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Great Cars of Russia

Alex spent a week in Russia on a school trip and took a lot of pictures, including quite a few of the local four-wheeled fauna. Here's some of what he saw:

16--count 'em!--16 lanes of traffic on Tverskaya Street in Moscow.

One of the things Alex was struck by is how many signs and symbols of the old Soviet Union are still visible more than two decades after the USSR's going out of business sale.

"I'm back in the USSR...."For instance, the citizens of St. Petersberg voted to stop calling the town "Leningrad" in a 1991 referendum, but the St. Petersberg airport still has its big light-up "Leningrad" sign.

"Do we have money in the budget for a new sign yet?"You see a lot of this with Russian cars as well. Soviet industry was relatively good at making big-ticket industrial era products like tanks, ballistic missiles, and grandiose concrete monuments to the communist state. The centrally-planned economy proved far less suited to producing microelectronics, computers, advanced aerospace vehicles, and basic consumer goods such as mass-market automobiles. Unable to come up with an indigenous proletarian grocery-getter which actually worked properly, the Soviets took to licensing economy car designs from FIAT.

The Soviets went with FIAT as a gesture of support for the Italian Communist Party, and not because they'd cross-shopped FIATs against the other capitalists or looked them up in Consumer Reports. FIATs of that era were not the greatest cars in the world by any means--the running joke was that "FIAT" stood for "Fix It Again, Tony!" They would have done better to have the KGB grab a couple of base-model Chevy Novas with a straight six and reverse-engineer them, but the quality of the product took a back seat to fraternal socialist solidarity and geopolitical objectives.

The licensed FIATs were built by a state-owned enterprise called VAZ, which stood for "Volzhsky Avtomobilny Zavod"--"Volga Automobile Factory." Even with the Italians' (dubious) technical help, VAZ and the other Soviet carbuilders could never come close to building enough cars to satisfy domestic demand--and didn't do a particularly good job of building the ones they did manage to build. Nevertheless, those that were assembled on a day when they weren't "storming" to meet the monthly quota made up for in ruggedness and ease of maintenance what they lacked in sophistication and refinement. There are more than a few still to be seen on Russian streets today. Here's one, a lovably homely VAZ 2104 wagon parked in St. Petersburg:
Should we call it "FIATski"?And here's another one:

I like the roof rack.This is a VAZ-2103, the sedan counterpart to the wagon above in a nicer-than-base trim level, on the back of a tow truck.

Heading for Siberia?This VAZ sedan, spotted in Moscow, appeared to be in working order.

"Moskau/Raz, dva, tri!/Moskau!/Posmotri!/Piionyery tam idut/Pyesni Leninu poyut..."Built from 1970 to 1988, the VAZ 2100-series cars were also known as the "Zhiguli," which is Russian for "more pathetic than a Trabant" the name of a mountain range by the Volga river. Those sold in other countries were branded as the "Lada," a nameplate that was later used on home-market cars as well, such as this one:

Note the Renault sneaking up from behind the tree.Here's one more Lada, parked next to a Toyota sedan not much different from the ones we have here in the States.

Toyotas!  They're everywhere!  They're everywhere!Note the Zhiguli sedan directly across the street from the wagon, next to what looks like a ten- or fifteen-year old Mopar minivan.

As the presence of the minivan and the Toyota and the bright blue Peugeot wagon in the photo above demonstrates, car buyers in post-Communist Russia have a lot more choices these days. All of the major players in the global car business are active in the Russian market. For instance, Volvo,...

Note the use of English in advertising, much like you see in Japan....Mitsubishi,...

150,000 Rubles equates to $5,000....Hyundai, Ford,...

The sign above the Hyundai advertises a souvenier shop....General Motors (Opel),...

...known on our side of the pond as a Saturn......Renault,...

"He drives a sporty Renault."...and VW.
"Yo! Vee-Dub...."Alex saw so many gray 4-door VW Mk. 5 Golfs and GTIs that he started to think I'd followed him to Russia.

While there are a lot of imports, the domestic Russian auto industry is still in operation, under capitalist ownership. Here's a 21st-century Lada built by AutoVAZ, the private-sector successor to VAZ.

I think the spoiler is kind of cool.In a country where the winter runs from September to May and the annual snowfall is measured in meters, SUVs and crossovers are understandably quite popular. The little fella on the right in the next photo is a Neva, the Russian equivalent of a small Jeep.   Note that there's yet another Zhiguli on the left. St. PetersburgSt. PetersburgWidespread ownership of private autos is still a relatively new thing in the old Eastern Bloc countries, and Russian city traffic can be, well, a little chaotic.

Every man for himself, and Devil take the hindmost!The often-anarchic traffic, and somewhat arbitrary and capricious law enforcement, are why so many Russians have installed dashboard cameras in their cars.

Though Russia is a very different place, with Toyota Camrys crowding the streets laid out by Peter the Great...

St. Petersburg St. Petersburg...some things are the same the whole world over.

How do you say "Whopper and large fries" in Russian?--Cookie the Dog's Owner

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Somehow I doubt a field trip like this wouldn't be possible a few decades ago.

I haven't been to Russia, but I have been to Ukraine twice and was very interested in the cars. Ukrainians face giant import duties on foreign cars. When I was there in 2008 they could double the price of a car. New or used. There is a plant that builds foreign cars under license, so there are lots of those cars. Mostly Hyundai in Kiev. It was also my first exposure to Chinese cars and Chery dealers are everywhere although most people I talked to had a low opinion of the Chinese cars. In the capital, most of the cars were new and foreign. Most of the pictures I took of cars were of Fords and Nissans and others that were not available here. I rented a Skoda Fabia (Czech) which I loved.
Outside of Kiev, most taxis were old Lada's from the 80's or 90's. they were super primitive, but really rugged and durable. Also fairly comfortable. The roads in Ukraine at the time could have potholes in potholes. Cars with fancy rims and low profile sidewalls would pay a hefty price to look stylish. I understand they improved them for the World Cup games, but the winters take a toll so giant potholes are always ready to appear.

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