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.