Roadways: total: 1,283,387 kilometers: paved: 927,721 kilometers (includes 39,143 kilometers of expressways); unpaved: 355,666 kilometers (2012); country comparison to the world: 5. Of the 934,000 kilometers of raods in service in 1995, 725,000 kilometers was paved or gravel and 445,000 kilometers served only specific industries or farms. [Source: CIA World Factbook =, Library of Congress]

The countries with the most kilometers of roads in the 1980s: 1) USA (6,365,590); 2) Canada (3,002,000); 3) France (1,502,000); 4) Brazil (1,411,936); 5) former USSR (1,408,800).

Roads are generally in fairly good condition in European Russia but limited and in poor condition in Siberia and the Far East. Highways are generally two-lane, tar-surfaced roads. In the early 2000s, there was only one Western-style highway in the whole country: the Ring Road around Moscow. There are not many trucks stops, restaurant or service stations. Traffic is often slowed by slow-moving trucks.

The road network in European Russia is pretty good. Motorists can reach most places there. Driving is not a serious option in Siberia of the Far East. There is one highway—a dirt road across the region—and is often covered with ice or snow or flooded or comprised of muddy muck and is for all intents and purposes is undrivable. Other roads there are often alternating strips of pavement, packed dirt and gravel pockmarked with potholes.

An estimated 40 percent of rural villages are not connected to a paved road. In 1999 an estimated 43 percent of federal roads (which account for 46,000 kilometers and half of the country’s trucking volume) did not meet minimum quality standards because of broken surfaces, poor marking, and poor lighting. Road conditions are a major factor in Russia’s very high rate of traffic casualties. The road crisis is exacerbated by steady increases in vehicle volume. [Source: Library of Congress, October 2006 **]

Automobile travel is expanding, but the construction of new roads is not keeping pace. Some dreamers believe that in the not too distant future, the pot-holed roads will be replaced with a network of modern highways and goods will thus be moved overland by truck rather than railway.

Roads in the Soviet Era and Post-Soviet Era

Roads were one of the least-used forms of transportation in the Soviet Union, a characteristic that has continued in the Russian Federation. Soviet industry placed little emphasis on the production of automobiles and other modes of personal transport, and the privately owned vehicle was a relatively rare phenomenon; therefore, the demand for road construction was small. The dominance of the railroads for cargo transport also constrained the demand for the construction of roads.

In 1995 Russia had 934,000 kilometers of roads, compared with 6.3 million kilometers in the United States. Of Russia's total, 209,000 kilometers were unpaved, and 445,000 kilometers were not available for public use because they served specific industries or farms. [Source: Library of Congress, July 1996 *]

The Roads of Russia program, established in 1998, has aimed at large-scale restructuring, including conversion of some federal roads into privatized toll roads. In 2004 the program laid out road building plans through 2025, with early phases concentrated around Moscow. However, only 2,000 kilometers of new roads were built in 2005. A US$2.6 billion investment fund established in 2006 will target infrastructure improvement and projects around Moscow and St. Petersburg. [Source: Library of Congress, October 2006 **]

In the 1990s the World Bank estimated that in twenty years the demands of Russia's new economy would increase the road system's share of transportation to 41 percent from its 1992 level of 13 percent. However, in 1992 some 38 percent of Russia's highway system required rehabilitation or reconstruction, and another 25 percent required repaving. Many major bridges also required large-scale repair in the mid-1990s. *

History of Road Infrastructure in Moscow

Keith Gessen wrote in The New Yorker: “Its early rulers built Moscow as a concentric series of walled forts, with the Kremlin at the center. After the government abandoned Moscow in favor of St. Petersburg, in the early eighteenth century, the old capital developed haphazardly, like an enormous bazaar. In the post-revolutionary age, when the Bolsheviks moved the government back to Moscow to get farther away from the Germans, various fantasies emerged to reverse all this: avant-gardists imagined a socialist Moscow of clean right angles; others proposed simply abandoning the city. Many believed that the Kremlin, a church-laden symbol of medieval tyranny at the heart of the city, should be deëmphasized, or worse. By the time the Soviets were ready to do anything about it, Joseph Stalin was in charge, and under him the medieval character of Moscow was not fundamentally altered. Instead, the Stalinists built gigantic avenues that ran in all directions from the Kremlin like rays from the sun. There were few cars around to fill these avenues, but they provided a fine, broad line of sight for Soviet leaders during military parades. [Source: Keith Gessen, The New Yorker , August 2, 2010]

“Then came capitalism. The registration laws that had made it almost impossible to move to Moscow during Soviet times ceased to be enforced, and meanwhile chaos, de-industrialization, and ethnic violence roamed the peripheries of the empire. Very soon it became clear that what Moscow had lost in political authority it had gained, and then some, in economic authority. By the end of the nineteen-nineties, there were more people in Moscow from all over the former Soviet Union than there had been when the Soviet Union was a single state. People from rural Russia, the Central Asian states, and Ukraine came to escape poverty; people from the Caucasus came to escape the war.

