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Russia / Visual Aid / August 28, 2008

They drove like people to whom the motorcar was new. They drove as they walked; and a stream of Tehran traffic, jumpy with individual stops and swerves, with no clear lanes, was like a jostling pavement crowd.

—V.S. Naipaul

Naipaul wrote these lines about Iranian drivers in revolution-gripped Tehran in the late 70s. But he might as well have been writing about Russian drivers today. The drive as they walk; on the sidewalk, through red lights, bumping into pedestrians. But that’s not what I’m here to talk about. See, while America’s auto sales have gone into a nosedive, Russia just surpassed Germany to become the largest automobile market in Europe this year. Russians bought as many cars in the first six months of 2008 as they did in the entire last year, 1.65 million to be exact. The luxury category has posted the biggest growth, adding hundreds of thousands of uber-expesive automobiles to Russia’s decrepit roads. But this surge has added more than just traffic or road accident deaths, it’s changed Russia’s car culture in unpredictable ways. See, luxury cars have finally come to the petro-flush masses, and that’s been making existing car owners extremely nervous. Let’s investigate:

The majority of Russian drivers on the road these days might have gotten behind the wheel sometime during the past few years, but Russia’s car culture isn’t anything new. It’s been alive and well since the first Volga hit Soviet markets about 50 years ago. Sure, only high ranking party members could get their hands on those babies, but that didn’t stop the masses from lusting after them. A few decades later, people waited in line for years to get their precious Zhigs and Ladas, in the hope that 10 years down the line, they could spend every weekend getting greasy under the hood, duct-taping pipes and jerry-rigging the engine with strands of wire. But oh, they did it with such pride! The cars were kept in garages, weren’t used in the winter, driven sparingly and lavished with the kind of delicate attention usually reserved for antiques, not for the shittiest cars in the world. But that didn’t matter. To the materially starved people of the Soviet Union, they were a possession among possessions. They spoke of privilege and status in a way that no amount of silver cutlery, wall carpets or Belorussian footwear ever could.

Off-road capabilities for the dachnik masses

Nor is it true that the Soviet auto market was any less diverse than the West’s. It is a little known fact that Soviet citizens had a huge choice of automobiles. Consider 1956, the year Russia released the world’s first mass produced four-wheel drive passenger car, the Moskvich 410-H, trumping the Japanese and the Germans by a at least a few decades. Unfortunately, the 4X4 Moskvich never really took off with the image-conscious people of the Soviet Union. It might have been good for navigating Russia’s unpaved, muddy wilderness, but it wasn’t much for looks….But enough about the bygone days.

These days, when it comes to flashing your car as a status symbol, the old Soviet rules still apply. Flash still trumps function any day. People buy cars not for what they can do, but for how superior and eksklusivny they make you. And therein lies the problem: with all the nice cars flooding the market, the Russians are running out of eksklusivnie rides to flash. That is, the cars are saying less and less as people own them more and more. Porsche Cayennes, Bentleys, BMWs, Mercs, Land Rovers, Hummers, Caddies—none of these cars get the level of respect they used to. Today, a Cayenne or Hummer, in terms of exclusive-creds, ranks where a subcompact Nissan Almera did back in 2005.

To give you a sense of what’s going on, just walking down the street in front of my house today I spotted two Porsche Cayennes ($100K a pop), three Land Rovers (about $100K a pop), a Maserati (way over $150K), a Maybech (about $400K), a Bentley coup ($200K) and two BMW 650s ($125K a pop). And that’s just about 1,000-ft. worth of cars parked on one side of the street. (I’m not even mentioning the potpourri of forgettable Mercs, lesser Beemers, Lexuses and assorted Japanese cars too lowly to mention by name.) The Maybech and Maserati have nothing to worry about, yet. And you’re still elitny if you got a Ferrari or Lamborghini. But the rest, even the Bentleys, aren’t even close to cutting it anymore, not unless they go way out of the MKAD, making sure to steer clear of the luxury dacha compounds surrounding the city. This presents a serious problem for most car owners, especially ones that stretched themselves thin buying. Had they known their ride was going to depreciate in respect value so quickly, would they have made the purchase?

So what’s a Russian to do when a car he’s paid top ruble for no longer stands out? Well, it seems that they’ve taken cue from their Mexican-American vato counterparts way on the other side of the globe and have taken to pimping out their rides with cheeseball paint jobs. But instead of bleeding Jesuses or nativity scenes, the Russians stick to totally secular motifs: leopards, lions, polar bears, fairies, sorcerers, butterflies, skylines of Paris, whatever. The average $10K they spend on turning their cars into cheesy Sistine Chapels on wheels is a small investment considering what they already spent on their cars.

About two years ago, The eXile examined the Shawarma Shuttle phenomena. Now, we’re taking a closer look at Russia’s most elite motortrend: the Beluga Bus.

Here’s an example of how the vatos do it:

And here are Russia’s top Beluga Bus mods:

This Merc will go perfectly with your tochka whore’s leopard print blouse.

So does this one.

Leopard print for the entire family…of whores.

This Hummer, done up with a portrait of Soviet spy Stirlitz in Nazi Germany,is ready to ride all the way to Tblisi.

Another Lion King motif (with 20 inch dubs).

And another.

If an SUV could wear stilleto heels and pole dance…

Here’s something closer to home: Russian noblemen on a bear hunt!


Contact Yasha Levine at

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