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:
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.
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:
And here's another one:
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:
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,...
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.
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. Widespread 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.
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...