By Fred Flintstone
The friendly, smiling gaiishnik who pulled over my pomegranate colored Zhiguli Pyaturka for an illegal left turn near Red Square was a little surprised when I displayed my American passport and driver’s license. Waving me off with a smile to my Russian wife and son, he asked “And how do you like your Russian miracle.” He wasn’t referring to my family, I bought my new Pyaturka, a VAZ-2105, almost three years ago for about $4,000 including all the extras – radio, undercoating, electric front door locks, and alarm. It’s a true proletarian machine, manufactured in a plant in Toliatti that was designed and equipped by Fiat in 1970 based upon their model 124. A Fiat 124 was the first car I bought with my own money after college. It’s a classic design, with large windows and simple operation.
There are other advantages to Pyaturka ownership –you really have to do something illegal to get stopped by the GAI, parts and service cost almost nothing, and if you have a breakdown it will take you about five minutes to flag down someone who has the know-how and tools to repair you on the spot. For a recent trip to Krasnodar, I left my Russian Miracle for three days on the Garden Ring near the Domodedovo Airport train, confident that it would probably be there when I returned.
Despite the advantages of Pyaturka ownership, this car is definitely at the bottom of the vicious Russian roadway food chain. In Russia, degree of adherence to rules of the road is inversely related to cost of car and its degree of blackness, the shortness of driver’s haircut, and exclusivity of license number. A Moscow driver can tell by the license number if a car is from the President’s or Moscow administration, militsia, or security establishment – or owned by someone rich enough to buy a number from these series. A black, 1983, smoking and beaten BMW with no license plate and dark tinted windows has the right-ofway over a Zhiguli. A shiny black, new Mercedes 500 with administration plates can drive directly into oncoming traffic, crush a Pyaturka like a tin can, and the Pyaturka driver will probably pay the damages.
True, I sometimes feel a little shy rolling up to Marios or a business meeting with a rich Russian in Zhukovka and a week doesn’t go by without our family discussing the benefits of a new car. But events bring reality – I pay 381 rubles for a radiator fan repair and new front wheel bearing including the mandatory pre-repair car wash, or I save 20 minutes of a commute by squeezing my scarred vehicle through a pride of Land Cruisers. In any case, we have become attached to our Pomegranate Pyaturka – and we cold never sell it.