Love and Hatred for a Classic Soviet Car

Love and Hatred for a Classic Soviet Car
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In the latest season of House of Cards, the main character, fictional U.S. President Frank Underwood, meets his equally fictional Russian counterpart, President Viktor Petrov. The two are negotiating European security when they hit a wall. Petrov accuses Underwood of "trying to sell him a Lada, when what Russia wants is a Lexus." Petrov then proceeds to describe the Lada, a "crappy Soviet car" with minimal conceissions to comfort and limited amenities, in contrast to the luxurious Lexus.

If House of Cards were streamed in Russia, President Petrov's statement would strike a loud minor chord with the tens of millions of people who once had the chance, or, if you prefer, the misfortune, of owning a Lada, the Soviet Union's flagship mass-produced small sedan. Based on an Italian Fiat model from the late 1960s, the Lada - or Zhiguli as it was known within the former Soviet Union - was manufactured by the Soviet car maker AvtoVaz after 1970. The company eventually sold tens of millions of units across former Soviet states as well as in Eastern Europe, Latin America, and even the United Kingdom and Canada. A no-thrills model, it featured a simple, square design, spare creature comforts, and notoriously unreliable engines and mechanical and electrical systems. In a country where the meaning of the term "auto service" was heavily circumscribed, and where spare car parts became treasures due to endemic industrial shortages, the vehicle nonetheless provided a powerful symbol of Soviet middle-class success and independence.

AvtoVaz have continued to manufacture Lada sedans throughout the 1990s and into the present day. The car retains huge popularity with price-conscious buyers around the world, and the company tries to compete with other global automakers. Despite new models and changing designs, it is what is inside Lada sedans that has always defined the car - and not always in a good way, as the poor manufacturing quality of the vehicle brought woe to many a driver. In Soviet times, one of the most glaring features, though, was the car's price. Rather than pricing the vehicle at a level within ready reach of the millions of potential buyers earning around 150 rubles a month - or 3,600 rubles annually for a two-income household - the Soviet government created a pricing basement for the car of around 5,000 rubles, making it virtually impossible for most families to buy the car outright. There was no financial credit system comparable with what exists in the West, so would-be buyers had to pay for the car in full. That meant that people wanting to own a vehicle either had to cut into their household spending in order to save, or borrow heavily from family and friends. There was also a long wait for purchasing the vehicle. Due to shortages, families had to wait years for the chance to own a Zhiguli. In the absence of alternatives, all buyers were ecstatic to finally get their own vehicle.

They aren't all bad

Lada sedans were loved, hated, derided, sought after, cherished and silently cursed. They were the butt of jokes and a source of enormous pride for the fortunate few capable of owning one. But not all Lada cars had such a questionable reputation - unlike the "crappy sedans" hated by Petrov, AvtoVaz managed to produce a vehicle that is still a source of technological and social pride. Lada Niva is a small off-road vehicle, a crossover between a sedan and a small SUV, and the only car of its kind available in the Soviet Union. In a country where the quality of the roads was as questionable as the reliability of food in the stores, Niva was a boon for those who could afford it. Built as a four-wheel-drive vehicle to navigate harsh terrain, it made its debut in 1977 and achieved immediate popularity in the Soviet Union, the nations of the Eastern Block, and other global markets. Soviet manufacturing was never known for producing reliable consumer products - including cars - yet Niva stood head and shoulders above Soviet and even global competition. It became an unquestionable export success, as its price was beyond the reach of many Soviet citizens. Even America's Chevrolet bought a stake in the the car after 1998 in order to manufacture a sedan called Chevy-Niva for sale in former Soviet and global markets. Production is set to continue well into 2016. In fact, American movie audiences were briefly introduced to Lada Niva in Ben Stiller's The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, when the lead character is rescued from an erupting volcano by an Icelandic local driving a 1999 model.

So next time House of Cards President Petrov wants to take Frank Underwood for a ride - figurative and literally - maybe he can drive a Niva to show that some off-road vehicles can stand the tests of time and mother nature, even if they originate from a country not known for good cars or compromises.

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