The Socialist Car

The Socialist Car: Automobility in the Eastern Bloc

Edited by Lewis H. Siegelbaum
Copyright Date: 2011
Edition: 1
Published by: Cornell University Press
Pages: 256
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  • Book Info
    The Socialist Car
    Book Description:

    Across the Soviet Bloc, from the 1960s until the collapse of communism, the automobile exemplified the tension between the ideological imperatives of political authorities and the aspirations of ordinary citizens. For the latter, the automobile was the ticket to personal freedom and a piece of the imagined consumer paradise of the West. For the authorities, the personal car was a private, mobile space that challenged the most basic assumptions of the collectivity. The "socialist car"-and the car culture that built up around it-was the result of an always unstable compromise between official ideology, available resources, and the desires of an increasingly restless citizenry. In The Socialist Car, eleven scholars from Europe and North America explore in vivid detail the interface between the motorcar and the state socialist countries of Eastern Europe, including the USSR.

    In addition to the metal, glass, upholstery, and plastic from which the Ladas, Dacias, Trabants, and other still extant but aging models were fabricated, the socialist car embodied East Europeans' longings and compromises, hopes and disappointments. The socialist car represented both aspirations of overcoming the technological gap between the capitalist first and socialist second worlds and dreams of enhancing personal mobility and status. Certain features of automobility-shortages and privileges, waiting lists and lack of readily available credit, the inadequacy of streets and highways-prevailed across the Soviet Bloc. In this collective history, the authors put aside both ridicule and nostalgia in the interest of trying to understand the socialist car in its own context.

    Contributors: Elke Beyer, Swiss Institute of Technology; Valentina Fava, Helsinki Collegium for Advanced Studies and University of Helsinki; Luminita Gatejel, European University Institute, Florence; Mariusz Jastrzab, Kozminski University; Corinna Kuhr-Korolev, University of Bochum; Brigitte Le Normand, Indiana University Southeast; Esther Meier, University of the Federal Armed Forces, Hamburg; Kurt Möser, Karlsruhe Institute of Technology; György Péteri, Norwegian University of Science and Technology, Trondheim; Eli Rubin, Western Michigan University; Lewis H. Siegelbaum, Michigan State University

    eISBN: 978-0-8014-6321-1
    Subjects: History

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
    (pp. vii-x)
    (pp. 1-14)
    Lewis H. Siegelbaum

    In March 1992, less than a year after Communism fell in Albania, Henry Kamm of the New York Times traveled to Noj, a “dirt-poor village” north of the capital, Tirana. There he encountered “shattered buildings, piles of rubble,” and other signs of the wave of vengeful destructiveness that had swept through the village months earlier. “They felt they were destroying Communism,” a young shopkeeper told him. But some, it turned out, regretted their actions, in particular sacking the local clinic to empty it of the medicines that had been delivered just the day before. “Under the Communist Government,” Kamm reported,...

  5. Part One: Socialist Cars and Systems of Production, Distribution, and Consumption

    • 1 THE ELUSIVE PEOPLE’S CAR: Imagined Automobility and Productive Practices along the “Czechoslovak Road to Socialism” (1945–1968)
      (pp. 17-29)
      Valentina Fava

      In Czechoslovakia the automobile was not born socialist. After February 1948 the technicians who were involved in the development of the automobile industry had to take into account, on the one hand, the well-established productive practices that were the result of the complex, multilayered industrial history of Czechoslovakia and, on the other hand, the American model of mass production that at the time everyone considered the primary reference for the automobile industry.¹ What is more, almost fifty years of “automobility” had created high expectations among both the experts in the sector and the common people regarding how and when mass...

      (pp. 30-46)
      Mariusz Jastrząb

      Works on the functioning of centrally planned economies have proved that allocations of both investment and consumption resources often occurred in chaotic ways. Historians have already demonstrated that distributive decisions were often uninformed, made on the basis of common sense, precedents from the past, or intuition and not in accordance with scientific methods of planning. It has also been established that the centrally planned system left much room for bargaining and informal influences.¹

      Despite all the ills of its economic system, the socialist state had to create the prospect of satisfying consumer needs in order to encourage people to work....

    • 3 ALTERNATIVE MODERNITY? Everyday Practices of Elite Mobility in Communist Hungary, 1956–1980
      (pp. 47-68)
      György Péteri

      This chapter addresses the failure of the state socialist social order to assert its systemic exceptionalism (a pattern of development distinguishing socialism from capitalism) in the field of modern mobility.¹ The Hungarian experience was that the infrastructure serving collective transportation and the latter’s contribution to the aggregate performance of personal transport failed to keep pace with the explosion, from the end of the 1950s onward, in the growth of personal car ownership and the increasing role of private (individual) car-based mobility. In other words, the Khrushchevian ideas about the socialist use of personal cars did not fall on particularly fertile...

