I remember cars looming large in my life as a young girl in Moscow. For most people owning a car in the Soviet Union was just a dream: the cost was prohibitive. But my father had volunteered for a stint in Mongolia (more about that in a later blog) which because it was classified as a posting ‘abroad’ came with extra pay. So for four years we lived in the Mongolian sopkas (little hills), enduring food shortages and the absence of TV (this was before the Internet so TV was a very important means of staying in touch with the world). But at the end of his contract, my father had saved enough to buy a car when we returned to Moscow.
There were five main types of cars available in Russia in the 90s (and here I’m ignoring the more exotic examples of automobile that occasionally graced our streets; things like Trabants and their ilk): Lada, Zaporozhets, Moskvich, Volga and Zil.
The Ladas (Soviet name “Zhiguli”) were built by a company called AvtoVaz (more about AvtoVaz in a later blog) in Togliatti in the Volga region of Russia and they were by far the most common sight on the USSR’s roads. The car we bought was a copy of the Fiat 124 (so Rod tells me) and being so basic was perfect for the challenging conditions Russian drivers faced. My father used to say there was nothing on a Lada that couldn’t be fixed with a hammer. This is what my father’s car looked like.
The one my father bought was white (funnily enough when I think back all the Ladas seem to have been painted in pale colours: whites and tans and cyans) though my mother insisted on telling everybody that the correct name for the colour was ‘The White Nights’ – a reference to the days which stretch into the night during a St Petersburg summer. I may only have been a very young teenager but I remember finding this explanation and the fact that my mother was so willing to talk about it hilarious. The other thing I remember about the arrival of the Lada was desperately wanting my father to give the other kids in the courtyard a demonstration ride around the block – boy, would that have boosted my prestige – but he never did.
The smallest car of the five was the Zaporozhets. I suppose the nearest equivalent is the Fiat 500: two doors, four tiny seats and cheap. My abiding memory is going to the dacha at the weekends and overtaking all these Zaporozhets crammed full of a family with luggage and bits and pieces strapped to the roof and hanging out of the boot. This provided the inspiration for the scene in ‘Ghost Love’ when Aunt Irina drives around a car with a bathtub tied to the roof.
The next car up the social (or should that be the ‘socialist’ ladder) from the Lada was the Moskvich. I never heard anyone ever say anything good about Moskvichs and they certainly weren’t popular. One of the colours they came in was a very bold orange which is why I chose it to be Aunt Irina’s car in ‘Ghost Love’.
If you were a senior manager or a quite high-up member of the Communist Party you got to drive a Volga. Volgas were serious peoples’ cars, a cachet somewhat undermined by them being used as official taxis (not that there were too many of those about!). When Rod and I were travelling around Russia in the 1990s all the guys we negotiated with had Volgas and then suddenly, as if by magic, these were replaced by Mercedes. That’s the wonder of capitalism for you, I suppose.
The really big dukes – Politburo members and the like – got driven about in chauffeur-driven Zil limousines … always coloured black and always travelling in convoy. They used to drive in the middle of the roads being preceded by a police Volga with a light flashing on its roof. As a kid, when I saw one, I’d always try to see who was inside – maybe it was Brezhnev! – but the windows were always tinted black. Such a shame.