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Buying a brand new car in the communist USSR

Kamil Kaluski December 28, 2011 In General

In my review of the FSO Polonez I briefly touched on the new car buying experience in communist Poland. Following Antii’s recent post on the mint Lada 2102 wagon, Manic_king sent in a tip email with the below story of how his bought a brand new Lada in the communist Russia. It’s a good story, a first person experience about a world many of us were not familiar with.

Where to start? Well, maybe first about this waiting time of many years, in most cases about 10-15 years. Output of soviet car industry was never even near the amount the market would have absorbed. As shops were empty of goods anyone would want to own, people with at least medium income (say, 100 rubles per month in mid-eighties) had usually some money and were able to loan some more and of course car was one of the best possible purchase to make. As there never were enough new cars, normal way to do it was to go and buy some old POS from weekend car market for exorbitant price.

Cars about 5 factories managed to produce were most probably first divided to 3 parts: domestic market (DM), nicer export models for hard currency countries and cars for friendly commie countries from Cuba to Vietnam. This was taken care of in Moscow were Central Planning Committee had all the data from factories. The DM cars were then allocated to each of 15 soviet republics, where local planning committee divided cars further between ministries. Now, as there weren’t private enterprise in USSR and everyone was working for the state, those ministries were basically what mother company would be for company in the U.S. Cars trickled down to workplace (shoe factory, school, collective farm etc.) level through this organizational model. Basically, shoe factory as an unit would be similar to “company” so let’s call it so. Bosses of said “company” with, say 100 workers got news from ministry that they’ve been allocated again say, 2 Zaporozets, 3 Moskwich, 2 Ziguli/VAZ (domestic name for Lada) etc. cars for the year. Someone had to decide  who gets which new car during that year.

Decisions were made by Workers Union. Do not think it was for defending workers against bad company owners, nope, of course not, as there weren’t any. It was communist party’s  tool to control the people. When someone was good communist he/she had much better chances, but mostly only in theory, at least in western part of USSR where there was very few people who actually believed in communism because of historical background. Baltic States, where I’m from, were independent successful capitalist countries before WWII, during/after which Soviets occupied us for the next 50 years. During that time (including the eighties) memories and contacts to west were still strong, many people left Baltic States before second soviet occupation and so many people had relatives in the west. Also, it was for example possible to watch Finnish TV channels (Knight Rider!, Dallas!) because these were available with right antenna in this part of soviet union even if red army tried signal- jamming occasionally.

Instead of “good communist” BS, personal contacts, networking and friendships were extremely important.

So, workers union decided about cars, apartments, trips to abroad and everything else communist state gave to its people, as a result of trickle down scheme mentioned above. Workers had to submit applications for these “rewards”.  There was no point to submit application for better car like Moskwich or Ziguli/Lada  when you had worked for that “company” for less than 6-8 years because there was line of people already and few cars allocated were given mostly to long- time good workers. Had union people decided to make seemingly really unfair decision it would’ve meant problems for everyone. Only in very rare cases people managed to get 2 cars during their working career, there just wasn’t enough cars available, so it was once in a lifetime chance on a new car.  Zaporozets (the car Murilee dreams of) was exception, these were so bad that you probably could’ve got one in 2-3 year time but if you accepted this…thing, you lost your chance to get better car in next 15-20 y. time….  Also, allocation of cars wasn’t totally fair as some ministries managed to procure more cars than others e.g. country folk in agriculture usually got new cars easier. Ladas (except Nivas) were considered to be too weak for unpaved country roads so sturdier Moskwich was preferred there, bosses had Volgas in town & country.

So my mother won and got allocation document, or “car buying permit”, as it was known. After couple of months she received letter, instructing her to go to Lada “dealership” on a certain date with money and passport in hand to get her new car. She loaned some money from relatives and off we went. I mentioned above about importance of personal contacts in soviet life. You just had to know right people if you wanted nice things like TV set which would not self-ignite during first week or non-blue-Monday-morning car. She used her contacts and got best car they had, nice color (normally not selectable), good panel fit and all. I proceeded some years later to thrash it with 18 y. olds indifference, ruining mom’s once in a lifetime purchase, but then times were changing already and western cars were becoming available.   Great memories, car took all the abuse I managed to throw at it but after too many accidents it was totally shot.

Had mom wanted, she could have sold her brand new Lada with 100% profit right after buying it, but then all her colleagues would’ve been very angry and she wanted that car. Instead it was sold 7 years later cheaply to some Ukrainian for export.

Currently there are "36 comments" on this Article:

  1. TurboBrick says:

    Great story! Over in the west, Lada was the cheapest car you could buy. Towards the end, you could get a brand new Lada for 49 thousand FIM, while the cheapest "western" car was a Renault Twingo that would go for probably 65000. Of course, the Lada would face such a steep depreciation that three years later it might be worth only 5000-10000 because to most people they were about as desirable as gonorrhea. The lady that was doing courier jobs for our county government loved hers that she bought used, said that it was warm in the winter, depreciation was non-existent and the mileage reimbursement more than covered her expenses.

