This is different kind of car book. If you’re the guy who unironically launches into a recitation of gophernet-era jokes such as “How do you double the price of a Lada? Fill it up with gas!” then this isn’t a book for you. Also, if you’re that guy, the one who feels it incumbent upon himself to inform everyone that ZAZ 968s probably couldn’t compete in a head to head test with a Chevy Citation, this book isn’t for you either. If, on the other hand, you’re the kind of person who always wondered why getting around the Russian city of Naberezhnye Chelny was always such a pain (haven’t we all?), you might like this book. Likewise, if you’re the kind of person who often wondered how you could move up the waiting list on a Polski Fiat, this just may be the book for you.
Composed of eleven different essays by different authors, and edited by Lewis H. Siegelbaum, The Socialist Car: Automobility in the Eastern Bloc grew out of a conference organized by the Free University of Berlin that examined various issues relating to automobility in the USSR and its satellite states. So this isn’t a book about cars per se, but rather a book about car ownership and the various social structures and economic phenomena that existed around private cars at various points in the history of socialist states. The Socialist Car presents a number of case studies that examine issues concerning automobility in Eastern Europe and the USSR.
It’s not very often that a book comes along that easily switches from discussing the various problems people faced while trying to get on the waiting list to acquire a Trabant (before facing the problems of actually owning a Trabant), to the issues faced by people traveling to what passed for a supermarket after their shift at the KamAZ factory. In fact, I don’t think I’ve encountered a more varied menu in any one single tome devoted to car ownership in Eastern Europe.
The book’s eleven chapters can roughly be grouped into two categories: ones that require some prior knowledge on the subject (at least in the historical and political sense) and ones that do not. Don’t let that dissuade you from reading this book, as it contains a number of wonderful and illustrative anecdotes that you’re unlikely to encounter anywhere else, especially given modern publishing houses’ aversion to topics such as this one.
If there was one observation by one of the contributing authors that sums up the joy of car ownership in the Eastern Bloc, it is perhaps the following passage from Luminita Gatejel’s chapter 8 essay The Common Heritage of Socialist Car Culture:
“Receiving and maintaining a car under socialist conditions was a hard job, but it seems that most owners accepted the challenge rather than giving up on the ream of having a car. Car ownership involved not only practical gains but also a social component in the form of (in most cases) male bonding that occurred while owners were mending and cleaning their cars in the presence of their fellow car enthusiasts.”
The same essay recounts the sad, emblematic, though far from unprecented tale of a Mr. Zhdanov, a mechanic and car fanatic who had spent two years trying to buy out an engineless 1960s vintage Chevrolet Bel-Air that had been abandoned by a Belgian visitor. Mr. Zhdanov battled an artificially high price set by a local car shop commission of so-called experts who had overvalued what remained of the car by a factor of 10, eventually writing letters to a Soviet Deputy Premier himself.
While we might be tempted to apply the same set of expectations regarding the difficulties and peculiarities of car ownership in the Eastern Bloc nations, the book does a good job of dispelling the myth of the existence of equally horrible systems of private car ownership (degrees of horribleness actually varied widely), and highlights the often glaring disparities among neighboring states. Mariusz Jastzab’s chapter titled Cars as Favors in People’s Poland examines the bureaucratic distribution system that allocated cars to employees within a government office. And Georgy Peteri’s essay on the Everyday Practices of Elite Mobility in Communist Hungary: 1956-1980 looks at the failure of Khruschev’s policies and pronouncements regarding private automobiles, specifically their inapplicability to socialist Hungary.
I was particularly impressed with Esther Maier’s chapter titled On the Streets of a Truck Building City: Naberezhnye Chelny in the Brezhnev Era, which examines several glaring oversights in what was essentially a city built in an open field around and for the KamAZ truck superfactory in the Soviet republic of Tatarstan. I won’t spoil the author’s sobering conclusion here, but let’s just say that getting to and from work, as well as in and out of the city, should have been planned a little better. Another insightful look at the architectural aspects of automobility was Elke Beyer’s chapter on the surprisingly prescient city planning in the GDR and USSR of the 1960s, specifically the anticipation of traffic problems that didn’t fully arrive till the late 1990s.
Overall, the text of The Socialist Car is pretty accessible, though not accessible in the same manner as Alex Roy’s The Driver. And by that I mean that the reader cannot encounter (or imagine encountering) the following passage in Roy’s book:
“The first, the “quintessential manufactured object” of twentieth-century capitalism and the industry from which the concepts of Fordism and post-Fordism emerged, would not seem to apply except the the Socialist Car owed its existence to Fordist (but not post-Fordist) technology.”
Got that? So a passing familiarity with geography and politics of Eastern Bloc states, as well as automotive history from the standpoint of economics are perhaps prerequisites for this course, err, book rather. What’s not in the book, however, are discussions about the technical aspects of the cars themselves, so reader beware. But then again, this isn’t a book about cars. If you want glossy scans of Avtoexport’s brochures with slightly stilted English slogans, there are books and interwebs out there full of those. This is more a book about car ownership in Eastern Europe and the USSR, and as such it handily succeeds without resorting to tired cliches or getting bogged down in tables and pie charts.
Author: Lewis H. Siegelbaum, Editor
Publisher: Cornell University Press
Price: $24.95 new on Amazon