Was it being constantly invaded? Stalinist terror? The obscene arms race? Plain old ennui?
Nope. It was our friend the car.
Pre-Brezhnev, the idea of owning a private car was downright bourgeois, if not counter revolutionary. Less than 1% of Soviets owned a car. The many metros springing up across the union were/are like palaces of the people. Public transit and air and rail were priorities. Informal car sharing, informal taxis were common, but transport was a problem.
Khrushchev vowed to flood the SU with taxis, so that the streets and yards wouldn’t be cluttered. Wow. a country -- any country’s -- leader anti-car for the right reasons. Hats off to Nikita.
But it’s hard to keep the socialist spirit alive. Much more fun to race in sleek western cars, as Khrushchev learned to his -- and our -- everlasting regret. Brezhnev would go on to brag of his own fleet of western beauties. As he took the helm in 1964, plans went into high gear to build a new Soviet city christened Togliatti after the Italian communist leader and Soviet-Italian partner Fiat.
Peaceful coexistence. Detente. Another one of Khrushchev's wise (?) ideas.
But did no one notice the corrosive effect of private car ownership from the experience of the west? How technology affects relations of production and social relations.
Marx did not live to see the car age but he wouldn't be surprised at the result -- that the car was/is the ultimate bourgeois fetish. I suspect he would be shocked at what his beloved communists were doing about it. How they fell into the trap.
This new technology is above all anti-social. It’s all about creating little pockets of privacy. The centre of the driver’s world is the driver-in-a-metal-box-on- wheels. Ruler of my universe. 2 tons of metal, plastic and flesh. Amoral. Atomic. Cosmic. Millions of worlds colliding, dancing on ribbons of death across the planet every moment.
In the 1920s, in the west, boxes-on-wheels everywhere, and suddenly there was privacy in public. What a rush of a kind of ersatz freedom from social constraints. Sexual promiscuity blossomed. And gangsterism, smuggling. Bonnie and Clydes as folk heroes.
After WWII, the Soviet Union was still socialist in daily life. Increasingly prosperous, but private car ownership was for Stakhanovites and actors. That was accepted as the norm. Ok, chauffeured apparatchiks, too. But all together, a drop in the bucket.
Was promoting (i.e., whipping up macho longings) for private cars really such a good idea for socialism? There were some Soviet comedies in the 1960s warning of the negatives,* but the goal of mass car ownership had taken hold by then.
Car ownership per capita:**
Moscow Manezh square 1964 Moscow downtown 2020
When did the Soviet Union start teetering? When did the dissident movement really take off? The '70s. All these new liberated spaces in the heart of dreary communal living. Great for subversion. Crime. Or just playing king of the castle. Mr Twister. Lots of teen sex and consumerism follows. Me, me! Whomp! Watch out for falling hammers and sickles.
And at what cost? Cars are the leading cause of death for young males. All carified countries have the same horrendous traffic and death tolls. Slaves to fossil fuels.
Car ownership is a death cult. It makes you a Lord of the Universe. The cars' roads, arteries, are like the real arteries in our bodies, but they work in reverse. They invade and infest all the choice bits of mother Earth, and really, really big cars come and suck it dry, and take away every last tasty morsel, turning it all into guns to destroy other nasty bits of mother Earth, till there’s nothing left but toxic refuse.
The Soviet Union succumbed earlier. Socialism is tough to build and just as tough to keep alive.
Know thine enemy.
*Берегись автомобиляm (1966).
**Lewis Siegelbaum, Cars for comrades, 2008, pp238-9. There was no increase for the next two decades, but the mania clicked in as the economy improved under Putin. Russians finally got lots and lots more cars and has pushed its way up to 54th ranking at 40%.