Lewis H. Siegelbaum


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

Cover Interview of August 02, 2009


In the late 1950s, Nikita Khrushchev, who never had been a fan of the private car, proposed a rental system as an alternative route to automotive modernity.  “We will use cars more rationally than the Americans,” he assured an audience in Vladivostok.  But even before his ouster in 1964, the system that had lacked funding and provoked innumerable complaints was phased out.  With it went the chance for the USSR to take advantage of its relatively late entry into the automobile age and improve on the record of its predecessors.

Cars for Comrades is about more than cars.  It is about the chimera of overcoming the gap in technology between the capitalist (First) and socialist (Second) world.  Even as Soviet and American engineers were installing an assembly line to turn out Model A trucks and cars in the late 1920s, Soviet journalists were conjuring up visions of a technological utopia, not just a factory out of which would rumble identical machines one after the other, but an entire city, the “City of Socialism” lit by electricity, heated by steam, and with rectangles everywhere.  But the capitalist world’s technology was a moving target.  By the time the techno-utopian “Soviet Detroit” of the future was actually built – in the early 1970s in Togliatti to complement the AvtoVAZ factory – the real Detroit was definitely showing signs of stress and decay from which it would not recover.

The book’s larger significance is about the intersection of technology, ideology, and material culture.  I argue that Soviet socialism exchanged the possibility of an alternative modernity for one much more entangled with the material culture of the western world.

This process was difficult to predict.  For much of its existence, the Soviet Union was defined by its leaders as a more rationally organized and socially just polity than any in the capitalist world.  The preponderance of trucks – those workhorses among motor vehicles – and the rare privately owned car was consistent with such difference.  But eventually the comrades and other middle-echelon personnel wanted to enhance their personal mobility, flexibility, and status.  They wanted the wealth within what had become a vast empire to be shared with them not only in the form of access to first-rate educational institutions, vacations abroad, family apartments, and domestic appliances but that most representative of twentieth-century material objects – the car.

In the end, they got their way, sort of.

© 2009 Lewis Siegelbaum