The Jeep Grand Cherokee You Never Knew: Inside Russia’s Wild '90s and the SUV That Ruled Its Roads

ZJ photos by author
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On a cold afternoon in late January, I pulled into an industrial side-street of Saint Petersburg. There, I met with a man who I’ll refer to as “Oleg.”

Oleg drives a 1996 Jeep Grand Cherokee ZJ—an “Orvis Edition” with a 5.2-liter V8. As we stood chatting by the hood of his car, many heads turned, and a fair share of strangers offered their thumbs up. A few others asked if the car was for sale, to which Oleg responded, ominously: “takiye mashini ne prodayutsya” (“cars like this don’t go up for sale”).

In America, the Grand Cherokee ZJ is at the roughest stage of its life cycle. It’s not quite a classic, like a Grand Wagoneer or CJ, but it’s by no means contemporary either. It’s in resale value purgatory—the hand-me-down, high-school parking lot phase of its life. But in Russia, the ZJ is one of few traces left of what many Russians call the “wild ‘90s.” Oleg and I went on to discuss where this reputation comes from. Needless to say, things got deep.

Oleg was a teenager during the 1990s—a complicated time in Russia. The Soviet authoritarian system was gone. For some, these were exciting years. Censorship was over, and many reached for the once forbidden fruit of the West: the bubble gum, the blue jeans, and the Big Macs. For others, the ‘90s meant hardship and confusion. Inflation reached 2600 percent in 1992, as noted in an HSE Russia report.

For the Russian criminal underworld, however, the ‘90s was showtime. The rule of law was anemic. Free enterprise was now a thing, but so was racketeering. Sprawling criminal groups had their hands in all sorts of business, from street vendors to Siberian oil companies.

Against this backdrop, second-hand cars poured into Russia from all over the world—including Western Europe, Japan (a continuing phenomenon, by the way), and North America. All this in a country that had, just a few years prior, years-long waiting lists for Moskviches and Ladas. But now there were all sorts of flabbergasting exotics appearing on Russian roads: Ford Tempos, Toyota Mark IIs, and Volvo 940s. These cars had buttons that did stuff, and fuel injection, and airbags, and brakes that worked.

A status-oriented car culture developed in Russia as quickly as traffic diversified. In the criminal underworld, your bad motherfucker-ness was a function of how big and expensive your car was. As such, the mobsters wanted cars that whispered, “avoid me.” They needed a blend of the offensive and ostentatious. And this is where Jeep Grand Cherokee ZJ shined.

The ZJ had that all the American comforts, but in a durable and offroad-able package.

This is what set the Jeep apart from its body-on-frame competitors, like the contemporary Toyota Land Cruiser 80 Series and Nissan Patrol Y60—trucks that were still pretty spartan and underpowered in those years. The ZJ, on the other hand, made the gangsters feel special. It could haul a brigada and all their AK-47s to a shootout in the middle of a muddy field, and keep everybody’s asses heated in the process.

Indeed, it was the brigadiers who embraced the ZJ the most. In the criminal hierarchy, they were the ones called upon to resolve issues with rivals. For this reason, the brigadiers needed cars to project strength—to flex on the enemy. But they also needed power to dash out of an ambush, sometimes on very rough roads. A V8 ZJ did this better than almost any other SUV at the time.

And when so many other American-made vehicles perished in the harsh Russian winters, the ZJ proved resilient. Take for example, the Lincoln Town Car. A few of these body-on-frame sedans found themselves in Russia in the early ‘90s. God bless them. It’s painful to imagine how those poor, unsuspecting Panther bodies wobbled to death on those forsaken roads. Oh, how they longed for the senior center roundabouts of Boca Raton, Florida.

Still, ZJs weren’t immune to the thefts, shootouts, and occasional explosions of the “wild ‘90s.” Many Russian ZJs, sadly, never made it to the 21st Century; they died of “unnatural causes.”

Getting statistics on the Jeep Grand Cherokee ZJ in Russia is extremely difficult, if not impossible. All ZJs were imported to Russia by unofficial “gray” dealers or brought over by peregonschiki (lone-wolf car flippers). Those that are still around often have murky documentation. It’s hard to tell how many are left, or how many were around in the first place.

What’s clear is that Oleg’s clean ZJ is a rarity, especially considering the original “moss green” paint.

Russia is a very different country today. Saint Petersburg, once the backdrop for iconic Russian gangster flicks like Brat, is now overflowing with craft beer and coffee shops. Ever since the “wild ‘90s” came to end and the economy turned around, a new car-buying boom has ensued relentlessly. Nowadays, expensive foreign cars don’t impress anybody; they are the norm. In the big cities, a Porsche Cayenne is as common and uninteresting a sight as a late-model Toyota Camry.

One might say that Oleg’s Grand Cherokee ZJ is a has-been within the relative stability of 21st century Russia. But, even today, this car turns heads everywhere it goes. Like the third-generation Camaro in the U.S., the ZJ is a vehicular symbol of badness in Russia. Its criminal associations are woven into pop culture, forever.

Oleg admitted towards the end of our chat that “I don’t get cut off too often in traffic. In many people’s minds—people who know and remember the ‘90s—the Grand Cherokee is implicitly off-limits for them. It is a car that you best not mess with.”