Cars are powerful symbols of progress and modernity. As well as symbolising personal freedom and choice for individuals, they also conveyed an aura of industrial sophistication, national pride and power for countries that were able to produce them. In the Soviet context, the crash industrialisation of the 1930s and the demands of war production during the 1940s meant that making automobiles for ordinary people was not a priority. Cars were reserved for important officials, not mere mortals.
That all changed after the death of Stalin in 1953. People were sick of unrelenting terror and exhausted by hard-work and violence. They wanted to see the tangible results of all the sacrifice, death and destruction that had occurred over the past two decades. The idea of scrimping, saving and making-do in order to help build some glorious communist future had lost its appeal to a new generation. People wanted the good things in life and they wanted them now. This became all the more evident as consumer culture took off in the West and began to slowly seep in through the cracks of the Iron Curtain. Thus car production served as a way to demonstrate that life was getting better and it was capable of competing with the shiny wonders being churned out in the West.
As part of the reparations after the Second World War, much of the Opel factory and machinery was dismantled and taken back to the USSR where it was used to update the MZMA car that had been turning out copies of Ford Model A cars and vans since 1929. The new German equipment was used to update the line and the factory soon began to turn out rebranded copies of 1930s Opel Kadett’s, now called the Moskvich 400, for the Soviet market. From this a new line of models evolved during the next four decades of the USSR’s existence. Moskvich cars were small, rugged and cheap, designed for the average respectable Soviet citizen who didn’t rock the boat. In a society where money had little meaning (because the dysfunctional Soviet planned economy was incapable of producing things people actually wanted, there was nothing much to buy in the shops) the possession of consumer goods signified your importance and status in Soviet society. It showed that you were well connected and had influence. Ever since they were invented, cars have always been a very public way of showing off to the neighbours.
The book has a traditional company photobook format: it’s designed to showcase the product, the modern, efficient factory and the good care it takes of its employees. Published by the Ministry of Automobile Production, the cover of red leatherette with the company logo stamped into it is designed to impress. As part of a corporate rebranding exercise in the late 1960s, the MZMA name was ditched and an equally awful name chosen – AZLK (Avtomobilny Zavod imeni Leninskogo Komsomola or Leninist Communist Youth League Automobile Factory). Sadly the rest of the book design does not do such a good job. Using randomly chosen bright primary colours as page borders and for text printed over the photographs doesn’t work very well. The word kitsch springs to mind. I’m tempted to suggest that these represent the different colours the car was available in but somehow I don’t think so. The cars depicted appear to be the final model produced, the Moskvich 412, which rolled out of the Moscow factory between 1967 and 1976 before production was transferred to the huge IZHMASH weapons and motor manufacturing plant. No details of the photographers or even the date of publication is given but a photo caption proudly states that the 16 of August 1974 saw the 2 millionth Moskvich produced.
Beginning with a lineup of the different models produced over the years, the book moves into the factory itself. Here we see industrious workers and supervisors presiding over all aspects of the production within a bilious green environment. Once we move into the assembly line the colour palette lightens, helped by the addition of brightly coloured car bodies that serve the same purpose as the strategically placed figure in the red jacket used by postcard photographers of old. Like most company photobooks, the shop floor in such imagery is remarkably spotless; not a hint of clutter or rubbish that might hint at problems. The vastness of the factory is continually emphasised in the images to show the power and might of this industrial powerhouse. Everything is neat, tidy and clinically efficient and many of the images are remarkable for the absence of people in them, all adding to the hi-tech feeling the book tries to convey. Once the final cars roll off the line, a disapproving image of Lenin glowers down from above, undoubtedly dismayed at the sight of such consumerist frippery.
Just like corporate propaganda in the capitalist world, it’s important in such photobooks to have a section showing how well the company looks after it’s loyal workers. Again, we see interior shots of bright, clean and modern dining areas, corridors, classrooms full of eager young workers ready to do their bit for the glory of socialism. A couple of pages later we get to the middle management who look a decidedly more serious bunch, shown doing serious party political work that culminates in a trip to the war memorial to lay a wreath. Images of swimming pools, sports facilities, kindergartens and toy Moskvich pedal cars rolling off the production line are all used to show that a Soviet company, unlike those in the West, really cares about it’s employees.
The 1970s were a pretty miserable decade for design all round but Soviet products of that era are particularly crude. Everything from cameras to cars became clunky, blocky objects as if they’d been designed by a kid in a kindergarten using crayons. In fairness, the Moskvich wasn’t as ugly as the Lada which really just looked like a cavity block on wheels. But the wider point is that any attempt at making an object look aesthetically pleasing disappeared. In part this was down to the creeping malaise that took hold in the USSR during the Brezhnev era. Everybody just stopped caring during this prolonged period of economic and social stagnation. This book with its brightly coloured borders, full of images of cleanliness and order tries hard to project an aura of success at a time when the whole system was slowly rotting away from the inside.
P.S. The AZLK company went bust following the collapse of the USSR and the factory was abandoned. Some urbex photos of the site can be found here.