Stories from the Soviet Union: My Lada Car

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Every Soviet citizen was dreaming about buying a car. There were obvious problems: cars were in deficit in the Soviet Union (SU) and the salaries of the workers were hardly enough to buy such basics as food and clothing.

If you wanted to buy a car, the first thing to do was to prove that your income was legal and that it would be enough. Then, it was necessary to register for a waiting list, which could include thousands other applicants and thus translated into waiting for years.

Then, there was another headache: Soviet cars were always breaking – they would need repairs almost every day. Meanwhile, the much sought-after spare parts and tires were, of course, in deficit. The number of repairing officers and their employees were centrally planned and limited. Despite such difficulties, people would keep dreaming of having their own cars. So was I.

In 1991, just before the Soviet Union collapsed, I had succeeded to get one – a Lada 06. And so my troubles started. I needed to repair it daily. Some people would try to calm me down by saying “You have no idea how terrible the Moskvich is!”, as certain models of the Moskvich would need repairs on basically every trip.

One of the biggest problems of the Soviet cars was the cooling system – no Soviet car would avoid the cooling liquid boiling when traveling in the mountains or any place in summer.

After several years of torture, I sold my Lada and then bought a 13-year-old VW Golf II. After many months, I had only one question: how come it has not yet break?

The Speculants

Despite the general bad opinion, the so-called speculants were very much in demand in the Soviet Union. If you had enough money, but no official supply of the needed goods, the speculants could help you. Medicines (Soviets would allow supplying only the medicines produced in the Soviet Union or in the brotherly socialist countries), clothing (jeans, for instance), shoes, Czech beer, Caspian caviar, Western cigarettes, guitars, tires, furniture, constructing materials – anything a family would need for some extra money.

Soviet authorities kept fighting the speculants because of their illegal activities. On the other hand, they also needed the goods that were in deficit. Especially medicines – everybody in Georgia knew where they needed to go for the Western medicines, if they had money.

The Tsekhaviks

The Tsekhaviks appeared in the SU immediately with reduced repressions in the 1960s. The tsekh, in Russian, is a part of a factory, mostly in a separate building. For informal use people called Tsekh also the illegal part of a factory where unofficial production was conducted.

The SU was fighting such unofficial activities in the factories or elsewhere – as all the production should be in the state property (the peoples’ property), but the demand for the Tsekhs grew as they were producing better-quality goods in deficit.

From where could those Tsekhs have resources for production? From bribing high-level authorities, including all sorts of inspectors, or from directly stealing the materials from the production in the officially recognized factories.

Natural Exchange of Services

Another invention of the Soviet people was the so-called natural exchange of services. Those, who had any distribution powers would offer their services (in deficit) in exchange for getting services from other people like them.

For instance, one person could control the hotel rooms and another one could be the director of a supermarket, the third – sell tires, and the fourth – sell tickets for a highly popular concert. All of them could conduct a natural exchange of services by calling each other – to offer or to get the goods in deficit. A privilege in exchange for another privilege.

All others needed to get (to buy) such a position somewhere.

Plenty of Khvanchkara

Soviet life was full of situational jokes about the reality around. One of them describes the wine side of the central planning failure. Georgia (SSR) was one of the leadingplaces to produce grape wines. Vineyards, just like any other farming activity, need special conditions and climate; some types of grapes require a specific microclimate.

This applies to the Khvanchkara wine, named after a village in Racha, a central region in Georgia. The wine is made of two Georgian varieties of grapes – Alexandreuli and Mujuretuli, grown in the said village. As it was rumored a Stalin’s favorite, it became widely popular in Russia.

It was said that once upon a time, a Georgian travelled by train to far East of Russia. On the way, as the train stopped for food, plenty of the Khvanchkara wine was available and many passengers enjoyed drinking it. The only Georgian in the train always avoided drinking the wine, which drew the attention of his co-passengers. When answering why was he not drinking the wine, he said: “I am skeptical of how such a tiny village was able to produce so much wine”.

That was the central planned economy that demanded a plan of producing millions of bottles of Khvanchkara and producers also reported about fulfillment.

Distinguished Rationalizator and Inventor

Communists were mostly criminals. Only they could be fine with confiscations, repression, or shooting people for their own opinion or not recognizing communist art. Stalin substituted God with Lenin, the Bolsheviks invented a new religion and ethics, promised the poor a communist heaven… though not so soon.

The communists were evil, but not stupid – they very quickly understood that after seeing that even though everybody was already equally poor, people would still need some motivation to work –  especially at higher quality and productivity levels. The first way to motivate the workers that came to their minds was, of course, punishment – on behalf of the people.

In parallel, the communists invented unprecedented propaganda tools. These could range from the fulfillment of the five-years plan in three years, awarding the Lenin or Stalin prizes, or a status of the Hero of Socialist Labor. Factories and collective farms would be competing with others in who would produce more goods. State media reported about these great communist achievements.

Soviet leadership understood well that incentives are especially important. Especially when it was about innovation and improvement of the production methods. Uneducated, overpaid workers did not have any innovative ideas in these regards, whereas underpaid engineers lacked motivation.

The government invented another propaganda style: an award – a status of distinguished Rationalizator and Inventor. Any new idea that could make production more rational or a new invention could be favored and rewarded with a bonus (and could be written about in the factory newspaper), but that’s all.

Outdated technologies and means of production made quality improvement impossible, so awarding some goods the Mark of Quality did not motivate other producers.

Lack of Information

Austrian economists put forward many arguments why socialism could not have worked. One of them deals with prices, which are the main source of information about the market. A business can try to collect more information about what consumers need, though the changes in prices are the most important when trying to compare them with the costs of supply.

It is easy to guess what can happen if you eliminate the prices – producers will be lost in their attempts to guess the demand for consumer goods.

The Soviet central planners understood the meaning of information well – they needed to plan the production volumes. But they also had to know exactly what was in demand. So, they tried extremely hard to collect the needed information and to use it for production. In practice, this ment analyzing millions of different goods but also, more importantly, tastes and consumer choices of millions of people.

Moreover, these choices were constantly changing, so gathering information had to be also constant and immediately connected to production and supply. Otherwise, consumers could have gotten goods according to an outdated or former demand. As a consequence, they could have simply rejected buying such goods and force them to be stored in the warehouses for a long time.

The Soviet authorities thought that it was better to have any information than no information at all. The central planners continued collecting the data with available computers. However, reading the kilometers-long lists every day was simply impossible and, most importantly, useless.

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Gia Jandieri