Back To The USSR – Part II, A Few Words On Parking And Garage Collectives

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Some time around 1955 as the campaign for country-wide construction of prefab concrete apartment blocks (‘Khruschev barracks’ as they became known ) picked up pace, the government leaders held close discussions about the future of Soviet city planning. One of the contested topics was whether the city should account for a proliferation of personal cars. Unfortunately, a rather short-sighted opinion prevailed. According to which, the people should mainly rely on public transportation, and in case they need a passenger car, stick with rental vehicles and taxis as needed. That would greatly simplify the infrastructure and cut costs, since there will be no need to accommodate wider roads with much heavier traffic, parking spaces and other infrastructure. Most properties would not have a single parking space, just a narrow access lane for emergency services and occasional taxis.

Despite all this the private car ownership continued to grow steadily, until positively exploding once AutoVAZ started baking Ladas in previously unseen volumes. So the main problem for the freshly minted proud (and that was not a figure of speech, people were indeed proud) owners of all these mobile treasures was where to keep them. In other words, they needed garages.

 

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As mentioned before, difficulty to source parts and their pricing lead to a wide-spread petty theft of everything that could have been removed from a vehicle quickly and without special tools. If a vehicle appeared abandoned or apparently left unattended for more than a couple of weeks, parts would start to walk away off it, ultimately leaving just a bare carcass. It would eventually disappear too.

Wipers, wheels with tires, outside mirrors, external lights were the prime targets. I remember once our out-of-town relatives stayed at our place and had to leave their Moskvich-2140 overnight near our apartment block. The husband had to sleep in the car with a small ax clutched in his hand. My dad made security wheel lugs of his own design, ensuring the wheels would stay on the car.

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The windshield wipers by default would be removed and tucked under the driver’s seat to only be mounted when it rained. In all other times pieces of vinyl pipes would be slid on the tips of wiper arms to prevent scratching the precious windshield in case you accidentally twisted the wiper knob.

Funnily, except for the property crimes, the streets were safe for everybody – even for young kids. I remember in summer leaving home together with my parents (they walked to work) and staying out till noon, when they’d return for lunch and to feed me, and then I’d be out again till 6. All we had was the sparsely placed public telephone booths for communication. And that seemed normal. I do not recall any horror stories, other than kids being especially stupid and inducing bodily harm to themselves. And that was a norm.

But I digress. Back to vehicle storage issues.

On some evenings, or on weekends, I’d join my Dad in my most favorite ritual back then. That was to “go to the garage”. The reason would have been to either pick up the car, to bring some stuff or food home or vice versa, to prep the car for some trip or to work on it. Or for something else, like sorting out mess on the workbench, cleaning or some such.

For people in the West it is difficult to comprehend what was so special in a simple act of walking across your backyard to a detached vehicle storage, or even just passing through one of the house doors to get into the attached one.

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But garages in Soviet Russia were different. The closest analogy that comes to my mind is the storage depots here, ones that look like a long block divided into standard compartments, each with its own gate.

That was one of the most common solutions to a parking problem for the growing class of private car owners in the USSR. Most often, it would go like this: at a large factory, research institute (our case) or some such, an initiative group would approach the trade union bosses with a request. That would normally be backed up with several VIP signatures. The requesting party would engage the city/town administration about allocating some land, usually the least usable lots on the outskirts, where the factory would help the future owners build their “garage cooperatives”. All future owners would participate in the construction.

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There would be always some other outsiders brought in too. One small group would be the “useful contacts” – like our garage neighbor, a towering elderly gentleman of impeccable appearance and great sense of humor, Uncle Tolya, as I called him. He was a director of a local road construction enterprise (no private firms or contractors, remember). He helped enormously with construction machinery, materials, etc. I doubt he paid anything for his garage, where he kept his grey and always shiny Volga GAZ-24. Another definite outsider that I vividly remember was the guy with a blue Izh exactly like ours. He was either from Police (Militia), OBHSS or even KGB. I only remember that his Izh haв always been very clean, he never used seat covers (a universal must have back then) and the guy was always positive and drove defensively.

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Sometimes he would give us a ride home. The other group would be war veterans and distinguished elders. And of course whoever managed – through bribing or by association – to wriggle into the list of participants.

An average garage cooperative consisted of anywhere between several dozen and many hundreds of units. The whole area would have had one gated entry with a remote gate with several emergency gates that were normally closed. The main gate was controlled from the storozhka (the gate-house). In our coop it was a brick shack, that had several compartments and 2 rooms.

