- Cars for Comrades: The Life of the Soviet Automobile by Lewis H. Siegelbaum
The setting is New Year’s Day 2010 and a Black Volga Gaz-21 hovers high above the revelers in Red Square, preparing to do battle with a gleaming white Mercedes, similarly bestowed with the power of flight. Black Lightning ultimately outmaneuvers its German-made adversary in the ensuing aerial acrobatics, and the Timur Bekmambetov–produced blockbuster of the same name eclipses its Hollywood rivals at the Russian Federation box office. Yet as the arteries of Moscow’s overcrowded road system become ever more choked with imported makes and models, the dream of a domestically produced automobile outperforming the Russian oligarchy’s car of choice remains firmly in the realm of fantasy.
The Soviet automobile, like its current Russian counterpart, was—as Lewis H. Siegelbaum relates in this nuanced multiple biography of cars, plants, and the visionary individuals who channeled them into production—always chasing but never “catching up to and overtaking the West,” to use Nikita Khrushchev’s automotive [End Page 237] mode of expression. But that is not to say that the history of the Soviet automobile industry is any less rich, its achievements any less significant, or its narrative any less Soviet, just because it remained a marginal and outward-looking player on the world stage. The degree of ambition described here, together with the breathtaking scale of human and material resources mobilized to attain it, attests that the automobile was of vital strategic importance as both a symbol and an institution of Soviet technological progress.
That progress can be broken down into three distinct phases, which account for the lion’s share of the engineering landmarks and production feats described here. First, the crash industrialization of the first Five-Year Plan saw domestic automobile output increase from a grand total of zero in 1923 to tens of thousands by the early 1930s. Facilitated by the purchase of U.S. technology and expertise and inspired by the appeal of Fordism as a sound basis for socialist labor relations, two vast new world-class plants, ZIS in Moscow and GAZ in Nizhnii Novgorod, were rushed into production. This first flowering of the Soviet auto industry reached its apogee with the Stakhanovite movement—or Busyginite as it was known for a time at Nizhnii Novgorod’s Avtostroi—but foundered in the Great Terror of the mid-1930s, which saw the ranks of prominent engineers and managers decimated by the NKVD secret police, its victims collected during the night, anecdotally at least, in the same Black Marias they had designed and produced.
Not until the postwar years was the Soviet automobile industry able to enter its second phase of development, which saw the emergence of the iconic Pobeda from the GAZ plant and the ZIS-110, a representation of “the Soviet state on wheels” (p. 27). Both were large, heavy, and gas-guzzling and were commissioned during the war to serve as symbols of Soviet confidence in the future. This was also a period of massive expansion of the Soviet automobile infrastructure, which lagged woefully behind Western Europe and the United States. A combination of increased investment and the use of forced Gulag and prisoner-of-war labor saw the number of paved roads in the USSR increase more than tenfold from 1940 to 1960, although the condition and extent of these roads remained inadequate to the ever-increasing volume of vehicular traffic.
The third major growth phase, in the mid-1960s and early 1970s, coincided with a period of renewed international engagement under Leonid Brezhnev and was stimulated in part by Premier Aleksei Kosygin’s reorientation of Soviet attitudes toward passenger cars as consumer products. The year 1970 alone saw the inauguration of the Volga GAZ-24 in Nizhnii Novgorod and the Zhiguli “Kopeika” in Togliatti, the two basic models that would define the look of the modern Soviet car—and indeed the cityscape—for the next two decades. The rise of the Auto City in Togliatti, in particular, driven by the East...