“All of them wanted cars. The city’s plan with regard to this was not to have a plan at all. Planning was for socialists; under capitalism, the market would figure things out. In the post-Soviet years, Moscow filled up, first with kiosks, and flimsy freestanding grocery stores, and little old ladies selling socks. Eventually, these were replaced by office buildings and megastores and even luxury condominiums; the spaces once reserved for new roads or metro stations were given over to construction.” A commission from the Soviet government, only months before its collapse, projected the rate of automobile growth over the next twenty-five years. “We knew the trajectory of automobilization in many countries of the world, and so we predicted exactly what happened.” What happened was that the number of cars in Moscow went from sixty per thousand residents in 1991 to three hundred and fifty in 2009. “And we were very proud of ourselves for being so smart.

Road Conditions in Russia

According to the Association for Safe International Road Travel: There are 700,000 kilometers of inter-city roads, of which 50,000 are federal highways; and there are 540,000 of urban roads. The road network is more developed in European Russia than in Asian Russia. Asian Russia (Northern and Far Eastern Russia) accounts for 60 percent of Russia’s territory, yet has only 15.5 percent of total roads. Road density in European Russia is only one-eighth that of Poland, one-seventh that of Latvia and one-half that of Estonia, Belarus and Ukraine. Over 40,000 Russian towns and villages have poor or no access to the main road network. The number of towns inaccessible by road is increasing, due to inadequate road maintenance. About 80 percent of Russia’s local roads need major repairs. New roads do not always meet European standards. [Source: Association for Safe International Road Travel, 2008|=|]

The government has adopted a program to expand the highway network, double the number of roads that meet European standards, improve road maintenance and increase road safety over the next 20 years. Road characteristics that can cause bottlenecks: 1) Numerous, grade level railway crossings; 2) Narrow bridges; 3) Main roads passing through cities and towns. |=|

About 8 percent of public roads are classified as federal roads. Federal roads link Moscow with capitals of other nations and capitals of other members of the Russian Federation. Federal roads carry 45-50 percent of all cargo. About 90 percent of federal roads are paved, 53 percent need repairs; 37 percent do not meet required standards. Federal roads include 72 wooden bridges, all of which need repairs. About 92 percent of public roads are regional (territorial) roads, linking cities and towns in each region. About 83 percent of these roads are paved. Many need repairs. The network includes 7421 wooden bridges; all of which need repairs.

Many roads are poorly lit, and only 85 percent have road signs. Signs on tourist routes are generally in Latin script. Road construction sites are not always well marked. It rains frequently in Russia and Siberia. Roads are often very slick when wet. Steadily increasing numbers of heavy goods vehicles contributes to high pollution levels on highways. Newer roads may have few restaurants, motels, gas stations or auto repair shops. Service vehicle before leaving. Take basic spare parts: an extra fan belt, fuses, replacement bulbs and needed tools. |=|

A lot of salt is used on the roads in the winter. In the springtime mud is the issue on unpaved roads. Fred Hiatt wrote in the Washington Post: "it was everywhere, and it was not the benign glob of childhood pies. This mud was thick, squelching, voracious. And there was nothing but mud—no asphalt road or safer ways round. Jeeps set out across it and pitched and rolled and swivelled like sailboats on a dangerous sea. Eventually, like all vehicles, they succumbed. Then you stepped down, lifted your foot, and found that boot had been left behind...It is easier to walk with flippers here.”

