My father has been living in the USSR for 54 years, before moving to Germany. During all this time, he has only owned two cars.
Owning a car in the soviet union was something only for people with big balls. The story started with the impossibility to buy a car. You could not just save money, go to a shop and buy a car. There were simply no dealerships. New cars were one of the most scarce articles in the country, so that they weren’t sold, but rather distributed. Many state-owned companies had got a contingent of several cars per year, and the local trade union committee had distributed them personally across the most politically active employees.
And no, “distributed” didn’t mean they were for free – only the right to buy was for free, but for the car itself, you still had to pay the full price. Which was around four to six years of salary for a lead engineer – an exorbitant price. Nevertheless, there were more people who wanted to buy a car than the yearly car contingent, so that a waiting list had been organized.
When I was 10 years old, I’ve asked my father why didn’t we have a car yet, and he told me he is on the waiting list, and considering the current situation, we will get the right to buy a car in around 10 years. Somehow, this was a satisfying answer for me. First, we had enough time to spare money. Second, I’ve figured out that I will be around 20 years old when we’ll get a car, so if I get the driving license with 18, I’d only have to wait for two years.
Of course, there also were used cars in the soviet union. But first, they were only available on an illegal black market (for some ideological reasons, the government didn’t like the idea), and second, their price was not much different from the new car price, considering it was virtually impossible to buy new cars.
But, even after buying a car, your story just started. The car assembly quality was awful. Therefore, after buying a brand-new car you had to go through each and every part of it, and fix it, because many parts weren’t properly installed, or nuts not screwed to the end. But there is more: the car design was even worse. Easily corroding materials have been used, without proper coating. Parts that had to be serviced regularly, were not designed to be easily removable and installable. For other parts, lifetime increasing improvements have been developed by car-owners and popularized under the car owners community. Therefore, the usual procedure after buying a car was to uninstall many of its parts (including dismounting and opening the engine), check them up, fix the defects, apply improvements, coat all surfaces with anti-corrosion agent, and assembling them back – this time properly.
The improvements, as well as proper procedures for dismounting and mounting of parts, have been popularized by the magazine “Za Rulem”, which was one and only car magazine in the USSR and had 4 millions subscribers. For many car owners, this was the only way to use the car – this means, to service it by themselves. Well, there were some government-owned car services in the USSR, but they were even more challenging to use than buying a car. You had to wait for months, until you will get an appointment. And on the appointment, you were typically told that some scarce spare part needed to service your car is currently not on stock, so you either had to buy an exorbitant bribe (around monthly salary) so that this part will be “magically” found on stock, or bring your own part, obtained illegally on a black market.
Because of this reasons, my father avoided going to the service at all, and serviced his car himself in the garage. To be able to do that, he had welding machine, lathe, milling tool, car lifting and tilting device, and all kinds of saw, drills, hammers and wrenches. As well as all kinds of liquids, raw materials and spare parts. His garage neighbors went to my father whenever they needed some tool, and my father went to his neighbors, whenever he needed another pair of helping hands.
If the term “garage neighbor” doesn’t tell anything to you: from where we’d lived, to get to the garage, my father had to walk 30 minutes to the nearest bus stop, then take a bus for 20 minutes, then walk another 20 minutes, until he reached a big industrial park. In the part of it, several thousands of garages were built. One of those belonged to my father. He would typically unlock the door, drive out the car, check it up, quickly fix whatever new problem he’d found, then drive the car all the way back to our house to pick up my mom and me, and then we were off to drive to whatever destination we were heading to (eg. to a food market to buy for the next week). After arriving home, the reverse procedure had to be done.
On every car ride, my father had to spend around 3 hours of walking, taking a bus, and servicing the car. During all the time our family had a car, I can’t remember any single day my father had time for hobbies, sport, culture or any other recreation in his free time. When I speak with him about it, he becomes very sorrow and regretful and complains that all his life has been miserably wasted in an effort to make a decent living, including “having a car”.
I love my father, and with all my heart, I hate everything responsible for his sorrow. One of the factors is the communism. Communism means that a state has to be organized like a huge corporation. There is no room for free market, nor for any agile mechanics in the communism. Living in a communistic state means you are part of a huge bureaucratic corporation, with a lot of politics going on. And the corporate politics is the second, most important factor I hate. Everyone who has ever lived in a corporate state, can immediately give a lot of very explicit examples, how corporate politics directly translates into a miserable life.
It is not that a plan economy cannot even theoretically provide a reasonable car supply. Just plan enough cars, invest enough money, carefully plan to overproduce to take into account all kinds of defects as well as demand spikes. Everything sounds manageable.
The problems start when some middle-level boss in the weapon ministry starts playing power games against his colleague from the car ministry, and wins, and therefore the state spends more money on producing tanks than on producing cars. Not that the weapon boss genuinely thinks his motherland really urgently needs more tanks than cars. It is all about his power versus the power of the car boss. And because, being a middle-level boss, he already owns the best possible car, he is not personally interested in having any more. And the folk? The folk doesn’t play any role in his corporate politics game. In a communistic, corporate state, the folk doesn’t have anything to say.
Corporate politics is in my opinion the major ultimate source of unhappiness, dissatisfaction, depression, health problems, and deaths caused by improper handling of patients; source of all kinds of waste, including waste of not renewable energy and materials, all kinds of cultural and knowledge loses, ecological dangers (Fukushima was not a technical, it is a corporate problem) and many, many more.
The only people who think they profit from corporate politics are the one who is playing this game; but statistically, most of them would lose the battle most of the time. And even the ones who win, only have more power and more money, but not more happiness and more life. Because you can’t be truly happy until your conscience is clean, and theirs is not.