Lewis H. Siegelbaum


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

Cover Interview of August 02, 2009

A close-up

The spatial requirements and landscape consequences of the automobile age – the roads, oil and gas refineries and stations, garages, tire and parts stores and junk yards, billboards and flashing neon signs, suburban tracts and shopping malls – hardly made their presence felt in the USSR.  “Consequently,” wrote a Dutch-born writer in the late 1960s “the Westerner in his own car …moves in an odd way back through time” to “how [our world] once looked, how it was supposed to look.”

Still, already in 1960, Krokodil, the Soviet humor magazine, could print a cartoon of makeshift sheds disfiguring the courtyard of a new apartment bloc, and residents in Leningrad soon were lodging complaints about garages getting “in the way of people’s everyday lives.”  The proliferation of private automobiles also had temporal consequences as car owners required considerable amounts of time to maintain and repair their vehicles.

Hence, car owners and car parts suppliers both of whom were overwhelmingly male appropriated courtyards, alleys, roadsides and fields for the predominantly masculine activities of car work and car talk.  Garages, furnished with old chairs and perhaps a heater and a cot became sites of celebration – places to drink vodka and consume sausage and pickles.  They and the interiors of the cars themselves served as alternative living rooms for men seeking privacy and male companionship.  The essentially private activities in which they engaged thanks to the car and the infrastructural inadequacies of the centrally planned economy were beyond the surveillance not only of their wives but of the state that inadvertently had fostered them.

All of this was a long way from the vision of Valerian Osinskii, a prominent Bolshevik who did more to give life to the Soviet automobile than anyone else.  In a series of articles that Pravda published in 1927, Osinskii called upon his comrades to adopt the “American automobile” instead of the “Russian cart” and thereby put “every worker and peasant in a car within not more than ten to fifteen years.”  Osinskii also dreamed of a future in which a car trip from Moscow to the provincial town of Voronezh would mean traveling on an asphalt highway so smooth that the only sound heard would be the swish of tires.  Only since the collapse of the USSR have such journeys become possible, but at the same time, the post-Soviet landscape is now littered with the detritus of the automobile age.