What It Was Like To Buy And Own A Car In The USSR

Illustration by Jason Torchinsky
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When you think of Soviet vehicles, what word comes to mind? Probably “shoddy.” Or “terrible.” Or “unreliable.” Maybe “garbage.”

The legendary Lada, the limo-like ZIS, the two-wheeled IZH... the list goes on and on. The awfulness of these car designs already has been widely documented. But what have you heard about what it was like to use those cars on a daily basis?

Growing up to the right of the Berlin Wall in Vilnius, Lithuania, I witnessed a good deal of the Soviet automotive ownership experience. Well, I didn’t grow up on either side. The USSR annexed Lithuania during WWII and it was part of it until 1990. As I was born late in 1990, I never got the chance to live in the USSR. However, all of my interviewees did.

I’ve talked to my father, my grandparents and my aunt. To add to that, I’ve compiled an extensive knowledge about the Soviet era during my history studies. And though the Wall was wiped down a year before I was born, some automobile-related habits have stuck around even today.

Getting A Car

Remember that famous Ronald Reagan joke about buying a car in the Soviet Union? If you haven’t, it goes like this: a guy in a Soviet country is told he has a 10 year wait for a car.

This man laid down the money, and the fellow in charge said to him: Come back in 10 years and get your car.

The man answered: Morning or afternoon?

And the fellow behind the counter said: Ten years from now, what difference does it make?

And he said: Well, the plumber is coming in the morning.

It’s funny because it’s basically true. Getting a car was a real challenge in the USSR. It wasn’t a matter of visiting a local dealership, choosing the right colour and right gadgetry. Nope, in the USSR things were little more complicated.

Let’s say you worked in a chainsaw factory. Well, wherever you worked all of the companies were owned by the state. You were not allowed to even think about creating your own business. Interestingly, factory workers had a better chance of getting a vehicle permit than a doctor or a university professor. Some professions didn’t provide an opportunity to have a car at all. I guess it was some Soviet iteration of class equality.

I don’t know how Karl would’ve felt about that.

Anyway, a chainsaw factory career was pretty good for those who really wanted a car. Yes, I’m being serious. First of all, you had to go to your employer or the Trade Union office and submit a written request stating that your lust for a personal automobile was out of control. Your request then got processed. By processed I mean that a background check on you got made. How many chains did you manage to sharpen last year? Have you tried your best? Have you participated in Pioneer activities during school years? Do you know the basic values of communism? Have you attended the last chainsaw factory workers disco at the canteen?

After a year or so, you would find out whether the request has been approved or not.

In this instance, the Trade Union was a place where the people’s needs met actual government quotas. It’s the place where all of the numbers start with a minus symbol. Goods shortages were an everyday norm, an imperative to fulfill the essential socialistic struggle. Except the Trade Union, or anyone else for that matter, didn’t give a shit about the “socialistic struggle.” The Trade Union’s actual role was simple: it would get vehicle quotas from the government and reallocate those to particular companies. The company then decided which of its employees would get a vehicle first.

At your chainsaw factory job, you were one of 300 workers. Most of them didn’t have a car and were eager to get one. Let’s say that the Trade Union designated five cars per year for your company. (That’s not to say that all companies would get five cars per year, this is just an estimate was based solely on information conducted during the interviews. The number of cars allocated would differ throughout the years, depending on the industry, company size and the region of the USSR. If anything, five cars per year is an overly optimistic estimation, according to some of those who reviewed my article.)

The first in line for their VAZ or ZAZ or GAZ were those who passed their background checks with flying colours. Those would the most productive, skilled or otherwise distinguished employees. You know, employee of the month types. Of course, having Communist Party membership didn’t hurt either. Anyway, if you were an average worker, the chances that your car was going to arrive the year you ordered it was close to non-existent. The same went for the next year. And for the next one.

In the Soviet era, the average waiting line for a car was seven to 10 years or more. Fingers crossed that your plumber isn’t coming on the lucky delivery day.

As you might expect, the density of vehicle ownership compared to the total population was vastly lower in the USSR versus the United States, only about 45 cars per 1000 people by 1985. Don’t be fooled, it wasn’t thanks to anti-commercialism, nor some aspiration to save non-renewable resources. It was simply a scarcity of human and material resources combined with the worst possible management ever. Remember, fish rots from the head down.

