Engines of Liberty: Cars and the Collapse of Communism in Eastern Europe

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In memory of my father,

Florian Hanasz, a great car lover.

 In the United States and Western Europe, the role of automobiles in our lives has become a subject of wide, and sometimes even wild, debate. But I wish to examine automobility by looking at its role in Eastern Europe. My interest stems from the fact that I myself am from Eastern Europe, which in the 1990s has become a great laboratory of freedom, retesting and reusing some of the vital concepts of the Western world. To a Western audience, it is perhaps no news to learn that these concepts include liberal democracy, market capitalism, and the nation-state. More surprising, however, these basic Western concepts also include automobility.

Out of Eastern Europe

Eastern Europeans have always loved to travel. Once upon a time they were free to do so; then times changed and they could not. Now times have changed yet again. Our grandparents told us stories from their student years before World War II, when a spontaneous hitchhiking trip from Warsaw or Budapest to Vienna and Paris was not unusual. Czeslaw Milosz, a Lithuanian- born Polish poet and essayist, described his travels to “familiar Europe” as a significant part of his “search for self-definition.”2  Milosz described one such journey, undertaken in 1931, when he and his twentysomething friends visited the Colonial Exposition in Paris. They were free to go across Europe, from Lithuania and Poland to Germany and France.

Europe’s Communist regimes made such experiences impossible for my parents’ generation and my own. In most Eastern European countries, it was almost impossible to get a passport to travel west. It was very difficult to travel to any other Communist country as well. The Iron Curtain imposed a huge cage of immobility, and each Communist country was a smaller cage within that huge cage. Special permission was often necessary simply to travel within the Soviet Union.

Such bureaucratic restrictions did not succeed in wedging human nature into a Communist form. Independence of movement continued to be a deep value to most people living under Communist rule. It was no accident, for instance, that Soviet hockey players and chess players, Czech and Slovak tennis players, and Russian and Hungarian pianists, violinists, and conductors almost dominated the world with their skills and arts. The careers of athlete, scholar, intellectual, journalist, artist, or actor were hotly pursued in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe because they provided “a ticket to ride”—at least a fleeting illusion of autonomy and mobility.

These careers were neither very lucrative nor free from political barriers. In fact, scholars and intellectuals belonged to the least-paid professions and remained under the close scrutiny of Communist officials. Journalists, scholars, and artists were constantly censored. They were pressed to join the Communist Party or at least to express repeatedly their loyalty to the regime.

Most people were ready to swallow these bitter pills of humiliation in order to enjoy the occasional taste of freedom. Being an athlete, a scholar, or a journalist was a first step to acquiring some degree of mobility. While the price of a plane ticket from Warsaw to London or from Moscow to New York equaled an average worker’s annual salary, one could get that ticket from one’s tennis club, university, or journal. Sometimes the bitter part became too hard to stand. Thousands of athletes, diplomats, scholars, artists, and writers made the wrenching decision to choose freedom and to stay in the West, even at the price of leaving families and friends behind the Iron Curtain.

When the loosening of the Communist grip in certain countries made it easier to travel, the attractiveness of these quasi-free professions began to decline. Their attractiveness also was gradually overtaken, in part, by growing car ownership. It became enough to have four wheels to feel free. And one no longer needed to follow the routes and schedules directed by the Communist Ministry of Sports or the Ministry of Education.

In the 1960s, during the post-Stalinist “liberalization” of the Communist bloc, some Eastern Europeans could finally visit the streets of West Berlin, Rome, and Paris. Many Germans and Italians did not much like these visitors. The guests rarely spoke German or Italian, and their manners and attire were often laughable. They traveled with boxes and bundles full of clothes, camping equipment, tents, and canned food, because they were too poor to live in hotels or to eat in restaurants, and they tried to save money on everything. In order to cover some unavoidable costs, these tourists often entered the “gray market,” selling goods they brought, sometimes illegally, from their countries. One could buy from them a Polish ham or a bottle of Russian vodka or Hungarian “palinka” (plum liquor) at half price or even less.

As a by-product of these visits, Western Europeans became familiar with the unimpressive achievements of the Eastern automobile industry. The guests traveled in dirty, stinky, tiny vehicles hardly resembling real cars. Americans may find it hard to believe, but the infamous Yugoslavian Yugo that hit the American market some twenty years ago represented a relatively high quality product of the centrally planned economy. Most East European automobiles were of much lower standards. The most extreme case was probably the smoky East German Trabant, popularly called the “soap box” because of its plastic body and coarse shape. Other East European cars—Soviet Moskviches, Czechoslovakian Skodas, and Polish Fiats—were not much better.