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Orthodox Taxis Drive a Fine Line

Moskovskaya Troika, a taxi service run by and catering to Russian Orthodox believers, has attracted both customers and criticism. Igor Tabakov

When Nikolai Maslov, 29, decided to start his own taxi service, he knew he'd need a niche to compete with Moscow's unruly swarms of private cabs and the few large companies that dominate the official market.

Moskovskaya Troika, the company he launched just two months ago, has already built a dedicated following among the city's Russian Orthodox. Its drivers are all devout believers, who are more likely to share a prayer than rant about traffic or the weather.

The cabs come equipped with pre-recorded services from the Orthodox Radonezh radio station, as well as literature from the church.

“Jesus came to Jerusalem riding a donkey, and this was a sort of transportation, too," Maslov said in an interview. "An Orthodox believer can spend time on the road to his soul's advantage. If he's stuck in a traffic jam, he's with an Orthodox driver and listening to church prayers."

The company, which timed its launch to coincide with Palm Sunday, now has 50 privately owned taxis, ranging from Mercedes cars to minivans. Its offices in southern Moscow are alongside a tourist agency providing trips to religious destinations in Russia and abroad.

But as Maslov cashes in on a resurgent interest in the Russian Orthodox Church, he also has had to parry complaints that Moskovskaya Troika is more about excluding others than catering to a few.

Last month, a host on the popular radio station Serebryany Dozhd called the taxi company to book a car to a mosque, giving a Muslim name and speaking with a Caucasus accent.

The station later played the recording of Moskovskaya Troika's dispatcher telling the host, Alex Dubas, that her bosses do not allow the company "to take non-Orthodox passengers."

The recording led to considerable criticism on blogs and in the press, but Maslov maintains that his company is ready to do business with anyone, regardless of faith.

"We are not the Orthodox taxi for Orthodox believers, but an Orthodox taxi for everyone," he said, adding that the company had fired the dispatcher involved in the radio incident and posted an apology on its web site.

Maslov also complained about an article in Afisha magazine, written by reporter Yevgenia Kuida, who pretended she wanted to work as a driver.

In her story, Kuida quoted a company manager present at her interview as saying they do not hire “Georgians or Armenians, only decent, Orthodox people."

Georgia is predominantly Orthodox, while most Armenians follow the Armenian Apostolic Church.

“Afisha magazine has not officially interviewed our company staffers, and a made-up story from a journalist cannot be a source of quotations," according to a statement on the company's web site.

The Constitution prohibits discrimination based on gender or religion, but for an individual to sue a business, he or she would need a written refusal to prove the grounds for the denial of service, said Eduard Sukharev, a Moscow-based civil lawyer.

The Labor Code also prohibits employers from refusing to hire people because of their religious beliefs.

But Maslov said Moskovskaya Troika was not in violation of the law, and that despite the largely hostile reaction in the press, business has been good.

“I had this idea to make money as I saw a market niche that hadn't been occupied yet,” he said. The idea came to him several years ago when he met an Orthodox believer working as a private taxi driver.

"He gave me a business card saying he was an Orthodox man who provides a taxi service for the faithful," recalled Maslov, adding that he had since hired him.

The company distributes leaflets inside churches to attract clients, and 30 percent of its orders come from people who are looking for a ride to church or back home after a service. The rates are comparable to other major services in Moscow, charging 300 rubles, or about $10, for the first half hour and 9 rubles for each additional minute.

Maslov declined to say how much he has invested. He runs the business with a partner, whom he identified only as a former executive at one of Moscow's taxi companies.

The businessman personally interviews would-be drivers, who he said must be baptized Orthodox and should have a car, preferably a Western model in good condition. "Most of our drivers are deeply religious people," Maslov said.

One of them is Pyotr Yurenkov, 43, who joined the company as soon as it was hiring.

“I worked as a driver for a private company, but then it collapsed, thank God. I was glad to find a place where you can work honestly and have a free schedule,” he said.

Like all cars in the company's fleet, Yurenkov’s Honda Civic was blessed by a priest.

Sometimes the company will offer a free ride to a senior church official, Maslov said, recalling how the company had driven a bishop and an icon painter around for a tour of Moscow churches for an entire day.

Galina Yastrebova, a priest’s assistant in the Spas Nerukotvorny Church at Andronikov Monastery in southwestern Moscow, said she welcomed the idea of an Orthodox taxi but doubted that many churchgoers would use the service.

“Most of them are taking the metro or ask for a lift from other churchgoers,” she said.

But she added that if she ever needed a taxi, she'd rather choose an Orthodox one. “Orthodox people understand each other better,” she said.

The Russian Orthodox Church also was supportive of the idea, although cautioning that the service should be respectful of others' beliefs.

“This is a good idea in general, because people who are usually reluctant to take cabs would feel comfortable sharing a car with a fellow believer," said Vsevolod Chaplin, who heads the church's department for relations with the state. "But I would advise the owners not to treat people with other religious beliefs with disregard."

Maslov said he planned to expand the business to include transportation and moving services for corporate clients.

“There are people who are looking for businesses with an Orthodox view, who will not be able to cheat,” he said.

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