Magazine article Russian Life

Zhiguli's Birth: 1966

Magazine article Russian Life

Zhiguli's Birth: 1966

Article excerpt

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 (Eepezucb aemoMoSivui), 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, [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]--probably best translated as motoring enthusiasts or more literally as autolovers) were necessarily corrupt. Detochkin loses the tmst 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 com pact Zaporozhets, and the speedy Moskvich. Who was behind the wheels of these cars, I had no idea.

Even though car ownership didn't seem like anything we could even aspire to, it was interesting to read about the new and wonderful Zhigulis being produced by the factory in Tolyatti. This name seemed rather funny to us. In theory, the model was named for a small mountain range that cascades down to the Volga not far from the factory. But even for a Moscow schoolgirl, the first thing the word brought to mind was beer, since a famous brand bore the same name. Although the name might have seemed silly, the Zhiguli was generally faster and better than other cars. My young mind understood that this superior quality had something to do with Italy, although I had only the haziest notion what Italian cars were like. In the Italian neorealist films that were shown in Moscow when I was a child, people mostly got around on foot or bicycles. They were also not the sorts who could afford a car.

Now I realize that the first Zhiguli model, the renowned Kopek, was essentially a copy of the Italian Fiat, but in childhood that word meant nothing to me. It was just interesting that some "special" new cars that looked different from other cars would be appearing on the streets.

Sometime later I read a letter in the newspaper written by a distraught woman. Her husband had been an experienced driver who never broke the rules of the road, but as soon as he started driving a Zhiguli, he began getting citations left and right. In the end, he died in a traffic accident. …

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