Car Shopping à la Russe

Zhiguli, the Soviet version of the Fiat 124, which, when exported, was called the Lada

Shopping for a car in the Soviet Union was a surreal experience that few Americans or Westerners have had the pleasure of undergoing. I am one of those so privileged, though, and it’s provided me with still another offbeat story to share on this blog.

When we arrived in Leningrad in July 1976 to begin a two-year assignment to the U.S. consulate-general, my wife and I hoped to be able to manage with just one car. We bought a Saab1 in Germany before we moved to Leningrad, but we soon found that we each needed a set of wheels, which is what prompted us to buy a Soviet-built car, a Zhiguli.

The most attractive thing about the Zhiguli was its price. While Zhigulis were the most common privately owned cars on the street at the time, Soviet citizens wishing to buy one were obliged to pay in advance and place their orders about three years before delivery could be expected. If memory serves me correctly, the price for Soviet car buyers was around 7,500-8,000 rubles, equivalent to about $10,000 at the official exchange rate ($1.32 per ruble) or roughly $2,000 at the black market rate (about 25 cents per ruble).2

Stating the price in dollar terms fails to convey the whole picture, though. The typical monthly wage in the USSR at the time was roughly 100 rubles. In other words, a Zhiguli would cost the average Joe the equivalent of more than six years’ pay. No wonder there were so few private cars on the street.

However, diplomats from countries with hard currencies could buy a Zhiguli for dollars, pounds, francs, etc. at a huge discount. It cost me roughly $1,600, as I recall, with no waiting period. Even in the USSR, money talked.

Like everything that we diplomats needed from the Soviet government, it was necessary to go through their bureaucracy to get it. First, I had to tell our consulate’s administrative officer, Don Hays (one of my favorite colleagues), that I wanted to buy a Zhiguli. He, in turn, dealt with UPIP (oo-PEEP) the Soviet office whose job it was to provide services of every kind to all the consulates in Leningrad.3 UPIP, in turn, made arrangements with the car dealership.

As you might imagine, the Soviet car dealership was not exactly like a Chevy or Ford showroom in the USA. In the first place, Leningrad, the USSR’s second-largest city with a 1976 population of about 4.4 million, had just one dealership for all private cars. Try to imagine Los Angeles, America’s second-largest city – population 4.0 million today – having just a single car dealership. (And try to imagine LA’s roads almost devoid of private cars.)

I wrote out a personal check for $1,600 for Don to deliver to UPIP. In a couple of days the answer came back. “Sorry. We’re all out of cars right now. We’ll let you know when the next shipment is delivered.”

A few weeks later, Don told me he’d heard from UPIP. The cars have come in – go over there and pick one up.

So I went to the dealership in a remote, industrial corner of the city. I met the salesman outdoors. He pointed to two lines of new Zhigulis, about 20 cars in each line, sitting next to a railroad siding. All the cars in the left-hand line were “fire engine red.” All the cars in the right-hand line were, for lack of a better descriptor, “fire engine blue” – a very lively hue. I like blue, so I instantly knew from which line I’d choose my car.

A Zhiguli in “fire engine blue” like the one I bought. Mine, however, was not all tricked out with roof rack, fancy wheels, etc.

“I’d like to take one out for a test drive,” I said. This was no trivial request, since Soviet manufactured goods were notorious for shoddy workmanship. A test drive might reveal a problem.

Nyet,” he responded. “Воспрещенно – Vospreshchenno (Forbidden).”

I said I’d like to sit in one of them and check it out from the driver’s seat.

OK.

So I got into the car at the front of the blue line. You can’t learn much in a car they won’t let you drive. But I could at least turn on the headlights. They worked fine. On low beams. But I could not switch on the high beams.

I got out of the car and walked back to the next one. I turned on the headlights. The high beams worked fine. But not the low beams.

I went to the third car. The high beams worked. So did the low beams. Then, without thinking much about it, I reached up to adjust the rear-view mirror. It came off in my hand. I gave it to the salesman and moved on to the fourth car.

