A recent editorial in the Moscow Times declared that in Moscow “the car is king.” Indeed, one word Muscovites constantly mutter is probka (traffic...

A recent editorial in the Moscow Times declared that in Moscow “the car is king.” Indeed, one word Muscovites constantly mutter is probka (traffic jam). The boom in car ownership is transforming Russian life itself, and for some not necessarily for the better. “The joy of personal mobility — that is, automobile ownership — has completely eclipsed the value of community life. But the joy of car ownership has long ceased being a joy and has instead become a burden, with traffic jams causing frequent delays, smog and even clogged sidewalks. We have created an environment that is environmentally, socially and economically harmful.”

While the detrimental effects of the car have only recently hit Russia, the automobile’s political, economic, and cultural significance dates from the early Soviet period. According to Lewis Siegelbaum‘s recent book Cars for Comrades: The Life of the Soviet Automobile (Cornell UP, 2008), what the Soviets called “automobilism” had multiple meanings. It represented a particularly Soviet understanding of modernity, one rooted in the promise of the socialist system itself. The car also symbolized power and freedom. Power in that the elite usually had cars and, during the Great Terror, cars came to be equated with the secret police. The car meant freedom in that those citizens lucky enough to get one expanded their “private” sphere through greater mobility and leisure. As Siegelbaum shows, the Soviet car may have been an unobtainable luxury for the vast majority of Soviet citizens, but its effects on the Soviet imagination were deep and long lasting.

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