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The Socialist Car: Automobility in the Eastern Bloc

Author(s):Siegelbaum, Lewis H.
Reviewer(s):Patterson, Perry L.

Published by EH.Net (March 2012)

Lewis H. Siegelbaum, editor, The Socialist Car: Automobility in the Eastern Bloc.? Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2011.? vii + 242 pp. $25 (paperback), ISBN: 978-0-8014-7738-6.

Reviewed for EH.Net by Perry L. Patterson, Department of Economics, Wake Forest University.

The Socialist Car continues along a journey begun in Siegelbaum?s earlier work, Cars for Comrades: The Life of the Soviet Automobile (2008, reviewed at, August 2008).? The result of a workshop at the Berlin School for Comparative European History in 2008, the present volume extends Siegelbaum?s research both geographically and in terms of the broader social, urban planning and personal meanings of ?automobility? or car culture.

As was true for Cars for Comrades, this book takes the modern upper-middle-class Western reader far from the contemporary world where drivers need not know what?s ?under the hood,? where synthetic oil might not need attention for 15,000 miles or more, and where long-standing institutions for finance, distribution and service of vehicles are seemingly ubiquitous.? Rather, this is a world where two-stroke engines are designed for easy (and frequent) self-service, new car owners are required to install windshield wipers, and new automobiles are provided with extensive repair kits and instructions for disassembly.? This world is also one where private automobiles ? and even socially-owned trucks ? represent potential threats to the Soviet-style socialist undertaking by providing opportunities for generating illegal incomes and diverting resources toward consumption.? At the core of the rich set of stories contained here are the compromises that everyday citizens, urban planners, and Party officials routinely made as the powerful forces associated with the automobile became more and more apparent throughout the socialist bloc.? In addition, the examples presented in this eleven-chapter volume say much about the increasingly complex information flows required and implied by automobiles that became more and more technically complex over time.

As Siegelbaum makes clear in the book?s introduction, the Soviet-bloc experience with the automobile varied widely.? Although all Soviet-style European states lagged well behind the U.S. in cars per capita, Siegelbaum reminds of wide gaps within the bloc as well.? For example, in 1970 private car density in Czechoslovakia exceeded that of the USSR by a factor of seven, and the GDR (East Germany) reported nearly ten times as many cars per capita as the Soviet Union.? Czechoslovakia and the GDR began the period under Soviet dominance with pre-World War II production facilities that surpassed those elsewhere in the bloc, and were in a particularly good place to observe accumulating evidence that Western car technology was outstripping what could (or would) be possible under Soviet-style planning.

The book is divided into three major sections.? Part One focuses on the production, distribution and consumption of automobiles in three separate case studies. Valentina Fava describes the manufacturing-level tensions in Czechoslovakia that resulted from the ideology that a car should be for ?productive uses? rather than private pleasures. Mariusz Jastrzab provides the complex details of the distribution system in Poland that sought to reward best workers with easier and quicker access to vehicle ownership, while keeping car prices at below-market levels amidst a general shortage.? Georgy Peteri notes the considerable difficulty that the Hungarian Communist Party itself had in limiting private appropriation of an expensive Party-owned fleet of vehicles.

Part Two examines urban planning and the interaction between rising private automobile use and socialist cities as designed, constructed and, ultimately, lived.? Post-World War II reconstruction and transformation offered many opportunities for new visions of city life, as whole new suburbs and even cities arose.? In this context, it is clear that the interactions between the socialist car and the socialist city would require calculations in the design of both.? Unfortunately, this proved to be a tall order in many cases.? For example, as Esther Meier points out, the design of the new Soviet city Naberzhnye Chelny together with its suburbs (high-rise microraion apartment blocs), was intended to provide for a generally car-free daily life and yet permit very quick (public)? transportation to a vibrant city center.? Thus, the apartment blocs themselves centered closely around intended nurseries, schools, play areas and grocery outlets.? However, when demographic forecasts proved wrong (say, more children than slots in local schools) or groceries were not well supplied, daily life without a car turned out to be very difficult for families whose children had to go to school or whose food had to come from outside the home apartment complex.? Sadly, it also turned out that the vibrant city center designed by early planners was never built.? The lived reality of the new city seemed quite far from what had been envisioned.

Part Three focuses directly on cultural features associated with the advance of automobility.? These chapters consider how individuals and the state conceived what the automobile ?meant,? that is, how it was used and how it did or did not advance the cause of socialism.? Here, for example, Kurt Moser describes the East German cultural phenomenon of car owners gathering together during their (private) vacations to exchange parts and mechanical knowledge and to make repairs unavailable via state institutions.? Corinna Kuhr-Korolev examines the interactions of automobility and gender roles in the Soviet Union.? And Lewis Siegelbaum reminds that the vehicle-related tensions between public and private spheres had been known as early as the 1920s when state-owned trucks first came into widespread use (and misuse).?

As was true of Siegelbaum?s earlier volume, the primary readers for this work will likely be cultural historians and historians of urban planning.? However, this book also suggests much to consider for political scientists and economists interested in the challenges, implications, and information flows associated with technical progress in nominally ?closed? societies.? Several chapters are worthy of inclusion in the undergraduate classroom, and would help generate lively discussion among students accustomed to very different assumptions about their cars.? The new archival materials accessed by many of the authors open up additional lines for continued research.? Among many other potential future avenues suggested by these chapters, work on youth car culture and commuter car culture seem promising.? In sum, Siegelbaum and his colleagues have provided an entertaining and fruitful contribution to our knowledge of the planned (and unplanned) socialist state.

Perry L. Patterson is Professor of Economics, Lecturer in Russian and Associate Dean for Academic Advising at Wake Forest University.? He has published on Soviet and post-Soviet financial markets and macroeconomic policy, and is currently focused on factors influencing undergraduate student success and retention.

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Subject(s):Economic Planning and Policy
Social and Cultural History, including Race, Ethnicity and Gender
Transport and Distribution, Energy, and Other Services
Geographic Area(s):Europe
Time Period(s):20th Century: Pre WWII
20th Century: WWII and post-WWII