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25 September 2018

  The world’s biggest country, in a magazine. Since 1956.

Zhiguli's Birth

Author: Tamara Eidelman
Translation: Nora Seligman Favorov

Mar/Apr 2016
Page 22   ( 3 pages)

Summary: A look back at the release of the first Soviet "people's car," the Zhiguli.


When I was a child, I remember reading with fascination about the cars being produced by a new factory in Tolyatti (or Togliatti, if spelled like the name of the Italian Communist Party leader for whom the city was named).

My interest was purely abstract. Of course, neither my parents nor any of their friends had a car. One of my father’s childhood friends later bought one, but, as my father explained with a hint of embarrassment, since his friend was an actor who had to travel from performance to performance, he really needed a car. The idea that someone might own a car just to go to work or a country home was unthinkable back then. We did, however, know another family that owned a Volga, but they were obviously no ordinary family. The father had even been abroad several times. There was a toy gondola in their apartment, a souvenir from Venice that I found much more captivating than their car.

In 1966, the same year the Volga Automobile Factory (VAZ) opened, a wildly popular movie directed by Eldar Ryazanov, Beware of the Car , was playing in theaters. The plot centers on Yury Detochkin, a do-gooder insurance agent who turns amateur sleuth to identify cars that have been purchased with ill-gotten gains. He then steals these cars, sells them, and anonymously donates the proceeds to orphanages.

The movie did not imply that all car owners (or as they were referred to at the time avtolyubitely– probably best translated as motoring enthusiasts or more literally as autolovers) were necessarily corrupt. Detochkin loses the trust of a detective friend when he accidentally steals a car from an honest man who turns out to be an academician and highly respected scholar. That, apparently, was the sort of person who could legitimately own a car in Russia in the sixties.

Of course there were cars driving around on Moscow streets: the Volga, with its iconic leaping deer hood ornament, the rather compact Zaporozhets, and the speedy Moskvich. Who was behind the wheels of these cars, I had no idea.

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