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Cars for Comrades: The Life of the Soviet Automobile
Published by EH.NET (August 2008)
Lewis H. Siegelbaum, Cars for Comrades: The Life of the Soviet Automobile. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2008. xvii + 309 pp. $40 (cloth), ISBN: 978-0-8014-4638-2.
Reviewed for EH.NET by Perry L. Patterson, Department of Economics, Wake Forest University.
Siegelbaum’s Cars for Comrades takes the reader on a fascinating and extensively researched journey into the social and cultural history of the Soviet automobile. Along the way, the author provides a wide new range of stories that illustrate the functioning (or dis-functioning) of the Soviet command economy, and that help explain occasionally puzzling cultural and economic phenomena associated with Soviet cars and roads. Siegelbaum also suggests that the problems associated with this sector were not isolated, but reflected general challenges to the formal economy and its political management.
Siegelbaum approaches his subject from several angles. The first three chapters provide individual histories of three major producers: ZIL (Moscow), founded in 1916; GAZ (Nizhni Novgorod), a company dating from the First Five-Year Plan in 1928; and VAZ (in Togliatti), a product of a 1966 mega deal with Fiat that helped vastly expand the Soviet passenger car fleet in the nation’s final two decades. A fourth chapter concentrates on the road and highway system; a fifth reflects on the ways in which the early Soviet state chose (in part due to military concerns) to promote the acquisition of driving skills; and a final major chapter analyzes the (sometimes grudging) post-WWII transition from trucks to cars and into something more of a consumer culture.
As incomes and economic complexity grew over time, the Soviet state found it necessary to produce more and more vehicles of all sorts, and private cars in particular. But policymakers also discovered that the existence of cars generated additional demands for consumer services, and discontent when the economy could not provide them. As Siegelbaum puts the matter, “cars, cars, and more cars seem to have played a particularly large and invidious role in popular disillusionment with Soviet socialism.” Worse perhaps for the Soviet state, private automobiles and the culture that grew up around them also opened up numerous ways for individuals to evade and undermine the official command economy. For example, cars facilitated private conversions, private dealmaking, the generation of “unearned” income from taxi rides, and the unplanned movement of (sometimes stolen) goods.
Cars for Comrades is a richly and eclectically documented volume. In addition to a wealth of archival material, Siegelbaum considers a variety of pop-culture sources, ranging from propaganda posters to literature to the pages of the Soviet car aficionado magazine Behind the Wheel [Za rulëm]. This approach provides a sustained and detailed picture of how cars and trucks fit into the Soviet economy and its cultural mindset, and how this “fit” varied over time. For example, the regime sought early on to popularize car driving via auto rallies, races and exhibitions, but at the same time made very few provisions (roads, service stations, garage space) to make private ownership a “consumer-friendly” proposition. As private cars ultimately became more available, the horror stories associated with such ownership seemed to multiply. This book is replete with tales of bribery on the road and at the gas station, and of owners whose lives came to be consumed by the search for spare parts or by the constant need to prevent the theft of existing parts, such as windshield wiper blades. The author has also documented well the rise of a macho car culture that seems to have stemmed in part from the frequent breakdowns that early Soviet vehicles incurred, along with early cultural assumptions that women were not “made for” professional (truck) driving.
For economists, Siegelbaum has captured in this microhistory of the car a wealth of truths about the Soviet economy more generally. He masterfully illustrates many of the consequences of pervasive price controls, of state decisionmaking regarding the quantities and types of consumption goods, and of a world where property rights are not supported fully either by the state or by the populace. He describes well why, despite attempts by the state, a collective rental market solution for the use of cars never seems to have flourished — among other difficulties, stolen parts by both customers and rental agents seem to have been common. Simultaneously, he reminds that, even at the height of political repressions, there existed semi-private clubs of hobbyists and amateurs — in this case, car-enthusiasts, who would gather together for collective support and competition, and even to voice independent criticism of state policy, say, regarding road maintenance. (The state, however, was not particularly responsive to such lobbying efforts.)
Written as a cultural history, Cars for Comrades will leave economists wishing for more sustained and consistent time series data on auto production and ownership and on road construction, as well as on the efficiency aspects of output in this sector. Most readers would benefit from more careful attention to adjustments for inflation, and to comparisons between car prices and typical incomes and accumulations of savings. At times, the book becomes a bit overly detailed regarding the nomenclature and technical specifications of particular vehicles — a distraction from the main story. More detail would have been welcome, however, on the implications of the Soviet past for the future of the post-Soviet auto industry, the highway system, and car culture. (As of 2008, it appears that remaining Soviet-era car brands have been largely supplanted by new and used imports and locally-manufactured foreign brands.)
Despite the above limitations, many readers will relate to and learn from this very fine book with ease. Siegelbaum’s occasional references to American car culture remind us of the importance of these vehicles in other settings, and help the reader to ask: why exactly did certain features of the Soviet economy and society turn out as they did? The book could thus readily serve as an introductory text designed to motivate undergraduate students to explore the Soviet (and other) command-style systems in a broader context. It will provide an enjoyable and thought-provoking read for students and researchers from a wide variety of social science and humanities disciplines.
Perry L. Patterson is Professor of Economics, Lecturer in Russian, and a Core Faculty member in the program in Women’s and Gender Studies at Wake Forest University. He has published on Soviet and post-Soviet financial markets and macroeconomic policy, and is currently working on a textbook entitled Economics for a Multicultural Future.
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