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Cars for Comrades: The Life of the Soviet Automobile
Cars for Comrades: The Life of the Soviet Automobile
Lewis H. Siegelbaum
Cornell University Press, 2008
328 pp., $57.50

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Andrew Morriss

From Moscow to Detroit

Two economies, two tales.

The financial crisis has prompted considerable speculation on editorial pages about the "death of global capitalism" and homilies from pulpits about the dangers of "idolizing" free markets. We should not underestimate the seriousness of the current situation—responsibility for which lies as much with the politicians who ignored warnings about the excesses of the two government-owned financial institutions known as Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae while accepting campaign contributions from those entities' executives as it does with "greedy" Wall Street bankers—but we must also take care not to discard the lessons the 20th century taught us about economics. Two books that may seem remote from our pressing concerns with "collateralized debt obligations" and bank liquidity—one a history of the Soviet auto industry, the other a memoir of Detroit's precipitous decline—together offer valuable perspectives that we would do well to keep in mind as we search for the lessons from recent events.

Lewis Siegelbaum, a historian at Michigan State University, opens Cars for Comrades by repeating what a Russian told him after learning that he was writing a history of the Soviet auto industry: "That will be a very short book." On the contrary: What Siegelbaum has produced is a superb account of Soviet life as viewed through the lens of the failed Soviet struggle to match the capitalist West, and the United States in particular, auto for auto and highway for highway, while denying its citizens the mobility that would undermine the Soviet state. Accommodating the automobile proved to be a dialectical struggle whose contradictions communism could not resolve, and Siegelbaum repeatedly highlights problems that mass production and ownership of automobiles posed for the Soviet Union. To do so he has mastered countless details of Soviet life and economic history, including deciphering Soviet motor vehicle production statistics; unearthing car-related proverbs from throughout ...

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