    Totally off topic: My favorite story about those over-the-gulf TV broadcasts is that the Estonian branch of KGB thought grocery store advertisements were devious CIA propaganda attacks to try to incite a rebellion. They even went as far as making a statement that while the ads showed slabs of meat, those weren't actually for sale and that they were only for display.

    Okay, here we go, Youtube time… so here's the one that started it all, the ad that killed the Soviet Union, featuring the Terror of Communism, that nefarious Corruptor of the Youth, the Embodiment of Western Decadence himself, master butcher Väinö Purje from the late 70's:

    [youtube 8Lh9IDb2_x8 http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8Lh9IDb2_x8 youtube]

    • Charles_Barrett says:

      As a college student spending the summer of 1982 touring by leased car in Western Europe with my classmate Richard, we went to Zagreb. Richard traveled under a British passport and breezed right thru border control, but MY US passport was taken to the office for closer scrutiny (as was I, to retrieve it). As a clean-cut, wholesome young man, I was treated with utmost courtesy and allowed to enter the country.

      Luggage is limited when traveling, so I had decided that a compact collectible souvenir for me was the ubiquitous cigarette lighter, since every place we went had pretty ones for sale at a reasonable price. I spotted a real beauty in a Zagreb shop window, but when I wanted to purchase it, the shopkeeper tried to explain to me that it was only for "the window". My poor simple Capitalist mind didn't realize that even reasonably Westernized Yugoslavia wouldn't sell me a pretty trinket of a lighter. I eventually settled for a plastic disposable lighter touting the upcoming 1982 Winter Olympics.

    • Manic_King says:

      That "butcher" guy made whole career out of K-kauppa's ads. At least it seems he was there many years, maybe even decade.

      • TurboBrick says:

        Taking bit of creative liberties here with the translations, apparently Americans have a hard time giving the title "Meat Master" the appropriate level of prestige. I remember old Väiski being on the tube through the end of 80's. Though we were strictly T-Market people, remember back in the day when there was actually competition in the grocery business and stores had meat counters instead of coolers full of vacuum packed marinaded mystery meat.

    • mr. mzs zsm msz esq says:

      I've been taking a lot of vacation, but been immensely enjoying the recent post, thanks!

      Anyway, my great grand father believed the stories that the advertisements were propaganda and that times were hard in the US as well, that in particular there was no meat. Maybe it all stemmed from that very ad :) So when he came to visit he brought two kilograms of smoked meats with him. Well they caught him at O'Hare, but you can imagine how hard it was for him to get those sausages in Poland, he had been using connections and his ration coupons for months. He was not about to let someone take it away from him. We were waiting for some time for him to exit the doors, we started getting worried. He he finally came-out, we learned that he sat down on his suit case and ate all of the meat right there! It must have been something to see.

      Anyway later at our apartment he still did not believe that there was no meat shortage, so we took him to the grocery store. There he claimed that there was no way you could buy the meat on display, so my mom asked him to pick out any thing, he pointed out a bunch of cut, and then she bought it all. That instant he stopped believing everything he had ever since the government took his glass factory from him after WWII. I visited Poland a few years later and I remember going into a grocery store and there were only empty shelves save for a section with vinegar. I really think the poor guy had to believe that things were so bad in rest of the world to keep his sanity.

      • TurboBrick says:

        I can believe that… the Estonians had the same reaction when they were finally able to come to Helsinki. They were completely blown away by the fully stocked stores. It's amazing to think that such a world even existed, and it wasn't THAT long time ago. Makes me more grateful for all the heavy lifting my grandparents generation had to do to keep Finland from getting occupied or "rendered immediate and permanent military assistance to discourage any potential threat to it's sovereignty from the West".

        What's that joke about the two Polish guys sitting in a cold cabin, the wind is blowing through the broken windows and the lights are out. The other one leans over and says, "You know, if we had some bread it'd be just like it was during the war!"

  2. Charles_Barrett says:

    What a wonderful and entertaining write-up…! I love to hear about different cultural experiences, especially since most of our human wants and desires are so similar, yet HOW we go about actually achieving them can vary drastically.

  3. Van_Sarockin says:

    Where exactly is the export market for clapped out Ladas thrashed to death by teenagers? I got some fused together rust I'd like to unload at immense profit.

    • mdharrell says:

      How much are you asking? Got any photos?

    • Manic_King says:

      Well, as USSR collapsed to bunch of new countries, every new country got a bit different start so there was always place which wanted to get rid of old soviet crap and also people in some other places who still were dreaming about their first own Ladas. First Estonians and later Russians emptied Finland of Ladas, then as Baltic countries started massive import of second hand cars from Germany and Holland (first old crappy Ford Sierras, Audi 100, Opels), soon most of the cars were of western origin. Same time Russians, Ukrainians and other citizens of new countries started to export soviet made cars to their homeland. Car base was changed completely in 5-10 years time in Baltics.

      • TurboBrick says:

        And the Yugoslavians took all the old Fiats and Wartburgs. One guy paid a premium price to my uncle for his Fiat 127, and went back home smiling like he'd just bought himself a Mercedes or something. Those guys were subscribing to the Murilee Martin Lifestyle Brand way of doing automotive purchases back then, and they knew that there were plenty of compatible part donors back home for those.

