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The Enduring Legacy of the Lada

Credit: Lada Archive

It was the height of the Cold War. Scientists on both sides of the Atlantic were building bigger and more powerful rockets. The Soviet Union had just sent the first human to space. Space was the next frontier. Cars, by comparison, seemed archaic. But, for the USSR, a Soviet mass-produced car was a matter of national pride.

Italy to the rescue

In 1966, the Soviet government entered into a partnership with the Italian car manufacturer, Fiat, to create the Lada. Modelled on the Fiat-124, the Soviet version had to be significantly reworked to handle the harsh terrains and freezing winters of the USSR. The result was the Lada 2101, a car that would become an icon for drivers around the world..  

The first Lada rolled off the AvtoVAZ manufacturing line in 1970. Unlike the Model T, it came in two colours, blue and red - the patriotic colours of the RSFSR flag. The car was an instant hit. The keys to its success were its affordability, reliability, and simplicity. Even when it did break down, it could easily be repaired by its owner in their own garage. The wait list was several years, unless you knew someone high up in the government. Despite the wait list, AvtoVAZ launched its first advertising campaign later that year. The results are simply spectacular. 

Credit: Lada Archive

A car for the rural areas

A year later, the designers at AutoVAZ were given the directive by the Premier of the Soviet Union to design a truck for rural areas. Like the original Lada 2101, the Lada Niva’s clamshell hood and rear three-quarter section leaned heavily on another Fiat design, the 127. Before entering production in 1977, the Niva was put to the test. It was driven through the Ural Mountains, across the barren and lunar landscapes of Siberia, as well as vast deserts of Kazakhstan. It not only survived, but thrived.  

Like the original Lada 2101, it was also a hit. It captured more than 40% of Europe’s 4x4 market. The Lada brand became one of the Soviet Union’s most profitable and renown exports. The cars which were “made for export were of superior quality compared to those made for the Soviet market”. They were made of thickened metal, had a reinforced transmission and a better battery. “In 2002, it was awarded zero stars out of a possible four by the Russian ARCAP safety-assessment program. The reviewer noted the very rugged body of the car as the only positive aspect in terms of safety.”

Note: I drove a Lada Niva in the Caucasus Mountains in the North of Azerbaijan. It is hands-down the most entertaining vehicle I’ve ever driven. 

Credit: Lada Archive

The Lada legacy lives on…

The Lada outlived the Soviet Union. Not just the cars manufactured during the Soviet reigne, but the brand too. With more than 20 million vehicles sold worldwide, even today it commands 20% of the Russian passenger car market share. The company was bought by Renault in 2017, who plan to revamp the brand. 

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Further Reading


Tetris: The Game That Challenged Soviet Control and Conquered the World

The state controlled almost all aspects of daily life in the USSR, including entertainment. However, everything changed in 1985 when Alexey Pajitnov created an unapproved computer game based on a puzzle game from his childhood. The game consisted of random pieces that players would rotate to fill rows, and when each row was completed, it was deleted. He named it "Tetris," combining "tetra," the Greek word for four, and "tennis."


East vs West: A Comparison of Soviet & American Cold War Posters

As the dust of WWII settled, the uneasy peace between the Western superpowers and the USSR was faltering. Tensions escalated as both sides built ever bigger nuclear arsenals. But, artists weren’t confined to the sidelines. They were fighting an ideological war, using propaganda to win the hearts of their own people and to sway opinions beyond their borders.


The Buran: The Soviet Response to NASAs Space Shuttle

On November 15, 1988, the Soviet Union's first reusable space shuttle, the Buran, launched in what is now present-day Kazakhstan. This little-known chapter in the Cold War space race saw the Soviets build their own version of NASA's Space Shuttle to challenge the USA for space supremacy. The Buran, Russian for "blizzard", was once the future of the Soviet space program. But, its first flight was also its last. A year after its launch, the Berlin Wall fell and the USSR collapsed. The space shuttle program was suspended. In 1993, it was canceled altogether.


Not Lovin' It: The Rise and Fall of McDonald's Diplomacy

On a chilly winter’s morning in January 1990, hundreds of Russians lined up as early as 4am to try a McDonald's hamburger. At 10am, the first McDonald's restaurant in the Soviet Union opened its doors in Moscow's Pushkin Square. 32 years later, McDonald's closed all of its 847 stores in Russia and left for good. It was the end of an era and the death of Hamburger Diplomacy.
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