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The Socialist Car: Automobility in the Eastern Bloc

Lewis H. Siegelbaum, editor

(Cornell University Press; US: Oct 2011)

Q: Why does a Trabant have a heated rear window?


A: To keep your hands warm while pushing it.


For those that fail to see the humor, the Trabant—the most common car in East Germany from the early ‘60s to late ‘80s 0- was notoriously terrible. With its two stroke engine and Duroplast body, the interior parts made of something resembling cardboard and its puttering and pollution, the car became an object of ridicule. But a funny thing happened on the way to the junkyard. A newfound fascination and growing sense of nostalgia have surrounded the Trabant, whose vehicle repair manuals often sell for more than $100 on eBay. The story of the Trabant and other Socialist cars is clearly a messy business.


As the essays collected in The Socialist Car prove, the subject lies at a busy intersection of ideology, politics, technology, and culture. Mass transportation as it developed under Communist regimes illustrates how philosophy shapes architecture and how commodities and culture interface, lessons that reach far beyond the Cold War era.


As Editor Lewis H. Siegelbaum’s introduction says, The Socialist Car explores “the awkward fit between cars and Communism.” Siegelbaum takes time to explain the concept of automobility, which informs the line of questioning found in many of the collected essays. Perhaps simplistically defined as “Car Studies”, automobility involves seeing the car on a global level, examining its production and distribution, its embodied ideals and myriad effects on human experience. 


What’s fascinating about Socialist cars is the glaring tension and contradictions involved. Yes, cars signify family values and dutifully motoring to work, but they also project status, independence, and freedom. How would a Communist government respond to such mixed associations? Cars enclose drivers in personal space during travel, and in so doing convey individuality and freedom. But freedom is subjective.


In the West, drivers had the freedom of the open road; in Socialist states public transportation would free citizens from the expense of having a car, or so the line went. Automobility studies run on these sorts of subjectivities, proving that automobiles are effective ways to travel not just to the mall, but also through culture and socio-political history. 


As outlined in essays by Valentina Fava, György Péteri, and Mariusz Jastrzab, Eastern Bloc auto ownership followed a similar trajectory in Czechoslovakia, Hungary, and Poland. It’s a tale of abrupt policy changes and discouraging commodity shortages.


Due to a growth of consumerism and the use of public cars for private purposes, demand for individual car ownership soared in the ‘60s. Cars became status symbols in what were officially classless societies. Aspiring motorists signed up for a car even though the wait could take years. And what would happen when, finally, the car was obtained? Drivers would have the pleasure of navigating their vulnerable machines through terribly underequipped urban infrastructures. With insufficient roads, gas stations, and garages it became clear that Socialist governments would have to plan their cities around a driving public. Collectivist cities would be shaped by individual possession of cars.


This collision of Socialist planning and automobile ownership is addressed in essays by Elke Beyer, Brigitte Le Normand, Esther Meier, and Eli Rubin. Beyer’s essay explores how city planning in the USSR and GDR took automobility into account. Le Normand’s looks at how urban planners in Yugoslavia initially fought against the accommodation of individual car ownership. However, to quote Le Normand, “urban planners could not resist the onslaught of the automobile.” Meier’s essay tells the story of   Naberezhnye Chelny, the Russian city that sprang up around an enormous truck factory, while Rubin’s outlines how the rapid growth of East Germany’s Marzahn district and the Trabant can be understood as systemic components of Socialist urban development. 


Rounding out the picture are essays which shift the focus from overarching urban design issues to day-to-day practices. These topics include DIY automotive tinkering, which, as Kurt Möser’s fascinating essay reveals, was encouraged by party policy as a way to increase citizens’ mechanical skills. It was believed that a nation of amateur mechanics would strengthen Socialism. But, more realistically, tinkering abounded because Soviet cars were not as reliable. It was, according to Möser, “a reaction from below to delayed innovation.”


Moving from amateur tinkering to professional driving, Siegelbaum’s study of Soviet truckers entertainingly recounts epic cross-country road tests and “wheeler-dealer” truckers who would give rides for cash and sell unused gasoline. And, given that most Soviet drivers were men, Corinna Kuhr-Korolev’s essay on women’s relationship to automobility during the Soviet era is a welcome addition to the collection. 


These fine essays show that a clash of civilizations can play out in the everyday commodities such as cars. Automobility as it manifested under Socialism proves to be an incredibly rich subject, reaching from the design of vast metropolitan areas down to ways the average car owner cared for their vehicle. Luminita Gatejel’s essay on Socialist car culture describes the “ambiguous amalgam of Socialist superiority and the painful awareness of backwardness” that the car caused the Eastern Bloc and USSR to feel.


Today’s advocates for increased and improved public transportation may find disconcerting lessons in how plans for Socialist mass transit proved no match for the rising tide of individual car ownership. It seems all roads lead to the car.

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