Spluttering to a halt
From The Economist print edition
THEY were the butt of jokes in the West. (“How do you double a Lada’s value? Fill up the tank”). Inside the Soviet Union, however, the quantity and quality of the cars it produced epitomised both the system’s failure and the capitalist world’s advantage.
Cars bring freedom of movement (at least until the roads are full of them) and symbolise personal aspiration: both were frowned on in the Soviet Union. In “Cars for Comrades”, Lewis Siegelbaum, a professor at Michigan State University, provides extensive examples of the mental knots in which the Communist leaders tied themselves, wanting on the one hand to boast about their superiority over the West on all fronts, and being unable and unwilling to match it when it came to cars. A revealing bit of Soviet jargon applied to owners of cars was chastnik, meaning, roughly, a suspicious private person. Until the early 1960s, Mr Siegelbaum reports, vandalism against private cars was dismissed by the police as an understandable expression of egalitarian sentiment.
“Cars for Comrades” is a bit too generous. The truth was that even for Communist Party members, a private car was a huge and barely obtainable luxury for most of the decades of Soviet rule. Only in 1972 did the Soviet Union begin producing more private cars than trucks. And once it did, as Mr Siegelbaum aptly notes, it sowed the seeds of its own destruction. One reason, of course, was the glaring unfairness. For the Soviet elite, cars were plentiful. Some, like Leonid Brezhnev, had big collections of Western cars. The system also provided luxury limousines such as the sleek black ZIL. These were unreliable and thirsty, but a horde of mechanics took care of them.
As you became less important, life got worse. Lower down the range, there was the Volga, a mid-size saloon whose interior tended to fill with petrol fumes. The Lada was an obsolete Fiat, produced at the Togliatti factory south-east of Moscow: bought new, it required extensive repair in order to become roadworthy. Soon after that it would start rusting. Getting it serviced was a nightmarish process involving long waits, the use of personal favours, and unpleasant discoveries (light-fingered mechanics would steal scarce items such as the wing mirrors or windscreen wipers).
Soviet cars weren’t all bad: the excellence of Soviet engineering in the military field sometimes filtered through to civilian life. The Niva, an adapted army jeep, was a highly-strung but handy 4x4; oddly it is unmentioned in the book. Your reviewer bought a new one for $4,000 in 1998. It caught fire shortly after purchase, but then gave excellent service until its gearbox seized up four years later.
But those were rare exceptions. The worst Soviet cars were almost comical: when the Oka was launched in 1987, Mr Siegelbaum notes, “like the Zaporozhets [its predecessor], with which it shared a diminutive size and lack of safety features…it quickly became the subject of horrifying stories and mordant humour”. And for ordinary citizens, getting hold of even the worst rattletrap involved many years of waiting.
Even good cars fare poorly in Russia’s climate. The harsh winters, sloppy construction and scanty maintenance mean bad roads; salt and grit take their toll on bodywork. It is not surprising that Russia’s elite nowadays favour huge jeeps, invariably foreign-made. It is a pity that Mr Siegelbaum’s book has such poor photographs: for those who never experienced the true horrors of Soviet-era motoring, words are not enough.Cars for Comrades: The Life of the Soviet Automobile.
By Lewis H. Siegelbaum.
Cornell University Press; 309 pages; $39.95 and £20.50