- Hero image by Matt Parsons. In-text images taken from open-access internet

Wheels of Proletariat: What you should know about Soviet cars

How a wicked pursuit of equality ruins everyone’s “bright future”

37w ago

/Russian accent is recommended to read this article/


The time has come to soothsay you the Truth! A global revolution is almost upon us! A great justifier and equaliser! “Those who want will get what they want, and those who have will lose everything” – this is what Vladimir Lenin once said (at least, I guess so).

It is totally unfair for a human being to have two cars. It is rude to have three. It is outrageous to have four. Those who are car collectors will never atone their crimes!

Comrades, you know such criminals, don’t you? They are happy and smiling beings, born to rich families and trained to lead a spoiled life. The capitalists. The bourgeois. They exploit you! They build their prosperity on your labour and knowledge. You know them by names. You melt steel – they buy Ferraris made out of it. You build sophisticated engines – they mount these in their Bugattis. You refine oil – they fill out tanks of their Cadillacs. Then they crash all these Bugattis, Ferraris, and Cadillacs for an Instagram video and get the insurance company cover all the costs. The insurance company also belongs to rich and spoiled human beings.

Comrades, they created a class gang. They became a cartel of criminals who enjoy achieving successes, not by their hard work, but their luck and birthright. Because of their effortless successes, your future has been stolen. No matter how much time and effort you invest, their “default” prosperity levels will always be beyond your reach. 

Comrades, some of you have never had your own car. Some of you may never afford to buy one. But imagine, if a car was given to you for free. The one which would allow you to grow. The one which will help you to contribute to your community. What if you had a car right away, as a reward for your skills and competences, without the necessity to dream, cry, take loans, and pay those loans back for years and years? Can you see how many good things you will be able to do? Can you feel how much happier you will become and how much happiness you will bring to people around?

Comrades, all talented individuals should always be supported so that their talents are properly cherished. These individuals should not waste their lives on a struggle for a chance for prosperity, but be provided with the prosperity right away to multiply the prosperity of others. 

Do you think this is impossible? Do you think there is no one to help you? 

Rejoice, Comrades! The superheroes of Truth exist! In 1848, Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels published their “Communist Manifesto.” The pamphlet of pivotal civilisational importance!

“A spectre is haunting Europe – the spectre of communism. All the powers of old Europe have entered into a holy alliance to exorcise this spectre,” – this is how it begins. Way back in the 19th century, Marx and Engels predicted the fall of the capitalist world. First in old Europe, then all across the globe. In their pamphlet, they claimed that a war was coming to its end between eternal evil and aspiring good, between power-holders and power-seekers, between bourgeois and proletarians. The war which the evil was desperate to win, but they wouldn’t! 

Comrades, all of us are working and honest people. All of us had our rights and freedoms abused for centuries. Because of that, our communities have never experienced true happiness and prosperity. The whole history of humankind was nothing, but a process of subjugation of our kin, the majority, by the rich exploiters, the minority. This is how capitalism works. Today, I call you to rise against the owners of the means of production! Let’s break the vicious circle of suffering and injustice. Your rightful feelings will shake and re-build the whole society. You should revolt and take away their cars, which they do not drive anyway, and pass them to those, who need them the most. You should melt down Bugattis, Ferraris and Cadillacs to produce more Lada Rivas. All people around you should get their equal share of automotive happiness, and then drive and thrive!

I urge you to build a society with no inheritances and private property, with free public education, with nationalised means of transportation and communication, with a strong national bank to regulate the economy, and with publicly owned land. Only having done this, having taken all riches from exploiters, you will gain the true freedom of self-accomplishment.

Comrades, our bright future lies ahead of us!

/from here on, you may turn the Russian accent off/

This is how the majority of revolutions break out. A visionary arrives and speaks simple and appealing slogans of truth, justice, and freedom. 

Vladimir Lenin, for instance, started with “Peace to the peoples! Land to the peasants! Factories to the workers!” and then Joseph Stalin continued with “From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs.” In theory, these slogans meant that the more you did what you were good at, the higher levels of prosperity you could reach. The “collective state” (or state-wide community) was the ultimate distributor of everything to everyone. It owned property, capital, land, resources, and means of production.

However, as it happens, the theory got distorted by human nature. Simple and appealing slogans became deceptive. The “bright future” was way too obscure. 