Major Highways in Russia

The Trans-Siberian Highway, according to ASIRT, is a network of federal highways that cross Russian from St. Petersburg on Baltic Sea in the east to Vladivostok on the Japan Sea in the west. The route is known as the AH6 in the Asian Highway Network. One section is part of European route E30. The section through Kazakhstan consists of 7 federal highways, one of which is the Amur Highway (links Chita and Khabarovsk). The Amur Highway, the only Trans-Siberian Highway section still under construction. Should be open in 2010.[Source: Association for Safe International Road Travel, 2008 |=|]

E105 is part of the International E-road network and one of the main roads in Europe. It begins in Kirkenes, Norway and follows the M18, M10 and M2 in Russia and the M18 in the Ukraine, ending in Yalta, Ukraine. Some cities on its route include Kirkenes, Murmansk, Kandalaksha, Saint Petersburg, Novgorod, Tver, Moscow, Kharikiv, Simferopol and Yalta. The road may be closed due to heavy snows or rains. Long delays may occur at the border crossing. On Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays, the road is closed to vehicles with a foreign registration.

The M56 links Moscow and Yakutsk in the Sakha (Yakutia) Republic. The last 600 miles to Yakutsk is known as the Lena Highway. This section is unpaved, but in good condition in winter. When summer rains come, the road is impassible. Even large trucks get stuck in the deep layer of mud.

The Trans-Caucasian Highway is a mountainous road that crosses the Greater Caucasus Mountains through the Roki Tunnel. It links North Ossetia-Alania and South Ossetia with Russia and Georgia. In winter the road often closes due to the danger of avalanches. Access to the Abkhazia and South Ossetia sections of the road is uncertain, due to current political strife. Consult the U.S. Embassy in Russia about traveling on these portions of the road.

Trans-Siberian Highway

Trans-Siberian Highway extends 10,600 kilometers (6,600 miles) from St. Petersburg to Vladivostok. Formally opened in 2004, it extends through taiga and accorss permafrost, dethroning the 7820-kilometers-long (4,860-mile-long) Trans-Canada Highway as the world’s longest national highway. The road is far from complete. Although most of its is nicely paved. Some sections of little more than a roadbed bulldozed through an area of downed trees. Even getting through with a top of the line SUV is difficult.

Describing one section between Ulan Ude and Khabarovsk in the mid 2000s, one Russian motorist told the New York Times, “There is 700 kilometers of no roads. There is no other word to call it—goat tracks. At Some places, it was blocked by rocks from the mountains detonated by dynamite. So drivers had t hire bulldozers working nearby or just crawl atop this rock piles as I did.” In other areas there are large tree stumps and mud layers on permafrost. As of 2004, about a quarter of this section was paved, with most of these stretches in the settled areas. The whole section scheduled to be completed in 2010.

The project has been dogged by various problems from the start. Construction was supposed to begin in 1966 but didn’t begin until 1978. Sometimes the rate of progress was only a few kilometers a month. There are more than 250 bridges. Under Putin it was given a lift. A quarter of al the government road-building budget went to the project and financing was provided by the European Union in the form of low interest loans.

But many wondered if the road was even necessary. Why travel by car on a journey that takes three weeks in rough conditions when you can cover the same distance in a week on the Trans-Siberian Railroad. For long stretches there are no service stations or restaurants. Anyone brave enough to take the road needs to bring their own fuel and food and maybe a gun. Then there are the costs of maintaining a road, parts of which lie atop permafrost and experience a range of extreme weather conditions.

Driving in the Wilderness of the Russian Far East

John Vaillant wrote in “The Tiger: A True Story of Vengeance and Survival”: “The deeper Trush and his men drove into the forest, the rougher the road became. Once past Verkhny Pereval, their route took them through the snowbound village of Yasenovie, a sister logging community of the same size and vintage as Sobolonye...It was already afternoon by the time they reached Sobolonye, an impoverished village of unpainted log houses, that at first glance seemed barely inhabited. Gorborukov was behind the wheel, and here he steered the truck off the main road, such as it was, and plunged into the forest on a track wide enough for only a single vehicle. Several inches of new snow had fallen earlier in the week and, as they drove, Trush scanned the roadside for fresh tracks. [Source: John Vaillant. “The Tiger: A True Story of Vengeance and Survival” (Knopf, 2010)^/^]

“They were about fifty miles from the nearest paved road and a couple of hard-won miles east of Sobolonye when they crossed a wide and improbably located gravel highway. This road had been conceived during Soviet times as an alternative to Primorye's only existing north-south throughway, which follows the Ussuri River north to Khabarovsk (the same route used by the Trans-Siberian Railway). Despite handling every kind of traffic, including transcontinental freight trucks, the Ussuri road is poorly maintained and only as wide as a residential street; it was also considered vulnerable to Chinese attack. This new highway, though safer, wider, and ruler-straight, was never finished and so it is essentially a highway to nowhere — in the middle of nowhere. The only people who benefit from it now are loggers, poachers, and smugglers — pretty much the only people around who can afford a vehicle. But sometimes tigers use this highway, too. ^/^

