Ed A Hewett Book Prize

2009 Citation Recipient

Lewis H. Siegelbaum

The Ed A Hewett Book Prize, established in 1994 and sponsored by the University of Michigan Center for Russian, East European, and Eurasian Studies, is awarded annually for an outstanding monograph on the political economy of Russia, Eurasia and/or Eastern Europe, published in the previous year.

Winner: Lewis H. Siegelbaum
Title: Cars for Comrades: The Life of the Soviet Automobile (Cornell University Press)

The motor car was a central innovation of the twentieth century, transforming consumption, production, and the organization of businesses and households worlwide. In Cars for Comrades, Lewis Siegelbaum tells how Soviet socialism struggled with the motor car, trying to balance freedom and private property with state planning and Soviet rule. The prospect of widespread car production and ownership put huge demands on resources and regulation in the fields of Soviet production and technology, transportation networks, urban planning, and distribution. The centrality of the motor car to the twentieth century makes for an original investigation that yields new insights into the Soviet Union’s modernization processes and development choices.

Cars for Comrades is classic historical research, based on both archives and field work. It is supported by a wealth of official documents and statistics, combined with personal narratives, anecdotes, imagery, and literary allusion. For ordinary citizens the automobile was, in Siegelbaum’s words, “an object of individual desire … a mobile private space.” “The desire for car ownership knew no bounds”; the result was an inescapable “tension with the collectivist ideology of the Communist Party.” Soviet private car ownership remained a bittersweet experience to the end, since the personal freedom offered by the automobile in richer market economies rested on a supportive web of laws, licenses, and markets in spare parts, services, fuels, and second hand motors to which the Soviet authorities could not fully commit. Siegelbaum cites an observer’s remark: “In Russia … owning a car brings joy twice in an owner’s life—when it is bought and when it is sold. In between there is only torture.” Collective-ownership solutions were available in socialist theory, from public transport to state rental agencies, but in practice these also missed the mark.

Consumption is part of the Soviet automobile story, but there is more. Power and politics are also there, in various ways. The party Politburo made the key decisions that selected projects and models for mass production, and allocated the first vehicles to privileged institutional and private users. Forced labour built the early capital projects. Vast new factory towns arose to serve standardized mass production complexes. New highways tried to overcome Russia’s roadlessness. Motor transport became essential to the fabric of government administration and the management of the economy. When the needs of the government and the economy were satisfied, private households took what was left. After Stalin’s time, what was left increased rapidly. There were many reasons for this, including the regime’s need to substantiate its claim to be building a new and superior way of life.

In Stalin’s time, “building socialism” was not a figure of speech. Socialism was erected with structural steel, cement, and machinery in hundreds of construction projects for new towns, factories, railways, and highways. Siegelbaum’s story of GAZ, the Gorkii Automobile Factory, is a metaphor for the Soviet system: “At some imperceptible point, it seems, interest at the top in encouraging new designs withered, indifference became habit forming, and pretending became a way of life.”

Cars for Comrades forces economists and political scientists to think about the experience of Soviet society as the mass of citizens lived it every day. This experience intersected with the spread and limitation of privilege. Until the 1950s, access to cars was a marker for membership of the Soviet high elite. In the 1960s the regime dangled the prospect of wider car ownership before the Soviet middle class and the more highly paid skilled workers (who often earned more than supervisory staff). Thus, the historical record of access to cars helps to calibrate Soviet-era inequality. The same is true of access to roads. A settlement that was connected by roads gained access to supplies and income opportunities far beyond those that remained lost in the deep countryside.

Sometimes, it is said, it is better to travel than to arrive. This does not seem to apply to Moscow today, where commuters must live with semi-permanent gridlock on roads never designed for mass motorized mobility. There is a worldwide struggle to reconcile personal freedom with a sustainable environment in which Russia’s citizens are playing their part, for better or for worse. At this time, Cars for Comrades reminds us how much time and effort people were willing to put into getting and running a car when money alone was not enough.