The headlights worked, high and low. The rear view mirror held tight. The turn signals worked too. My “test drive” was a success, and I drove away, worried that despite everything, I had probably just acquired a lemon.

As it turned out, I might have found the only good car in the entire shipment. I’ll never know. What I do know is that the car worked just fine for nearly two years. It started up even on the coldest winter mornings. With luck like that, you could win big time in Vegas!

***

1. When I wrote a couple of weeks ago about our 2006 visit to a bird refuge in Sweden, I added a footnote about the rental car we were driving on that trip, a Saab, and explained why we chose it as our family car. Responding to my Facebook announcement of that blog post, a friend asked about a Soviet-built car, the Lada, which he thought might have been another rental choice. It wasn’t, but the Lada is the export version of the Zhiguli. And my friend’s question is what prompted me to write this post.

2. In Soviet days, the ruble, unlike dollars, pounds, francs, marks and yen, was not freely convertible. The Soviet government arbitrarily set the exchange rate so as to extract as many dollars as possible from foreigners who needed local currency. Soviet citizens were forbidden to own foreign currency. Still, there was a black market, which more accurately reflected the value of the ruble – about 25 cents per ruble, about a fifth of its official value. Black market rubles were freely available outside the USSR, and could be purchased in, for example, Finland. However, employees of the U.S. embassy in Moscow and the consulate in Leningrad were forbidden by the U.S. government – which, in its embassies, plays strictly by each host country’s foreign exchange rules – from purchasing rubles cheaply on the black market or in Finland. When we needed rubles, we paid in dollars at the official rate at the consulate’s administrative office.

While this was a Soviet government ripoff of both the embassy and consulate themselves and of individual U.S. diplomats, for us Foreign Service officers there was a small silver lining to the cloud. When it came time to sell our cars at the end of our assignment in the USSR, we could sell them to any locally resident foreigner. There were many students from Arab countries in the USSR at the time, and they had a racket going. Their governments, unlike the United States, were not at all scrupulous about currency exchange, and their embassies supplied these students with cheap black market rubles – not a whole lot more valuable than Monopoly “money.” Some of these students figured out that they could buy foreign diplomats’ cars with plenty of these cheap rubles, then have the cars shipped to the Middle East, where they could be sold for a fat profit.

The U.S. embassy and consulate, playing by the Soviet government’s rules, converted these hefty payments into dollars at the official exchange rate. Thus, my colleagues and I, when we were preparing to leave Leningrad, sold our cars to Arab students for wads of cash. We didn’t profit from these sales, however, because embassy and consulate rules prohibited employees from earning more on the sale of a private car than its original purchase price. However, we were allowed to recover the entire purchase price and to direct the consulate to donate every penny in excess of that price to any IRS-recognized charity we chose. Therefore, having sold both my Zhiguli and Saab to Arab students and “profited” on both sales, I had the excess proceeds donated to Amnesty International (which was demanding freedom for Soviet political prisoners) and the United Jewish Appeal (which provides assistance to humanitarian projects in Israel). It was a personally gratifying way to poke a finger in the eye of the ugly Soviet regime and respond to Arab hostility toward the Jewish state. Sweet!

3. UPIP stands for Upravlenie Po obsluzhivaniyu Inostrannikh Predstavitel’stv, which translates as Administration for the Servicing of Foreign Representations. Needless to say, UPIP was not always terribly helpful, so to my American colleagues I used to call it Upravlenie Po prepriyatstviyu Inostrannikh Predstavitel’stv, Administration for the Hindrance of Foreign Representations.

4 replies
  1. Lonnie Schorer
    Lonnie Schorer says:

    I laughed and laughed. Thanks for writing this piece. We can relate!! – at Leningrad Consulate 1972 – 1974, with many such experiences.

    Reply
    • Howard Daniel
      Howard Daniel says:

      Glad you enjoyed the piece. I laughed writing it too. How did you find it? FYI, there are quite a few more tales from Leningrad under the Places I’ve Lived rubric.

      Reply

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