“There is an unintended courtesy in the winter forest that occurs around pathways of any kind. It takes a lot of energy to break a trail through the snow, especially when it's crusty or deep, so whoever goes first, whether animal, human, or machine, is performing a valuable service for those following behind. Because energy — i.e., food — is at a premium in the winter, labor-saving gifts of this kind are rarely refused. As long as the footpath, logging road, frozen river — or highway — is going more or less in the desired direction, other forest creatures will use it, too, regardless of who made it. In this way, paths have a funneling, riverlike effect on the tributary creatures around them, and they can make for some strange encounters. ^/^

“The last three miles of the journey were on a logging track so tortuous and convoluted that even a veteran Russian backcountry driver is moved to shout, in a torrent of fricatives and rolling Rs, "Paris-Dakar! Camel Trophy!" It contoured east through the rolling woods, crossing creeks on bridges made of log piles stacked at right angles to the road. Two miles short of a privately owned logging camp, Gorborukov took an unmarked turn and headed north. After a few minutes, he pulled up at a clearing, on the far side of which stood a cabin.” ^/^

On driving in a similar area, Matthew Shaer wrote in Smithsonian magazine: “In the morning it was still snowing...Three miles out on the ferry road and we started to see cars in the undergrowth, the drivers standing helplessly alongside them, staring back at us without emotion. They were stuck, but in Primorsky, help is rarely given to strangers and even more rarely asked for. Alex, the inspector who had been recruited to get us to Udege Legend, accelerated past them. He tut-tutted under his breath, as if to say, How could you be so stupid to get stuck out here, in the middle of nowhere? The desolation was complete. You saw a hill in the far distance, and you thought to yourself that over that hill, there would be some sign of civilization, something to indicate that human beings inhabit this land, but you crested the hill only to find more emptiness, more of the same trees, more of the same snow.” [Source: Matthew Shaer, Smithsonian Magazine, February 2015 */]

Automobiles in Russia

The number of vehicles in Russian increased over threefold in the late 1990s and 2000s. New car sales rose 35 percent in 2007. In 2008, Russia has become the largest market for new cars in Europe. In Moscow, the number of cars went from 60 per 1,000 residents in 1991 to 350 in 2009. The transport of goods by trucks increased by 40 percent from 2002 to 2015. [Source: Association for Safe International Road Travel, 2008 |=|]

In the early 2000s, about half or Russian families had cars. Now around 8 out of 10 Russians have a car. Muscovites are particularly crazy about cars. One car dealer told the New York Times, “Russians like four-wheel-drive cars, strong off-road-type cars because their roads are not very good.”

Car ownership rose dramatically through the 1980s and 90s. The number of cars on the road in Moscow rose from 320,000 in 1981 to 877,500 in 1989 (still only one for every 10 residents) and then tripled to 2.5 million between 1994 and 1998. Between 1991 and 2001 the number of cars per 1,000 people jumped from 79 in 1991 to 224 in Moscow. Roads that were once easy to navigate became chock-a-bloc with traffic..

These days, ordinary people drive Ladas and Zhigulis. Rich drivers BMWs and Mercedes. Gasoline is still relatively cheap, spare parts are easier to get, and car washes are relatively common. In the early 2000s, even some large cities like Vladivostok had no reliable gas stations. Gasoline was sometimes sold to motorist from tankers driven in from the fuel producing regions. These trucks often charge twice the pump price for fuel.

Automobiles in the Soviet Era

In the Soviet-era vehicles were often a means of transport and little more. They were usually heavy and sturdy and got low marks for luxury and performance. The were few cars. In the mid 1960s there were only 3,000 private cars in Leningrad and only 10,000 in Moscow. Most automobiles were assigned to offices or plants and there were few that were privately owned. Most of the cars on the road were beat-up Russian-built Ladas and Czech-made Skodas with tiny engines that sounded more like those found on a lawnmower than a car.

In the Soviet era, an automobile was a prized possession and a symbol of status and prestige. People used to have their names places on lists and wait for years for car. The kind of car someone drove was an indication of status and rank. The highest ranking people were driven around in Chaika limousines. Next were Volga 21s and Volga 23-23s.

