Lewis H. Siegelbaum

 

On his book Cars for Comrades: The Life of the Soviet Automobile

Cover Interview of August 03, 2009

The wide angle

No contextual landscape for the book existed in the sense of a previous body of historical scholarship devoted to the subject.  The Soviet automobile did figure in Cold War-era economists’ reckonings of the so-called “second economy.”  And sociologists, anthropologists and historians have been producing an impressive number of articles and books on car and truck cultures in many parts of the world (although not the USSR or other former Soviet-bloc countries).  But the twin inspirations for the writing the book came from elsewhere.

Visiting Moscow and other ex-Soviet cities during the 1990s, I could not help noticing the tremendous increase in the number of cars and the difficulties urban infrastructures had in accommodating their growth.  This observation made me reflect on the intricate relationships among cars, cities, political systems and the choices they offered and constrained with respect to human mobility.  It also made me start to notice the presence of cars and trucks in a lot of places previously hidden in full view – in Soviet novels, poetry, films, photographs, and songs, in the speeches by Soviet leaders, in memoirs and elsewhere.  Soon my project was awash with material.


rorotoko.com A Chaika in the courtyard of a Moscow apartment building, May 2006.  Photo Lewis Siegelbaum.

The other source of inspiration was my own weariness with the narrative of Soviet history that emphasized tears, state oppression, and violence – a narrative especially prominent in and appropriate to accounts of the Stalin era.  This was the period in which most of my previous scholarship was situated.  I longed for a subject that was more capacious, that would enable me to trace its arc through the entirety of the Soviet Union’s existence, and found it in the odd coupling of the automobile and Soviet communism.

Of course I encountered tears and shed a few of my own as I struggled to master the vocabulary of auto mechanics.  But among the unexpected pleasures of writing this book were several discoveries among the myriad of sources: film comedies from the Soviet 1950s and 60s about a driver and his boss in a case of mistaken identity, about a would-be ice skating princess who settles for becoming the best gas station attendant by filling up the tanks on roller skates; a Stalin-prize winning novel from 1950 in which a truck driver rhapsodizes about the joy of the open road; and Ilya Ehrenburg’s 1929 dystopic novel about the devastating effects of the automobile on labor, the environment, and pedestrians.  From the latter, I derived the subtitle for my book.