  6. Part Two: Mobility and Socialist Cities

    • 4 PLANNING FOR MOBILITY: Designing City Centers and New Towns in the USSR and the GDR in the 1960s
      (pp. 71-91)
      Elke Beyer

      The international dream of free-flowing traffic circulating through the city organism and of individual mobility as a sign of progress has had a powerful impact on urban planning ever since the 1950s and 1960s. Traffic planning was given high priority in the (re)definition of urban structures on both sides of the Iron Curtain. The shared agenda of an international expert community on how to design urban space as an efficient tool for communications informed the thinking of professional planners in capitalist and state socialist countries alike¹ at the same time that countless individual citizens of both camps aspired to car...

      (pp. 92-104)
      Brigitte Le Normand

      In the recent flourishing of scholarship on cars and automobility around the world, a few key concepts have crystallized. Two are of direct relevance to the task of developing the history of automobility in European socialist states. The first is that the second half of the twentieth century has witnessed the emergence of a “globalizing car system,” a product of postwar economic trends in which Fordist production and mass consumption have reached their apogee. The second and related concept is that although automobility is a global trend, the car cultures that emerged in each particular setting have also taken on...

    • 6 ON THE STREETS OF A TRUCK-BUILDING CITY: Naberezhnye Chelny in the Brezhnev Era
      (pp. 105-123)
      Esther Meier

      “All roads lead to KamAZ!” So proclaimed the newspapers in the 1970s as they sought to mobilize people for the large-scale project on the banks of the Kama. The truck factory KamAZ (Kamskii Avotmobil’nyi Zavod—Kama Automotive Factory) and the new city of Naberezhnye Chelny were one of the major projects of the Brezhnev era. Naberezhnye Chelny was renamed Brezhnev after the death in 1982 of Leonid Brezhnev, the USSR state and Party leader, and thereby became a symbol of an entire era.¹ In the 1970s and early 1980s thousands of workers from all parts of the Soviet Union came...

    • 7 UNDERSTANDING A CAR IN THE CONTEXT OF A SYSTEM: Trabants, Marzahn, and East German Socialism
      (pp. 124-140)
      Eli Rubin

      The Trabant is probably the most potent symbol of Ostalgie—that wave of longing for the return of certain aspects of the GDR that swept former East Germans and even West Germans in the two decades after the fall of the Berlin Wall. Before 1989, the Trabant, with its two-stroke engine, plastic fiberglass body, and terrible quality, was for many West Germans, and Westerners in general, the most potent symbol of socialism’s incompetence and inferiority in comparison with their own world. The whimsical fascination with Trabis began as they started to disappear, along with the world that produced them. As...

  7. Part Three: Socialist Car Cultures and Automobility

      (pp. 143-156)
      Luminita Gatejel

      What seems to have survived the dissolution of the former Eastern Bloc with regard to cars is either their proverbial bad reputation or a nostalgic patina retroactively added to them. This chapter challenges these two dominant perspectives on Socialist Cars, one belonging to the Cold War context and the other to post-1989 Communist nostalgia. I aim to tease out the characteristic features of a so-called socialist car culture by dealing with the multiple usages, symbolic meanings, and conflicting perceptions of automobiles during late socialist times. The chapter looks at various constructions of the Socialist Car: it explores its becoming, its...

    • 9 AUTOBASTELN: Modifying, Maintaining, and Repairing Private Cars in the GDR, 1970–1990
      (pp. 157-169)
      Kurt Möser

      The topic of working on automobiles by users in the socialist GDR could be tackled with different methods and perspectives. It could be written as a political and social history of consumers in nonconsumerist economies, as a story of subjective approaches to technology, as a subaspect of socialist economies, and even as the history of media popularizing do-it-yourself. Being a historian of technology with a strong focus on sociotechnical contexts, I prefer an approach that focuses on the relationship of users to technological objects and systems but also brings in other aspects of society and culture.

      The role of users...

    • 10 “LITTLE TSARS OF THE ROAD”: Soviet Truck Drivers and Automobility, 1920s–1980s
      (pp. 170-185)
      Lewis H. Siegelbaum

      When Heinz Lathe and Günther Meierling, two German ex-POWs who returned to Soviet Russia in 1958, drove south from Moscow in their diesel-powered Mercedes, they passed long lines of trucks but met their first car only after they had traveled forty-three kilometers (twenty-seven miles). Their experience was not unique. “We met a number of lorries, but saw few cars,” wrote the British journalist Patrick Sergeant about his trip along the same route a few years earlier. How could it be otherwise when until 1960 fewer than a third of all four-wheeled vehicles produced annually in the USSR were cars, and...

      (pp. 186-204)
      Corinna Kuhr-Korolev

      What is the goal in studying marginalia such as Russian women and their relationship to cars? What insight can it offer us, given the fact that cars remained a minority phenomenon in the Soviet Union and that women so rarely sat behind the wheel that they were practically an endangered species? What is the result of thinking about cars in connection with women and society—that is, when questions of automobility, gender relations, and women’s emancipation, daily life, and consumption are all brought together?

      For different reasons it is unusual to look at social developments in the last two decades...

  8. NOTES
    (pp. 205-236)
    (pp. 237-238)
  10. INDEX
    (pp. 239-242)