  4. domino_vitali says:

    very interesting, and similar to the stories i've heard from my father, although much more detailed. his father was a chauffeur in the USSR, so obtaining a quality car was a bit different, i believe.

  5. Lotte says:

    Geez, that makes me sound like a dirty capitalist pig even when I say that I appreciate the reliability and relative simplicity of our newish family midsize Honda…I mean, it's got leather! And power-near-everything!

  6. Van_Sarockin says:

    Let's see: there's no sleazy high pressure sales guy; no bait and switch; no killing room; no hushed side conversations with the sales manager; no figures passed on slips of folded paper; no trade in shenanigans; no financing three card monte; no buying cabin lighting and exterior thermostat because you want a radio; no mandatory undercoating or floor mats. I think the Russkies didn't have it too bad.

  7. red delta says:

    Where did the Trabant fit in all of this? I was a base brat in Berlin when the wall came down and them things were all over the place.

    • wunno sev says:

      Trabis were an East German phenomenon. Trabis and Wartburgs were pretty much the only cars one could buy in East Germany; the waiting list was even worse for these cars. The Trabant made it out into Eastern Europe and the Balkans, but was not really sold in most of the USSR. The Wartburg was "good enough" to be exported to some West European countries; it was the more desirable car by far, but more expensive and with an even longer waiting list.

      Fun fact: the Trabant's engine had five major moving parts – two pistons, two con rods, and the crank. It was a two-stroke, so lubrication and valves did not require separate parts. That did not stop them from being fantastically unreliable. After the Berlin Wall came down, the East German market was flooded with used real cars and nobody wanted Trabants anymore; they sat unsold on lots for months, even after the company struck a deal with Volkswagen to drop the Polo's engine in Trabis in the early '90s.

      • TurboBrick says:

        I read from somewhere that there was a company that was grinding the duroplast bodies into shreds and using them as filler material for road construction. I thought that was very appropriate, the cars that were meant to fill the roadways of DDR were now being used as filler for the roadways.

      • tonyola says:

        The Trabant became cool for about a year or so as a symbol of new-found freedom after the Berlin Wall was torn down. Car and Driver brought one over to the US. Remember when U2 was using a bunch of them as props on their Zoo TV tour? Then reality set in and people realized just how dreadful the cars were.

  8. skitter says:

    Tangentially related, and fascinating: Grain And Oil: The Soviet Collapse

    • topdeadcentre says:

      A good read, but I think the author is a little too narrow, as there were definitely other economic and political factors in play during the disintigration.

    • topdeadcentre says:

      Oo, I almost forgot this gem of a quote from the USSR's top leadership (though it does appear in other places around the net). From Politburo minutes:

      "Mr. Zasiadko has stopped binge drinking. Resolution: nominate Mr. Zasiadko as a minister to Ukraine."

      • Van_Sarockin says:

        Frankly, we must question his fitness to lead and the wisdom of his decisions. Secondly, I call dibs on his vodka ration.

  9. craigsu says:

    Am I the only one reading this article with the voice of either Boris Badenov or Pavel Chekov in my head?

  10. Canada says:

    Ladas were imported into Canada for a while and sold quite well as they were the cheapest cars sold in Canada. I remember the ads. " A Lada car for the money".
    My girlfriend at the time bought one. I remember it smelled funny inside ( a whole different kind of new car smell) and the window cranks went the wrong way. Also it came with quite an extensive tool kit.
    Needless to say, the reason for the tool kit soon became apparent.
    Years later a former car dealer told me that Lada dealers would check the compression on newly delivered Ladas and never get the same answer twice. Quality control was non existant, even on the export models. Of course, he also recounted how early Korean and then Japanese cars where junk too, but everyone forgets that now.
    Believe it or not, many of the Ladas ended up being loaded onto the decks of Russian bound ships and ended up back in the Old Country, where no doubt they earned a hefty profit on the used market before the wall came down.

  11. Navy Chopper says:

    Love the whole thread. My wife is from the Czech Republic and it is like pulling teeth to get stories like Kamil's. Her family usually thinks I am crazy when I ask for stories about how it was. She was a teen during the revolution, barely averted becoming a true Communist. Her father couldn't believe I had three cars when they came to visit in 2008.

  12. Nick says:

    Great thread ! :) I remember my vacations in East Europe in the 1980s, my parents are from former Yugoslavia. All the Zastavas, Ladas and smokey awful Wartburgs . Western cars were availble in communist YU, but at a hefty price. If a let's say Ford Taunus was 8000 DM in West Germany, you had to pay for the car + 50% import tax + 50% registration fee total = 16000 DM in the currency of the country that produced the car. You basically bought one car for youself and on for big brother government. The solution spelled :joint ventue VW Citroen Renault and GM set up factories in YU for local assembly (like they do in PR. China today). I remember (an they can still be sighted) the VW Golfs with a "J" emblem, the J stood for Jugoslavija. And another badge spelling "TAS" on the grille.

  13. manishkumarverma37 says:

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