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Cars for Comrades: The Life of the Soviet Automobile (review)

From: Technology and Culture
Volume 50, Number 4, October 2009
pp. 940-942 | 10.1353/tech.0.0355

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The history of the automobile in the Soviet Union has by and large been ignored by scholars. One explanation, perhaps, are the strong connotations of freedom, individuality, and privacy that have surrounded—and continue to surround—the auto, which has become one of the more powerful symbols of Western capitalism. But as Lewis Siegelbaum shows in Cars for Comrades, automobiles certainly did have their place in the USSR. He deals with the production, consumption, and use of automobiles, as well as the infrastructure that surrounded them. In doing so he challenges our understanding of the auto as an inherently Western artifact and argues that it is possible to talk about a specific Soviet car culture.

That the construction of the Soviet automobile was a true cosmopolitan venture from the beginning becomes evident in Siegelbaum’s discussion of the three automobile manufacturers: AMO/ZIS/ZIL/AMO-ZIL in Moscow, GAZ in Nizhni Novgorod/Gorki, and VAZ in Togliatti. If Soviets were skeptical about Henry Ford the entrepreneur, they believed that Fordism would help them to achieve the productivity goals set up in the Five-Year Plans, and when it came to the production of automobiles Detroit worked both as blueprint and measure. Soviet car manufacturers relied heavily on foreign expertise and technology. A technical assistance agreement was signed in 1929 with the Ford Motor Company for the construction of an automobile factory in Nizhni Novgorod and in 1966 with Fiat for building the Volga Automobile Factory, VAZ. Although the vehicles produced were derivatives of Western models (Ford, General Motors, Packard, Fiat), their design and engineering were adjusted to the conditions and the climate of the Soviet Union.

As to infrastructure, Russia’s seemingly inherent “roadlessness” proved to be the most critical problem. The authorities tried to tackle this problem from several angles: by organizing a system of corvée labor among rural residents, by the mobilization of the army during World War II, by initiating massive highway-building projects, and by using prisoners of war and convicts as manpower. But road building continued to lag throughout the communist era.

While the production of automobiles and the construction of roads never really contradicted communist ideology, the consumption and use of automobiles was a much more intriguing case, and it is when Siegelbaum approaches the unhappy relationship between the Soviet citizen and the automobile that he delivers his most interesting insights. Communist ideology subordinated consumer goods to “social” needs, and at the end of the 1920s, when agriculture was being collectivized and planners dreamed of collectivizing child rearing, the privately owned car became, to say the least, a problem. “It was one thing to use the automobile as a metaphor of technological promise,” writes Siegelbaum, “but quite another to keep one for oneself” (p. 179). Most automobiles were reserved for officials, and their distribution became an important component of state power—not least witnessed by testimony of the fear that the NKVD’s Black Ravens or Black Marias induced during Stalin’s terror regime. Some cars went to “distinguished people” such as state prize awardees, Stakhanovites, and others. For ordinary people, national lotteries were the only possibility for obtaining a car. In the Soviet system under Stalin autos were distributed, not sold.

During the 1950s, under Khrushchev, the state began to pursue contradictory policies regarding the production and provision of durable consumer goods. The production of cars, as well as other items, was increased in order to narrow the gap between the Soviet Union and Western capitalist countries. But the number of cars available for purchase remained limited. Thus, as Siegelbaum points out, the government “both acknowledged the legitimacy of citizens’ desires to own a car and frustrated the fulfillment of that desire” (p. 224).

Eventually the Soviet Union entered the era of mass motoring. In the mid-1970s there were about 5.5 million privately owned cars in the USSR—roughly 5 percent of households possessed an auto—and the numbers increased during the following decades. But it was a “democratization” process not accompanied by a corresponding expansion of services to keep automobiles going. The lack of infrastructure gave rise to a large second economy characterized by semilegal or even illegal arrangements...