Chernobyl’s Cars Paint a Fascinating and Grim Picture Of Soviet Life

At this very moment, the highest-rated television show on IMDb, beating out The Wire, Breaking Bad, the first few actually good seasons of Game of Thrones and other worshipped favorites is a bleakly terrifying mini-series about a nuclear disaster that happened 33 years ago in a country that no longer actually exists. The series is HBO’s Chernobyl, and in addition to being an incredibly engaging and disturbing account of what happened there, it is also a fantastic place to see lots of Soviet cars that rarely make it onto mass-market American television screens.

If you haven’t seen it yet, Chernobyl recounts the 1986 disaster at a nuclear plant in Soviet Ukraine, how it was handled by government officials at the time, and its horrifying aftermath. It is probably the worst nuclear energy accident ever, and people in that region are still paying the price for what happened decades ago in terms of radiation sickness, cancer and environmental effects.

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Grim as the subject matter is, the show’s production quality is outstanding, and it says a lot about Soviet life at the time. Since HBO is pretty much a Matterhorn-sized pile of money that makes television series, it’s clear that no expense was spared in making sure the automotive actors on the show are absolutely period and location correct. There’s no attempt to pass off some battered Rambler with its badges pried off as old Soviet iron; every car I’ve seen on the show appears to be a genuine Soviet car or truck, and I’m pretty sure this quantity of Soviet cars has never been shown on any American series before.

The show was shot primarily in Lithuania with an area in Vilnius made to look like the Ukrainian city of Pripyat, although Lithuania itself is of course a former Soviet state as well. All in all, it makes a convincing home for this production, and its cars are a big part of that.

For many viewers, this is likely their first exposure to many of these vehicles, though I suspect that the vast majority of viewers aren’t even noticing or caring.

That’s fine, though. Because we notice and care, and that’s why I’d like to walk you through all of the Cold War machines that this show has to offer.

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You’ll notice that there’s actually not a huge variety of cars, compared to what we’re used to in the West. That’s because that’s pretty much how the Soviet automotive market was back in the 1980s—the vast majority of cars were domestically-produced models, most right from Russia, though a number of Ukrainian cars and trucks were fairly common, too. Pretty much everything was Soviet, though, so there weren’t all that many cars for people to choose from, if you were lucky enough to get to choose at all.

It’s worth mentioning that this is not a show about cars, so the cars rarely get good hero shots. They’re in the background, ubiquitous but rarely focused on. As a result, many of these screen grabs are hardly ideal, but we’ll make it work.

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Oh, I should also mention that Andy Thompson’s Cars of the Soviet Union book was crucial in figuring out everything here. In fact, consider almost every detail about these cars as having come from this amazing book.

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One of the first cars we see in the show, at least one of the first that gets any focus, is this GAZ 24 Volga. There’s some sort of KGB agent in that car, which makes sense, as the GAZ 24 was a higher-end car that was usually reserved for official use.

The KGB even had special “double” versions (so called because they had V8s instead of the usual four-cylinder engine) and I suspect this may be one of those hot-rodded spy ones. Think of them sort of as a Soviet Crown Vic, but with a lot more exclusivity. We’ll see better shots of these later.

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Not surprisingly given the subject matter, there’s lots of ambulances and vans in the series, and the most common ambulances are these RAF-22031 Latvija vans. They have a pretty modern (well, ‘80s-modern) look about them, and were a pretty good design, space efficient, with the 2.4-liter four-cylinder engine between the front seats.

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They borrowed parts from all sorts of other Soviet cars, GAZes and Moskvitches and Volgas, and they seemed to have a pretty lousy reputation for comfort, reliability, quality control, and, um, pretty much everything. Just what you want in an ambulance.

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This big brute of a fire truck is a ZIL-130, a truck that was built from 1964 to 1994 and used for everything from military trucks to dump trucks to, well, fire engines.

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Here’s a shot of another mid-level official, in that coveted mid-level and up official’s car, the GAZ 24 Volga.

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This shot gives us a good profile of one of the most ubiquitous cars on the show, the Jeep-like UAZ 469. They started building these in 1971 and they have yet to stop. It’s a good, solid design that just works. These are everywhere, doing every job, all the time.

The car in front of it looks like a more luxurious ride for important people, and it is, as it’s a GAZ 3102 Volga. This is sort of an elongated and modernized version of the GAZ 24, and while not as exclusive as a ZIL limousine, this was still an important comrade’s ride.

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It’s pretty hard to see, but this truck, covered on one side with improvised lead shielding, is a GAZ-66, another common workhorse truck.

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That cute little dark turquoise car there is the popular VAZ-2101 Zhiguli—this was exported as a Lada, and was based on the Fiat 124. The 2101 was nicknamed “Kopeyka” which was sort of the Russian equivalent of a penny, because it was small and relatively cheap and a common choice for a small family car.

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This is a fun one: that wheeled boat-looking thing is a BRDM-2 Amphibious Scout Car, a military vehicle. It’s got a GAZ V8 engine making a fairly tepid 140 horsepower, but it was usually armed and able to swim, so that makes it pretty cool.