On the upside, the Red Army had 57,670 tanks versus a miserable 12,320 tanks of the U.S. Armed Forces during the Cold War.

The Other Way To Buy Cars

Of course, there were alternative ways to get a car. You might have been a close friend of a high ranking Communist Party official or a head of a Trade Union. The Government would have happily bent the rules for you. The other possibility was to know who was willing to take a bribe. These options were so common that every car had a set unofficial bribe amount. For example, the sticker price of a VAZ 2101 (pictured) in the 1970s was about 5,500 roubles. The bribe for shortening a waiting line was about 20 percent of that.

What about used cars? Why bother with the absurd and grueling process of getting a new car, if you could get similar used one for less? You couldn’t. Anyone who was lucky enough to own a vehicle in the first place never even considered selling it. Well, saying that you couldn’t buy a used car is not exactly right. It’s just that a used car was shitloads more expensive than a new one.

For example, my distant relative bought a Volga in the 1970s with a friend. It was an equivalent of a current BMW 5 Series, or an E-Class. After a 12 years of hard use they decided to sell it. Do you know how much they managed to get? About 30 percent more than original sticker price! The USSR didn’t win the Cold War and it didn’t do well in quality management either, but it did a number on depreciation big time.

Actually Owning A Car

Sorry for being harsh on you, but let’s continue to imagine that you’re a typical worker drone in the Soviet Union. Let’s call you Sergey. It’s your lucky day, Sergey! You’ve became a proud owner of a Shrek Green VAZ 2101. You’ve been prudent, so you’ve started renting a garage just before the delivery date. Now you’re happily strolling along Red Army Boulevard, showing off the car to your loved ones. You had a nice little drive together. What do you do next?

Certainly, you are not going to leave your brand new car in a parking near your home. No way! You’re not an idiot. You’ll drive approximately 40 minutes to your newly purchased garage. Why 40? Well, in the most instances, there weren’t any garages in a residential areas. You had to drive to the outskirts, where most garages were situated. If you were really lucky, your residential area had one garage building considered for 40 or 50 cars. In that case, your 40 minutes could become a mere ten. Lucky you. By the way, the same process of buying a car applied for getting a garage space as well.

In any case, the garage is more convenient than parking your car on the street only to find your car standing on four piles of bricks, wheels stolen. The scarcity of parts was so bad that it was pretty common to unscrew wiper blades, antennas and other easily removable accessories when leaving a car not in a garage. That or your car would just get nicked.

In an unfortunate event of robbery, you had two options. Option One: put your patient face on and queue up for no one knows how long to purchase the needed piece at the official shop. Option Two: put on your “I don’t care face” and just buy the thing back on the black market. This only created a bigger demand for stolen parts.

Even worse was that people developed a strange habit of accumulating any car parts that were available whether they needed them or not. Brake drums, light bulbs, generators etc. They hoped that it would become useful someday.

This is why we can still find a lot of parts stored at our grandparents. I guess that was kind of like an Option Three.

Getting Paranoid About Your Car

Environmental effects also encouraged you to never leave the car unprotected. Acid rain, birds suffering from diarrhea or shining sun could easily ruin your precious car’s paint job. Neighbourhood kids playing football equalled a fender bender. And if you’re thinking about an everyday commute—don’t! The vast majority of cars in the USSR were used only on weekend trips to the dacha, on holidays or other special occasions. That is, they were provided that none of the occasions were in winter. Yep, you’re right, significant number of cars were stored for winter time. Road salt ruins everything.

Constant paranoia about the wellbeing of your car was a normal state. What would you do if you were stuck with the same shitty car for the rest of your lifetime? You would cherish it, you would keep it in a pristine condition, and in the long run you would probably develop a “save it for later” attitude.

I could say that you would have to look hard for shittier cars than those found in the USSR, but those cars were more than just pieces of crap. They’re a key to better understanding how the world was to the right of the Berlin Wall.

Gabrielius Blažys lives in Lithuania, where he was born and studied history.