Cars were expensive and there were long waiting lists. A Trabant sold for $5,000 in 1981, a Wartburg sedan, $8,500. A Zhiguli, Fiat-like Russian car built in early 70s, sold for $8,000. Better quality cars went for $15,000. Officials with seniority and special permits could obtain cars after a three year wait. Ordinary people often had to wait ten years just to get on the list.

Car owners treated their cars as if they were the most blessed thing in the entire world. Sunday family outings consisted of a ride to the local river where the father spent the whole day washing his car while his family did other activities. Hoses were luxuries; a river or stream was often the only place where somebody could wash their car.♠

Windshield wipers were frequently stolen. Motorists often locked them in the trunk.

Automobile and Car Repair Customs in Russia

Many Russians wrap their cars in burlap bags and plastic sheets in the winter and don't bring them out until the winter snows have melted. In the spring there are many more cars on the road than in winter. New tires are prohibitively expensive for most people and old ones are all they can afford. One woman who was getting her tire fixed told the New York Times, I don't have any money for anything but gas. I can't afford tires. But he can always fix what's broken."

In Moscow it is possible to hire a "a man in a uniform," a driver with a permit to drive with a blue light on the roof of his car down the center lane of Kutuzovsky Prosect—traditionally reserved for important government officials.

In the early 2000s, there was no system of auto insurance. If there was crash, often the bigger and tougher driver demanded payment from the weaker driver, on the spot, sometimes at gunpoint. At that time there were relatively few women drivers.

Many cars in Russia are in constant need of repair and fixing cars and peddling spare automobile parts is a big businesses. Russians can often hot wire their vehicles just as quickly as turning a key in the ignition. Soldiers are known for routinely fixing carburetors with tape.

Particularly indispensable are the ubiquitous little shacks found all over Russia that are home to men who repair tires. One tire repairman, who often repairs a 100 tires a day for about a dollar each, told the New York Times, "People need to move. They can't afford good tires. They don't have the time to fix their own. I help them go where they need to go. It's always been very satisfying."

Russian Love of Cars

Keith Gessen wrote in The New Yorker: Russians “are willing to endure all manner of humiliation to keep driving. Recently, my friend Lyonya, a corporate lawyer, was stopped by the police and accused of drunk driving, even though he hadn’t had a drop of alcohol in fifteen years. Another time, Lyonya found his car trapped in a courtyard where he’d parked, because its residents had put up a gate while he was gone; unable to find anyone to ask about it, Lyonya finally dismantled the gate with some tools he always keeps in his car. [Source: Keith Gessen, The New Yorker , August 2, 2010 ]

“Yet he continues to drive, and, driving with him in his long black Mercedes CL (“Comfort Leicht”), you can see why. The car is so intelligent, so solicitous, that it will not let you slam the doors entirely closed, for fear that you’ll hurt your fingers. It waits a little, letting you get to safety, and only then does it shut the door. You get a different perspective on things from Lyonya’s Mercedes. Outside, the city is filthy, muddy, filled with exhaust; the Mercedes rides smoothly, swaddling you in leather. The city is violent and chaotic and anti-democratic; in the Mercedes, you can listen to the liberals arguing, subtly, intelligently, on the last redoubt of independent Russian mass media, Ekho Moskvy. In Moscow, there are far worse places to be trapped.”

Mikhail Blinkin, a Russian traffic expert, told The New Yorker: “I met some guys who sold foreign cars, who’d done a marketing prognosis, and without any of our international analogues or models they just thought, Well, restrictions are down, you can buy foreign cars as well as Russian ones, and they predicted the same rate of growth as we had! These car dealers predicted it.” Blinkin was dismissive of the car dealers, but in the early nineteen-nineties they included some of the most brilliant minds in the country. The first great post-Soviet fortune, after all, was made not from oil or gas or nickel: that came later. It was made when Boris Berezovsky, a mathematician and game theorist, started selling cars.

Automobile Accidents in Russia

It is estimated that about 30,000 Russians a year die in auto accidents. This is quite a lot considering that there are relatively not so many cars. There are over 800 deaths and 7,500 injuries a year in Moscow, where there are about 20 serious accidents every day. A high number involve pedestrians. Expenses related to road crashes consume about 2.5 percent of Russia’s GDP.