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One compartment was for the guard dogs (there were two of them, one called Kardan (Propshaft) and the other Krestovina (U-joint). Of the two rooms one was a meeting room where the coop governing board would gather once a month and the watchman could take a nap on a large sofa. The other compartment, facing the entrance, had a table with gate controls, a wood stove, a kitchenette, and a couple of tired armchairs. What I remember most vividly though is the smell. A heavy mix of old rags, dogs, tobacco smoke and fireplace. If you planned to return or leave during the night, you had to warn the watchman, so that he’d either stay awake or at least would set an alarm clock. Another option was to leave the car right in front of the gate-house if you were not sure about the time (or the watchman on duty was notorious to have a drink or two before going to sleep).

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The standard size for the concrete walled unit varied, but would run at 5.0 – 5.5 meters in length (15-16.5 ft), . 3.5-4 meters wide (10 -12 ft), and 2.5 – 3.0 meters ceiling height (7.5 – 9 ft). A set of must have upgrades would immediately follow the construction: the inspection pit and the root cellar. One less popular, and subject to approval from the coop board of directors, was to raise the roof. Ours stood proud 2 or so feet taller than others’. It made for a lot of extra space to keep stuff and the precious car parts.

As would be natural with such scarcity of resources, every unit would quickly turn into Alibaba’s cave full of treasures that the owner would hoard given a slightest opportunity – tires, oils, body parts, and more. For many it would also serve as a remote storage of home stuff, like old clothes (very little would be thrown away back then), kids’ clothes and toys that they grew out of (boy I loved that box filled with toys of my elder sister and some relatives of ours), Xmas decorations and much more.

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The root cellar would be filled with crates of potato, apples, carrots and other vegetables that could be stored there for winter. A set of shelves would contain endless glass containers with self-conserved food, jams, honey and whatnot. If you made your own booze (wine or moonshine), the ‘product’ would sit there too, just not in plain sight.

With this kind of wealth contained within, the swing gates would be either of heavy gauge steel or built from thick wooden blocks and covered with steel sheets. Nobody saved on additional security measures either. Interestingly, if break-in happened (very rarely in the 70’s, but became common from late 80’s, with the beginning of the “new post-Soviet order”), they would be through the roof. Ours had an extra layer of wood planks to prevent that.
Another important stock found in garages, was gas in steel or aluminum jerry cans.

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Speaking of Gas… It was plentiful (relatively so for private car owners) and affordable, 1 liter costing around 0.07-0.1 rubles. The average monthly net wage then was 150-180 rubles. The quality was steady, but the gas was leaded and the octane rating low. Grades 66 and 72 (both MON) disappeared by the end of the 70’s, but 76 (would be octane rating 80 in the US money) remained as the most common well into the early 90’s. Grade 93 (same as ‘Regular’ here) only became more or less widely available from 1971 with Lada’s introduction.

I only remember one gas station with 6 or 8 dispensers for the whole town with the population of around 100,000.  Considering the number of cars it was not too bad. The supply was not awfully consistent though, especially with 93-octane (once in a while you’d have to wait in a long line). So conversions of engines to run on 76 by inserting an extra-thick gasket under the cylinder head to lower the compression ratio were very popular (my dad built several for himself and a few for buddies). Additionally, people liked to have 40-60 liters (or more in later years, when shortages began in earnest) stored in their garages, most often in the coolness of the inspection pit.

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Whereas the private commerce was no-no, barter economy of a sort flourished. Professional truck and bus drivers did not pay cash for gas when they filled their vehicles. Rather, if the fleet was large, a transport organization would have its own dispensers or would give drivers vouchers or coupons to hand over at the gas filling stations. The amount of fuel was calculated based on some averages and the usage controls were notoriously loose. That left a lot of room for slack, which would be sold off to owners of private cars. Oftentimes, instead of cash an alternative – the so called ‘liquid currency’ (vodka, pure alcohol or good moonshine)- would be used.
In the mid to late 80’s, when the Party tried to fight alcoholism and availability of vodka was greatly reduced, the going rate was a 20L of 76-octane for one 0.5L bottle of vodka.

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This taxi guy in the photo ran out of gas and needs it real quick, so he offers double of what the average exchange rate would be.

Despite this gas hoarding, I do not recall any devastating fires – I only remember three or four cars that burnt outside because owners would start doing some welding work when drunk or with gas still in tank.

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These garage coops formed the basis of a funny and unique subculture that formed around car ownership in the USSR. A garage was for many Soviet males a man cave, a happy home away from boring home (with wife and kids), a true men’s club.

In the next part I will talk about this and will try to give you sketches of some of our more colorful neighbors.