Cars for Comrades

Cars for Comrades: The Life of the Soviet Automobile

LEWIS H. SIEGELBAUM
Copyright Date: 2008
Edition: 1
Published by: Cornell University Press
Pages: 328
https://www.jstor.org/stable/10.7591/j.ctt7zc2d
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  • Book Info
    Cars for Comrades
    Book Description:

    The automobile and Soviet communism made an odd couple. The quintessential symbol of American economic might and consumerism never achieved iconic status as an engine of Communist progress, in part because it posed an awkward challenge to some basic assumptions of Soviet ideology and practice. In this rich and often witty book, Lewis H. Siegelbaum recounts the life of the Soviet automobile and in the process gives us a fresh perspective on the history and fate of the USSR itself.

    Based on sources ranging from official state archives to cartoons, car-enthusiast magazines, and popular films, Cars for Comrades takes us from the construction of the huge "Soviet Detroits," emblems of the utopian phase of Soviet planning, to present-day Togliatti, where the fate of Russia's last auto plant hangs in the balance. The large role played by American businessmen and engineers in the checkered history of Soviet automobile manufacture is one of the book's surprises, and the author points up the ironic parallels between the Soviet story and the decline of the American Detroit. In the interwar years, automobile clubs, car magazines, and the popularity of rally races were signs of a nascent Soviet car culture, its growth slowed by the policies of the Stalinist state and by Russia's intractable "roadlessness." In the postwar years cars appeared with greater frequency in songs, movies, novels, and in propaganda that promised to do better than car-crazy America.

    Ultimately, Siegelbaum shows, the automobile epitomized and exacerbated the contradictions between what Soviet communism encouraged and what it provided. To need a car was a mark of support for industrial goals; to want a car for its own sake was something else entirely. Because Soviet cars were both hard to get and chronically unreliable, and such items as gasoline and spare parts so scarce, owning and maintaining them enmeshed citizens in networks of private, semi-illegal, and ideologically heterodox practices that the state was helpless to combat. Deeply researched and engagingly told, this masterful and entertaining biography of the Soviet automobile provides a new perspective on one of the twentieth century's most iconic-and important-technologies and a novel approach to understanding the history of the Soviet Union itself.

    eISBN: 978-0-8014-6100-2
    Subjects: History

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
  3. List of Tables
    (pp. vii-viii)
  4. preface
    (pp. ix-xii)
  5. glossary
    (pp. xiii-xviii)
  6. Introduction
    (pp. 1-9)

    In April 1929 the International Labor Organization in Geneva received a rather unusual request. It came from Sir Percival Perry, chief of the Ford Motor Company’s European operations, which was based in London. Sir Percival wanted the ILO to undertake a systematic study of “how much a Parisian, German, etc. worker would need to expend if his general standard of living was to be approximately equivalent to that of his Detroit counterpart.” At the time, Henry Ford, the world’s most revered entrepreneur, was keen to expand his company’s production operations in Europe as he pursued his dream of creating the...

  7. chapter 1 AMO–ZIS–ZIL–AMO-ZIL: Detroit in Moscow
    (pp. 10-35)

    On a peninsula jutting into the broad and winding Moscow River just a few kilometers to the southeast of the Kremlin stands a dense complex of soot-stained buildings—an automobile factory. The factory, known today as AMO-ZIL, celebrated its ninetieth anniversary in 2006. It is the longest-lived of Russian automobile plants.

    Founded in 1916 as the Automobile Society of Moscow (AMO), the enterprise retained its name for several years after the October Revolution of 1917. In 1923 the Moscow bureau of the metalworkers union insisted on adding Ferraro to the enterprise’s name, in honor of an Italian anarchist trade union...

  8. chapter 2 GAZ, Nizhni Novgorod–Gor'kii–Nizhni Novgorod
    (pp. 36-79)

    “The old village of Monastyrka huddled together on the left bank of the Oka, a dozen or so kilometers from 700-year-old Nizhni Novgorod. Decrepit willows and poplars stood, like sentries, next to its earthen izbas [peasant huts] and plain houses. . . . A grove of oaks moaned in foul weather above the river’s mirror-like surface.”¹ A monastery—or at least a village that probably used to be one—and a grove of trees. Where have we encountered them before? But of course! Tiufel Grove on the outskirts of Moscow in what would become the Proletarian District.² Nizhni’s equivalent to...

  9. chapter 3 VAZ, Togliatti
    (pp. 80-124)

    Scattered across the length and breadth of the former Soviet Union are cities with populations ranging from about two hundred thousand to eight hundred thousand that owe their existence or at least their comparatively rapid growth to massive Soviet construction projects. In their mobilization of tens of thousands of construction workers, the harshness of the conditions of work, and the drab uniformity of the buildings erected, these projects were characteristically Soviet. The cities that resulted from them represent one of the more significant, if baleful, legacies of the Soviet period. Among them is Togliatti. Along with its cousin, Naberezhnye Chelny,...

  10. chapter 4 Roads
    (pp. 125-172)

    One of the most often-cited aphorisms in the Russian language, usually expressed with vaguely fatalistic overtones, is the observation, apocryphal though usually attributed to Gogol, that Russia has two misfortunes—fools and roads. These days it is often cited either in connection with a particularly stupid remark by a member of the State Duma, or to lament the condition of . . . Russia’s roads. After all these years? The same complaint? Evidently so.

    Whether Russia has suffered from fools to a greater degree than other countries—proportionate to its population, let’s say—would be hard to demonstrate, for cross-cultural,...

  11. chapter 5 One of the Most “Deficit” of Commodities
    (pp. 173-211)

    In September 1915, the Kadet (Constitutional Democratic Party) politician Vasily Maklakov published a fable in the liberal newspaper Russkie vedomosti about a “mad chauffeur.” “Imagine,” he wrote, “you are driving in an automobile on a steep and narrow road” when “suddenly you realize that your chauffeur is unable to drive either because he is incapable of controlling the car on steep gradients, or he is overtired and no longer understands what he is doing.” Seated in the automobile are several competent drivers, but they dare not try to take the wheel for fear of causing a fatal accident. The chauffeur...

  12. chapter 6 Cars, Cars, and More Cars
    (pp. 212-252)

    “Curiously,” wrote the Dutch-born novelist and essayist Hans Koningsberger in 1968, “the Soviet Union is now a highly industrialized country, but in its private sector is only on the threshold of the gasoline age.” Consequently, “the Westerner in his own car . . . moves in an odd way back through time.”¹ Curious this was because moving back through time was not what one was supposed to be doing in the Soviet Union. Stalin himself famously had said that the Soviet Union had to catch up to and overtake the advanced capitalist countries or else it would go under. The...

  13. conclusion
    (pp. 253-258)

    In 1990, with the Soviet Union on the brink of collapse, its auto factories turned out just under two million vehicles—1.2 million cars and 780,000 trucks. These figures were below levels ten years earlier although they still made the USSR the world’s eighth largest car producer and fourth largest producer of trucks. In that same year R. M. Gasanov, a Soviet journalist whose previous work had taken him into the realm of industrial espionage, published a book on the “favorite child of the century”—the automobile. Gasanov’s book ranged far and wide over the globe to present a lot...

  14. notes
    (pp. 259-302)
  15. index
    (pp. 303-310)