According to ASIRT: Road crashes are common. Both drivers and pedestrians must exercise extreme caution. There are 24.6 fatalities per 100,000 population in Russia, compared to 14.6 in the U.S., 10.1 in France and 5.9 in Sweden. There are 14 road fatalities per 10,000 motor vehicles, compared to 2.0 in the U.S. and 1.0 in the U.K. [Source: Association for Safe International Road Travel, 2008 |=|]

“Common factors in road crashes include speeding, driving irresponsibly, driving under the influence of alcohol, failure to wear seatbelts and inadequate law enforcement. Inadequate infrastructure is also contributes to road crashes. Many drivers have never passed drivers’ tests. Some residents drive with no driver’s license or buy a driver’s license from officials. Driver training is inadequate. A non-driver can purchase a driver's license for $500, which partly explains why there are so many traffic accidents. |=|

“On Sakhalin island, the majority of road crashes are car-pedestrian crashes, head-on or rear-end crashes or rollover crashes. Drivers violating traffic law is a factor in over 75 percent of road crashes; 33 percent were speeding; 10 percent were driving on the wrong side of the road. 20 percent were driving under the influence of alcohol; 25 percent lacked a driver’s license. |=|

Russian Automobiles

One of the most common cars in Russian from the Soviet era is known in Russia as a Zhiguli and overseas as a Lada. Described a "Fiat put together in dim light," it was produced by the Avtovaz car company, Russia' largest automobile manufacturer, based on the design of a 1970 Fiat 124. In the 1980s a Zhiguli took 450 man hours to produce, compared to less than 15 man-hours for a Toyota. A new Zhuguli costs $20,000 in 1988, the last year it was produced.

The Zhiguli was the quintessential Soviet automobile. In the Communist era, it was not unusual to see one Zhiguli pull another Zhiguli with a rope. Many claim the cars were designed to fall apart once they reached 50,000 kilometers. It is said that one the first things a Russian consumer did he bought a Zhiguli was take it apart so he could see what was missing. Once the missing parts were obtained the car was put back together. A common joke went: How do you double the value of a Lada? Answer: Put gasoline in it.

The Russian answer to the East German Trabant was the Moskivich, produced by the nearly bankrupt AZLIK company. The Communist Party elite rode around in Chaika limousines. The modern Russian equivalent of the Humvee is the $144,000 Kombat


The Zil is a boxy limousines favored by the Communist elite. It has been used since Lenin's time by party leaders and is still used to ferry Putin around both within Russia and on foreign trips. The Guinness Book of Records listed the 3.7-ton Zil-41047 limousine as the world's heaviest car.

The armored Zil used by security-conscious Stalin had windows that were three inches thick and needed a hydraulic pump to move them up and down. It didn't contain any side view mirrors under the belief that no car would ever try to pass it. The stretch Zil used by Gorbachev weighed 6.6 tons, was made of 3-inch thick armor-plated steel and had a 7-liter, 8-cylinder engine that burned gasoline at a rate of six miles per gallon. Yeltsin drove around in a Mercedes.

Only a few Zils are made each year. The company that makes the cars by hand—AMO ZiL (Avtomobilnoe Moskovskoe Obshchestvo - Zavod Imeni Likhachova—also makes trucks and military vehicles. The luxury seven-seat model that was made in the 1990s had a powerful V-8 engine and leather upholstery. It had a top speed of 118 miles per hour and got about 8 miles per gallon and cost about $150,000. The security that protects the factory outside of Moscow is equal to that of a MIG factory.


The Volga sedan was the trademark limousine of Soviet bureaucrats. It is still produced and has changed little since it was designed in the 1970s. When U.S. President George W. Bush visited Russia, Russian President Vladimir Putin took Bush for a ride in a vintage Volga.

One Soviet era car that Russians remember with the greatest affection is the Volga 21, a sedan that looked a bit like a cross between taxi and 57 Chevy. Early models produced after the car debuted in 1957 had an 8-inch Soviet-era iron grill and a leaping reindeer for hood ornament. One young car enthusiast told the Los Angeles Times, "It was the only beautiful car ever made in the USSR in its entire history." It was "the only good car the average Soviet person could ever buy. This car became a cult object."

The Volga 21 is now a collector's item. When production stopped in 1969, the cars continued to made in backyard sheds and garages from spare parts. Many people who own the cars are members of Volga 21 clubs. A happy owner told the Los Angeles Times, "I love it like a living creature. It's connected with all my warm memories of wonderful trips out into the country when my daughter was small. I'd call it the car that represent's Russia's from the ashes after World War II.”

