Cars for Comrades

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Subject essay: Lewis Siegelbaum

Cars and communism did not get along very well, at least not in the Soviet Union’s formative decades. Few and far between at the time of the October Revolution, private automobiles got scarcer still during the tumult of civil war and for some time thereafter. Then in May 1929, the Soviet government signed a technical assistance agreement with the Ford Motor Company to build an integrated automobile factory near Nizhni Novgorod (later, Gor’kii). However, the resultant Gor’kii Automobile Factory (GAZ), was celebrated more for its vastness (“the largest factory in Europe”), and the wonder of its assembly line than for its products, chiefly the Ford-derived Model A car and 1.5 ton Model AA truck. The production of trucks – vital for military purposes and the delivery of goods within the burgeoning cities – vastly outpaced car production. The party and government elite might have cars and drivers at their disposal, but very few people actually owned a motor vehicle.

Only after World War II did Stalin make a slight concession to the comrades. He approved the production of two new models – the Pobeda (Victory), a swoop-back sedan produced by GAZ, and the Moskvich (Muscovite), a replica of the pre-war German Opel Kadett produced by the Moscow Small Car Factory – and set aside a certain proportion of each for purchase by individuals. Priced at 16,000 and 9,000 rubles respectively, the cars were way beyond the means of the average worker whose wage stood at about 600 rubles per month. But so few were produced – only a little more than six thousand in 1946 and less than ten thousand in 1947 – that demand significantly exceeded supply. Trade unions organized waiting lists that could mean the deferment of one’s dreams of owning a car for upwards of six years. By the time it was phased out in 1958, just under 236,000 Pobedas had been produced by GAZ. Built to withstand the roughest of driving conditions, the car was exported to other Soviet bloc countries (including China) and to Finland as well. The Moskvich, an inferior product in just about every respect, went through periodic modifications in subsequent decades. Except for the even more diminutive Zaporozhets that began production in the late 1950s, it remained the most “proletarian” of Soviet cars.

Meanwhile, at the opposite end of the prestige spectrum, Moscow’s Stalin Factory (ZIS) was turning out the ZIS-110, a limited edition limousine patterned after a pre-war American Packard. With a 600 cc eight-cylinder engine, the most powerful installed in a Soviet car up to that point, the ZIS-110 was capable of speeds of up to 140 km/hr. More than any other, it represented the Soviet state on wheels. Its components came from a broad range of enterprises – 73 in all – scattered throughout the country. These included processing plants that supplied cork padding for interior panels and – fittingly for a product at this point in Soviet history – the Gulag-run Sokol’niki labor camp that furnished some of the leather upholstery. When it came to distributing the finished product, Moscow received favored treatment as it did in so many other respects. Of the 71 vehicles assigned by the middle of 1946, 38 remained in the Soviet capital. Kiev got seven, Leningrad three, and Minsk, Riga, Tallinn, Kishinev, Kaunas, and Petrozavodsk received four each. Between 1945 and 1958 ZIS sent forth a total of 2083 units, including small numbers of armor-plated (ZIS-115) and convertible (ZIS-110B) versions. The armor-plated model, completed in 1947, went into production just after the American atomic bomb blasts at Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The car did not have to endure that punishment, but it truly was a “bunker on wheels,” a real colossus. With added layers of steel and seven-centimeter thick plexiglass windows, it weighed in at more than seven tons and required special wheels and tires to bear the additional weight. ZIS only made a few dozen, most of which it dispatched directly to the Kremlin. Stalin reputedly had five of them at his disposal, using a different one every day as a safety precaution.

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