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The blurry white car in front of it is a Moskvitch 2140, a 1478cc family car, perhaps a bit of a step up from the VAZ-2101.

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Ah, finally, we get to some really car-packed scenes! Okay, from left to right, here’s what we’re looking at:

That deep green wagon there is a Moskvitch 2137, essentially the wagon version of the white car we saw in the screenshot above. These were good middle-class family wagons, sort of like an Escort Wagon may have been in America around this time.

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In the middle, that massive behemoth is a ZIL-131, one of the Soviet’s many beefy workhorse trucks, and the mustard-colored fella to the right is a VAZ-2103, the successor to the VAZ-2101, slight uprated and with a bit more power, a ravenous 75 horsepower.

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Oh boy, this one is good. This is one of my favorite Soviet-era cars, an IZH 2125 Kombi. This one is a post 1982 one, based on the black plastic grille and light arrangement. It was a four-door hatchback, the first real hatchback available to Soviets, and I just think they’re cool-looking, useful general-purpose cars. These were quite popular cars in their day.

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The car in the foreground is another one of my favorite Soviet cars, the Ukranian-built Zaporozets ZAZ-968M. This one is a post 1979 one (based on the taillights and off-center vents on the rear deck), and these were among the cheapest cars a Soviet citizen could buy.

They were rear-engined, with an air-cooled V4 pushing things along at the rear. They were sort of like a shrunken Communist Corvair.

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Behind it is a VAZ-2101 police car, and our pal the IZH Kombi is to the left.

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These big, lumbering buses are LAZ-695N (Lviv Bus Factory) models. These were rear-engine buses, and they have big air intakes behind the rear side windows that look like giant versions of 1973 and up Volkswagen bus air intakes.

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Even more big, borcht-chugging workhorse trucks, this time GAZ-63 models, with very old-school separate fender/external headlamp styling. These were built from 1948 to 1968. Behind those you can see another VAZ 2101.

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I know this is a blurry shot, but I feel, you have a right to know what these cars are. The blurry blue car is a VAZ-2106, still a derivative of the old Fiat 124, but a successor model to the 2103. It was very popular, and exported as a Lada 1600, and stayed in production from 1976 to 2006.

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In the foreground is a Moskvitch 412, which I want to point out because it has what may be my favorite of the Soviet cars’ taillights, as you can see in detail on the right there. I really like the way they made that triangular turn indicator lens fit the cross-section of the car’s little fins.

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Here’s another official apparatchik’s car, the GAZ-24 Volga, again. I’m including more pics of these because I love these shots of it in a coal mine.

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Here, have another one.

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Here we see another one of the many UAZ 469s, but this time leading a UAZ 452 van. I really love the look of these vans, as they have a face that looks like Hank Hill’s shocked-horror face:

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The UAZ 452 vans may have been among the easiest vehicles for the production team to source because, incredibly, you can still buy one today.

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Hilariously, the name machine-translates to “Combi Trophy Loaf.” It is pretty loaf-looking, I suppose.

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These buses, painted in fetching stripes, are GAZ-53-based buses. The GAZ-53 line was made from 1961 to 1993, and used either 3.5-liter inline sixes making 75 HP or 4.3-liter V8s making 120 HP.

Sometimes these had cabs and were used for everything from dump trucks to cargo trucks to gas trucks to whatever, but there were also versions, like those buses up there, where the cab was part of whatever custom body was built onto the chassis.

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It also seems that many of these had the front face panel in white, and the body in, often, blue.

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That van there is a post-1982 (again, the black grille is the tip-off) IZH 2715. These used the fun triangular rear turn indicators of the Moskvitch 412, but stuck on the back of the big metal box that formed the back of the van instead of some rakish fins. These were used by the Soviet postal service, among many other businesses.

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This one is a little unusual, in that while it is a Soviet vehicle, it’s one not designed for use on Earth. It’s a Lunokhod, one of the rovers that the Soviets landed on the moon.

An Earth-bound test version of the Lunokhod was used as a remote-controlled robot to help clean up the Chernobyl reactor, which is why it’s here. The version of the Lunokhod that went to the moon looked like this:

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The actual one used at Chernobyl used essentially the same chassis, but with one less axle and a very different upper structure. The way HBO portrayed it in the series is remarkably accurate to the actual one used. Here, look:

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They did a very good job on re-creating that.

The series isn’t over yet, and it’s possible we’ll see some more interesting Soviet Iron, but I suspect most of what you’ll see will be more of what we’ve covered here.

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From a car-casting perspective, the show is an absolute triumph, giving a view of the Cold War-era Soviet carscape that we hardly ever get to see.

Too bad everything else about what’s happening on the series is so scary and depressing and occasionally deeply disturbing, but what are you gonna do? It’s a true story, after all, and one that deserves more thought and attention than it gets today.

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About the author

Jason Torchinsky

Senior Editor, Jalopnik • Running: 1973 VW Beetle, 2006 Scion xB, 1990 Nissan Pao, 1991 Yugo GV Plus • Not-so-running: 1973 Reliant Scimitar, 1977 Dodge Tioga RV (also, buy my book!)