Russia past and present, from a historian in Cambridge
In the lavatory of a Georgian restaurant in north-west Moscow, there used to be a shiny poster of a red car on the open road. The sun was bright, the road was long and empty, and forest stretched on either side. It was the highway to your dreams, or so it seemed if you were already primed by vodka. Was this somewhere in the former Soviet Union? The tarmac was suspiciously pristine. You don’t have to spend very long in Russia before somebody tells you that the country has two basic problems: foolish people and bad roads (attributing the thought to Gogol).
Roads have always been necessary for the flow of people, goods and ideas. Their presence and absence reveal something about a country.
In the age of Gogol, rutted, unsealed roads, impassable when snow was melting, would make for uncomfortable journeys between towns. Mud-soaked tracks would cut villages off from the outside world rather than connect them with civilization. It was only after 1945 that the situation really started to improve. Lewis Siegelbaum, historian of Soviet cars and roads, shows that just 7.1 per cent of roads were sealed with cement or asphalt in 1940, but that 77 per cent were in 1960. In the early 1980s, the British travel writer, Colin Thubron, embarked on an unlikely solo drive around western parts of the Soviet Union. His descriptions feature the sinister and the bleak: between Brest and Minsk, there were checkpoints every twenty miles, while the road was ‘haunted by absences’. But his impressions were also romantic and filled with wonder. The main highway south of Moscow might have only been ‘a stubbly, two-lane scrawl’, but it still ‘lifted and fell in great calm sighs, flowing between fields of maize and birch forest’.
For all the occasional bursts of colour in Thubron’s sometimes melancholy book, roads are usually grey. Some of the most important things they tell us about Soviet life lie in dusty corners of the Soviet experience. During the 1950s and 1960s, the Soviet cityscape was built anew. Many old quarters were demolished in a process akin to slum clearance; new districts were created as the city limits were extended. Khrushchev had promised that the housing shortage would be ended within a decade. Faced with such an ambitious target, planners diverted as much of their housing budgets to new construction as they dared. Too little was left over to build decent roads and transport links. This had unintended consequences, as construction lorries struggled to get to building sites and housing construction was perversely delayed. And for a long time after they moved in, residents suffered a miserable commute to work. Building communism without building decent roads was, alas, impossible.