont., about 60 miles from Billings, after hauling bottles from Oklahoma to a mountain microbrewery in this city. They are agonizing over what to eat from the menu, asking me questions in halting English as they express a longing for the Russian black bread, pan-fried with garlic in oil, of the old country. Or this other Russian, who has just driven a double-deck trailer loaded with a motley assortment of autos out of Philly. He's just brought a Pizza Hut order into the lounge, downed a couple of shots of Canadian whiskey and picked up four bottles of Bud Light to take to his room to watch TV. Then there's Phillip Dmitriev, 50, who has driven into Billings bound for Indiana with a load of electrical coils. It's the middle of a thunderstorm, and he has only enough time to fuel up and head back onto Interstate 90. But on the cab door of his Freightliner truck is the imperial crest of old Russia, the double-headed eagle, glistening with raindrops. It is the proud insignia of Mikhail Trucking, a transport company in Spokane, Wash., founded in 2006 by brothers from Russia.
Every working day at my job at the postal-processing center in Billings, there are drivers speaking Slavic languages for the most part, Russian making drop shipments of pallets loaded with bulk mail. They haven't taken over the business of cross-country freight trucking by any means. But at least anecdotally, they are a distinct and growing presence.
As such, the former denizens of the moribund Soviet bloc seem to be an example of how some immigrant groups tend to cluster around professions and locations, forming cultural and economic ghettos for instance, Chinatowns, or the Filipino medical workers who fill the labor needs of many hospitals. The Russians are a bit different because the niche they are filling takes them across the face of the U.S. They are both transient and ubiquitous as they help transport America's material goods to the far-flung corners of the country. At least 80% of the nation's communities receive their goods exclusively by truck, according to the American Trucking Associations.
The Russians come to trucking with some tradition it is very much the way their huge ancestral nation, with its system of badly maintained roads, takes delivery of its necessities. Indeed, many may have emigrated to join relatives in the U.S. after the global financial crisis in the fall of 2008 depressed the Russian trucking industry: of the more than 10,000 companies that operated in Russia before the crisis, only about 8,000 survived. "This did cause something of an exodus among Russian truckers," says Antonina Kamchatova, spokeswoman for ASMAP, a Russian truck drivers' association. "So anyone who could, through the help of relatives or whatever, went across the Atlantic in the last couple of years to look for work."
As with all immigrant groups trying to make it in America, there are problems to address with regards to acculturation and, more serious, the law. Many drivers demonstrate limited English-speaking and -comprehension skills; some have trouble reading Latin script. A few whom I have talked to admit they are much more used to reading Cyrillic. To work as a trucker in the U.S., an individual must have a commercial driver's license (CDL), which requires that the driver "read and speak the English langauge sufficiently to converse with the general public, to understand highway traffic signs and signals in the English language, to respond to official inquiries, and to make entries on reports and records."
Nicolay Karpov, the manager of Mikhail Trucking, says his brother Mikhail "studied night and day for six months to pass his CDL test. His English might not be so good, but he can understand and read and write O.K." The Karpov brothers now own a company of seven trucks that haul dry freight through the 48 contiguous states and western Canada. Nicolay does office work, eschewing the road. His brother, though, "is passionate about trucking."