In most people' minds Volgas are still associated with stodgy rank-and-file Soviet bureaucrats. In an attempt to improve the car's image, Volga commercials have feature attractive women listening to rock music when they drive. Ladas and Volgas are becoming rarer and rarer sights.

UAZ Goat

The UAZ (pronounced "oo-ahz") is a Soviet-designed four-wheel-drive jeep that is good for getting around in rough mountain territory. Nicknamed the Kozyol (Goat), it is ugly and guzzles gas but it will go almost anywhere and is relatively easy to fix. It's nickname refers to the way it nimbly jumps from rock to rock and rut to rut as one negotiates mountain tracks. [Source: Robyn Dixon, Los Angeles Times, July 10, 2001]

Goats are used throughout the former Soviet Union to get through rough terrain. In Afghanistan their roofs have been hacked off and they have been turned in armored personnel carriers. The UAZ has a 3,500 pound steel frame and grill that resembles "teeth clenched with effort." It is more uncomfortable to sit and costs about $6,800. In the Soviet era where they were used mostly by the military and on collective farms.

Describing the Goat in action, Robyn Dixon wrote in the Los Angeles Times, the driver "jams eight passengers into his Goat for a hair raising trek across a scree-covered track. The motor grinds and strains, the wheels lose traction on the pebbles, while a sheer ravine gapes like eternity to anyone who dares peep out the side window...When the road gets dicey along the rocky donkey track that meanders through the passengers step out and walk a half a mile or so while the Goat driver goes it alone...The Goat clambers gamely across bridges consisting of two parallel logs thrown across a stream, each a midge wider than the tires. In the quagmire known as the spring, it almost swims through axle-deep mud, plowing ahead to villages otherwise unreachable until the sun dries the land."

Used Cars in Russia

Used foreign cars are greatly in demand in Russia. About a half million were sold a year in the early 2000s, accounting for about a third of the overall car sales market. In the west, German models dominate the market. In the east, Japanese models rule. By the early 2000s, Russia was the world’s largest importer of Japanese used cars. About 200,000 cars were exported from Japan to Russia in 2001.

Used Japanese cars are sought after because the good quality and relatively affordable. The fact they are right-hand drive and Russian roads are left had drive doesn’t seem to matter. Russians who had never owned a car before could get a decent quality Toyota for $5,000, a forth of the price of a new Russian car.

There is a night market in Vladivostok for used cars brought from Japan. There is a similar market in Khabarovsk. It is not very from Japan to Vladivostok, where most of the cars arrive. In some cases they are driven from there 800 kilometers to Khabarovsk or even farther a field. Drivers are paid $50 for the trip. In Khabarovsk buyers from all Russia come to buy cars. Those that end up in Moscow or St. Petersburg or elsewhere further west are shipped by train. Buyers from Yakutia and other places in the north buy the cars in the long winter and drive them home on tracks built on frozen rivers.

Shady Side of the Russian Used Cars Business

In the early 1990s the sale of used Japanese cars was a rough and tumble business that entailed a lot of risk and, in the words of participants, required “boxing skills.” Describing the used car business in Vladivostok, one former gangster told the New York Times, “Everyone was throwing themselves at it. They learned boxing and went to the port to deal in cars. Sometimes the strong ones just took the cars.”

Many cars stolen in Europe eventually find their way to western Russia. In 1994, 65,000 legal foreign cars, out of a market of 850,000 cars, was sold in Russian. Between 250,000 and 5000,000 illegal foreign cars were sold at the some time. In the early 2000s, it was estimated that a half million of the vehicles in Moscow were originally stolen in Europe.

Many cars stolen in Japan eventually find their way to eastern Russia. Japanese police say they have broken up several rings that shipped stolen Japanese cars to Russia. Still experts say that stolen cars account for only around for 5 percent of the market.

Cars are smuggled in from Japan to avoid paying the 165 percent import tax. Many arrive on fishing and freight boats that dock informally in Japan and pay a bribe in Russia to avoid hassles with authorities. One executive in the used car business in Japan told the New York Times, “As many as 7,000 fishing boats come here a year, bringing timber or fish. They go home full of Japanese used cars.”

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, U.S. government, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, and various books, websites and other publications.

Last updated May 2016

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