The “collective state” which Karl Marx and other intellectuals designed became, in the Soviet Union’s case, a totalitarian system ruled by carefully pre-selected people. They called themselves the members of the Communist Party. Their official goal was to serve as the “vanguard of the proletariat” and to lead the state in the name of the working class. This said, the power and incompetence eventually corrupted them. Very few had an idea where exactly they were leading the working class to. 

On the places, the members of the Communist Party acted as “all-mighty” blokes who administered and distributed “unlimited” state resources among thousands of fellow Comrades. However, there were so many goods and services to distribute, so many factors to consider, that these blokes often made mistakes. They were also sometimes “asked” to “make a mistake” by a wally bribe; in the 1980s, this usually went unpunished. Who would, actually, notice if a bloke provided a humble worker with a 4-room flat instead of a 2-room providing there were 5,000 flats to distribute? Or what would, actually, happen if a family of five got a flat the next month instead of waiting their turn for 10 years or more? 

In the Kremlin, the members of the Communist party did some economic planning for the benefit of everybody. Their task was to decide what should be produced, how much, where, and for whom, as well as what workers of different ranks were to be paid and what each product would cost. They calculated everything based on numbers of citizens, resources, available technologies, industrial capacities, and national interests. No surprise that, while operating on a national scale, they also made mistakes (or were “asked” to). Because of their miscalculations, the fellow Comrades experienced shortages of basic goods and the lack of adequate services. In turn, this resulted in poor worker morale and low rates of productivity on the places. There was also little incentive to innovate as no matter how hard the workers tried they would get the same amount of “centrally planned” money.

Now, what did it have to do with cars? 

The communist system made a gigantic impact on automotive culture. This could be seen in the nature of social interactions and individual ownership.

In theory, the Soviet cars were supposed to be pragmatically designed, affordable, and long-lasting. Something like Ford Model T but, well, communist. Many of the models succeeded with this! Soviet cars, regardless of the production year, were built to operate on asphalt and mud, in sub-Tropical and sub-Arctic climates. Their mechanical elements allowed for a wide range of tunes and easy fixes; therefore, even the original parts could serve for decades if properly maintained. Many units on various models were interchangeable which significantly cut production costs, but made cars lookalike. This said, many models offered disastrous travelling comfort and were often “appreciated” only because there existed no other choice; and, well, because wheels have always been better than the feet. 

In theory, the car prices were fixed. In 1948, blokes in the Kremlin adopted a plan to open twelve dealerships in the country and sell 900 Volga GAZ-M20 “Pobeda” for 16,000 rubles per item and 6,500 Moskvich-400 for 8,000 rubles by the end of the year. In 1956, new Volga GAZ-21 rolled out of conveyors and became the wet dream of the Soviet people. However, to make that dream come true, an ordinary driver should have paid 5,500 rubles. That required above 20 years of saving as no more than 20 rubles could be spared per month from one’s salary. The stupidity of the situation was that the GAZ-21 was being produced for 14 years only (1956-1970) which made it impossible for an ordinary Soviet dreamer to buy the car new. Even more stupidity resided in a fact that a dreamer could hardly save more than 20 rubles per month as the salaries were “centrally planned” and everyone who saved more and looked “richer” then the rest became a criminal. Literally.

However, things were not as bad if you look at the “collectively owned” vehicles. By the mid-1950s, 54,2000 of cars and 313,600 lorries were registered in the Soviet Union. Most of these belonged to a state whilst the number of private vehicles was measured in the hundreds. In other words, thousands of Comrades could drive, but a trifling minority actually owned a car. This said, it was more safe and comfortable to have a car provided by the state than to risk buying your own and becoming a “suspect in the bourgeoisie.” 

In the 1970s, the “internationalist” fellas from the Italian Fiat built Volga Automobile Plant (VAZ) in Togliatti, which started a domino effect of mass motorisation in the Soviet Union. The history of Lada Riva, one of Jeremy Clarkson’s worst cars ever, begins here. At its very dawn, the VAZ plant assembled 660,000 vehicles per year; in 1980, this number grew to 730,000. These were predominantly Ladas and Nivas (proletarian offroaders). In 1990, which was the last year of their existence, the Soviet authorities registered 2,039,600 vehicles with 1,260,200 of them being the passenger. I bet 70 per cent of these millions were Rivas.

During all of the Soviet Union’s timeline, ordinary Comrades knew that everyone had equal access to goods and services, but some blokes were more equal than the others. To measure these “variations of equality,” it was enough to look at the cars driven or owned.

