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Hooniverse Bookshelf: The Socialist Car: Automobility in the Eastern Bloc

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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. 

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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.

Book info:
Author: Lewis H. Siegelbaum, Editor
ISBN: 9780801449918
Publisher: Cornell University Press
Language: English
Pages: 242
Price: $24.95 new on Amazon

Currently there are "16 comments" on this Article:

  1. Van_Sarockin says:

    I don't know my GAZ, from ZAZ, or from Grover, Margaret and ZaZuZaz, but this looks dang fascinating. I do, however, know my 'When Zaz Turned Blue', by Was (Not Was).

  2. k1llallh1pp1es says:

    Great book, though every time i see a story on Eastern European cars i can't help but think of Crazy Vaclav: "she'll get three hundred hectares on a single tank of kerosene.": http://images2.wikia.nocookie.net/__cb20100717053

  3. Maxichamp says:

    I'll definitely have to get this. Thanks.

    I read a book about a privileged Soviet (he was an ethnic minority in a writer's union) who took a long road trip. I'll have to dig up the title of that book.

    • Van_Sarockin says:

      Last year I read a travelogue book by a Brit who took a driving tour of every place in the USSR he could get a permit for, back in the sixties. It was kind of cool. Most definitely a fish-out-of-water kind of thing.

  4. wunno sev says:

    reading stories about trabants in east germany is a good way to see how important and liberating a car can be to those who don't have easy access to cars. it's really a neat subject. by all accounts they were miserable, incompetent little cars, yet people would wait 20 years to get one, pay a year's salary, and treat it like a temperamental family member.

    when the wall came down, nobody wanted a trabi anymore as clunkers from west germany were cheap and infinitely better cars. so the value of the trabi fell like a rock, and the cars fell by the wayside. in the end i guess i don't think it's really sad how it ended; the cars were bad in every way and everyone was better off for not driving them anymore. but some of the romance of driving was lost.

    of course, never having lived anywhere near east germany, it's easy for me to say that. i'm sure nobody who owned a trabi missed it that much.

    • Jay says:

      Yeah, one of the most surprising things was the disparity in the ease of acquiring a car, with Albania on one end of the spectrum with its ban on private cars (gulp) and perhaps Yugoslavia ad Bulgaria on the other end of the spectrum, with their relatively relaxed attitude towards even western cars.

      I still haven't figured out where it was the easiest (though not necessarily cheapest) place to get a car in the USSR, since currency measurements and other factors are so skewed…. The earning capacity of citizens in the Baltic republics was one of the strongest, but outside the USSR countries like Bulgaria were almost "western" in a lot of respects, esp Bulgaria since it had had Renault and Fiat factories.

      But if anything, the cheapest place to get a car would be to achieve a job that gave you a car along with your position : ) Aside from that, ZAZ 966s and ZAZ 968s were relatively cheap to get, and typically didn't have long waits.

      • Manic_King says:

        I remember that there was a way to get the new car also outside the normal 10 y. waiting time by buying it from the fleet of cars stolen already at Lada factory and driven some thousands km's away (20-30% of prod. during worst years 1985-1990, someone told, could be urban legend) or someone who didn't want their car and decided to cash in, but the price then of course was something else than official price. Depends if you count paying double the price and not waiting as "easier way". Or if you mean official channel new cars only then I'd say there wasn't much difference geographically, important was under which ministry you worked and what job you held.

        • Jay says:

          Yeah, and it must have been one of the few places where a used car would actually cost more to buy, since one didn't have to wait.

  5. texlenin says:

    This should be the book I'm holding on
    all my statues……

  6. Metric Wrench says:

    Dad and Mum got out right before I was born, and a car was everything to them. He often said that half the reason for leaving was so he could get one. I clearly remember, a month after we got across the pond dad cried like a baby on purchase of his first big block V8 sedan (even though the gas crisis was going on).

    When I was a wandering young adult, one of my adventures was back into the eastern block in the 1990's, just after the fall. I drove Ladas and such, and wrote home – Mum, Dad, you didn't miss much. They responded – Spoiled bratty, what do you know, you grew up with cars in the yard as toys.

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