Chaika (Seagull) GAZ-13 was a monumental Soviet vehicle of executive class and one of the markers of “equality”. In terms of appearance, it significantly drew from the “capitalist” American stylistics. The car had fins and fenders! It was produced from 1959 to 1981 and designed with the butts of the members of the Communist party in mind. Paraphrasing Joseph Stalin, Chaika was needed for the Kremlin blokes to act according to their abilities: Heads of ministries and departments, first secretaries, and ambassadors of the USSR abroad travelled on Chaikas. 

In other words, Chaikas were never intended for ordinary Comrades. They were something similar to Hongqi in contemporary China, manufactured to inspire reverence. After two overhauls, Chaikas were supposed to be recycled. Only the 1970s, the General Secretary Leonid Brezhnev, the “ultimately equal bloke,” agreed that Chaikas could “make money.” He allowed the use of decommissioned vehicles as the “just married” coaches, taxi-cabs for the poshest hotels, and show-up cars for parades.

Therefore, as I imagine it, a Comrade in the Soviet Union had three options. First, to work hard and be offered (in ten years) a state-owned lorry or Riva for even higher working efficiency. Second, to save ruble-to-ruble for years and buy a used Volga on the eve of retirement. Third, to become a member of the Communist party, a respectable bloke, who would be offered Chaika for loyal leading the state in the name of the working class.

Well, there was also a mythical option to take a state credit for “durable goods,” but it was a mythical option indeed. 

To put a full stop, the Soviet system was created by humans, for humans, with human errors, and little humaneness. The same applies to Soviet cars.

No wonder all that stuff collapsed.

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Comments (39)

  • Stalin was madly, deeply in love with "BL**DY ROTTEN CAPITALISTS AMERICAN" Packard. He had several of them in his "PROLETARIAT" collection. ZIS designers and engineers knew that and made sure all his official, parades and private cars resembled Packards. Even for his people's car GAZ20 "Pobieda" GAZ Company bought design one of Packard's headlights. Brezhnev also had notable collection of various "BL**DY ROTTEN CAPITALISTS" cars. Most notable of them Mercedes 600 Grosser.

      8 months ago
    • Thanks for the comment. Indeed, I heard a lot of such stories that Stalin and Brezhnev loved western cars. Brezhnev even seemed to have a passion to drive his Mercs full throttle at night on police-isolated streets of Moscow and Leningrad....

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        8 months ago
    • Please also visit Riga Motoring Museum site. They have ZIL (ZIS) 112 on display. This one of two surviving example of what meant to be Soviet's assault on Le Mans by Stalin's son and WW2 hero fighter pilot Vasily Stalin, but daddy died and...

      Read more
        8 months ago
  • Still amazed how you make analogies of politics/IR issues and cars. The first part of the article was read with your voice and your Russian accent in my head (thanks to those cool lectures).

    P.S. Saved couple of pics, thank you :D

      8 months ago
    • I'm happy to know you spent time reading this. Very reassuring and encouraging!


      As for analogies, it takes some time to think them over. The most productive time for such...

      Read more
        8 months ago
    • Hope to see some new articles soon :P

      Okay, tanks, now those are the only voices I have in my head :D

      1 more interesting fact about Dr Ostap Kushnir :D

        8 months ago
  • One thing to add - even if you saved enough cash to buy a new car, you had to wait for another 10 years in a queue. That resulted in used cars sometimes costing more than new ones.

      8 months ago
    • Thanks for this comment. I heard this could happen in the USSR, the "delayed supply". Which is stupid, odd and unfair.

      My parents were doctors in 1980s. They wanted Riva and had money. But they also had to wait for a few years. Therefore, it...

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        8 months ago
    • It was the same thing in 1980's India. India had started it's own automobile industry by rebadging Suzukis. It started out with the Suzuki 800/Alto.

      Even if you earned enough money for one, you had to wait up to 3 years or more to receive it....

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        8 months ago
  • This is where Californians are heading by 2035... save for the electric Wartburgs and ZiLs

      8 months ago
    • Well, yes and no. I bet, even in the worst-case scenario, there will be neither state-owned everything in California, nor a totalitarian type of governance. The USA, built around a backbone of freedom, will simply won't work with...

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        8 months ago
    • I don't live in US ( I live in Europe) but I'm hope that you are right because if US collapse to some type of "communism" we are all doomed .

      I agree that total state-owned everything want pass anymore anywhere in world but Chinese Communist...

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        8 months ago