MOSCOW -- Oleg Kulikov moonlighted for months, saving every ruble he could to buy a brand-new car. Finally, he amassed the small fortune of $7,000 and triumphantly brought home a shiny red Niva. Within two weeks, the carburetor went out.
"I'm happy as an elephant," Kulikov, a 40-year-old Army colonel, proclaimed a few days later. So far only a bad carburetor!
For years, almost all Russian drivers were like Kulikov, supplicants so abjectly grateful when manufacturers deigned to sell them a car that they never dared hope it would actually run well. Those days are fast disappearing, and car buyers are finding themselves in an unfamiliar position: masters of the market instead of slaves to it.
Foreign carmakers are driving into Russia at full speed, in pursuit of what is expected to become the world's largest car market over the next few years. And consumers are encountering something they never expected: a choice.
Russian drivers once counted themselves lucky if they could lay their hands on a Zhiguli,(exported as the Lada), the ubiquitous, boxy little car based on a now-30-year-old Fiat design. In Soviet times, consumers didn't actually use the verb "to buy" when discussing car purchases; they used a verb that means "get hold of." That's because money was not enough -- you had to wait in line, usually for seven or eight years, sometimes 20, before you got the privilege of buying a car.
Everyone knew what thet were getting -- a noisy car, cramped and hard to steer, but very easy to fix. The easy repairs always have been cherished, because the cars break down constantly. Informed consumers thinks of their new Russian car as a kit, which they must take apart and reassemble before driving.
Masha Gessen, a Moscow writer, says new car owners typically know to take the car apart,oil all the nuts and bolts, then put it back together again.
"If you don't do it from the start," she writes, "after a few months the nuts and bolts meld into one another, becoming inseparable. So if you are not careful, next time you have to change the air filter, you'll have to cut the carburetor cover off with a torch."
She drives a Volvo.
For additional insurance, new owners have their cars blessed by priests, who traditionally performed similar blessings on carriages and animals.
Russia has tried to protect its market by imposing import taxes of up to 80 percent. But with car sales expected to reach 15 million a year within six or seven years (car ownership currently is 15 percent of what it is in the United States, where 8.5 million cars were sold in 1996), foreign manufacturers have not been deterred.
They have been setting up assembly plants within Russia and other former Soviet republics to avoid import taxes. The locally assembled foreign cars are astounding shoppers, says Aleksandr S. Arakelyan, who opened a Kia showroom in the back the Central Army Stadium last month, in a space that had housed a small supermarket.
"Their first question is this," says Arakelyan. "'Have we reached the level that in this country we can make such good cars?'"
The smallest Kia sells for under $12,000, with air conditioning and other luxuries that dazzle Russian buyers. The barebones Zhiguli starts at $6,000, but the more attractive one goes for $11,000. Many, many customers would rather wait until they can save a little more and buy a car like the Ford Escort, assembled in Belarus and costing about $13,000.
The competition from foreign brands is forcing Russian manufacturers to begin modernizing. The latest Volga -- the traditional car of officialdom -- has rounded edges that faintly resemble a Mercedes. Even the Zhiguli has begun to look less like a can of Spam and more like a real car.
Kulikov stuck with the cheapest Niva. The price was right -- he had saved $7,000 by working nights and weekends as a Persian translator -- and he wanted a four-wheel drive for hunting trips.
"Of course I'd like a foreign car," he says. "But this is what I can buy."
Car dealerships are opening everywhere. One big one, called Alan, operates from a fifth-floor walkup. (There's a winding ramp inside the building for the cars.)
Arakelyan hopes to turn his dank former supermarket, which now has about half-a-dozen cars, into a plush Kia showroom where buyers can select a car and then sit in a lounge watching television and drinking coffee while the car is registered or an alarm is installed.
Perhaps, someday, prospective buyers will even be able to test-drive a car. "It might get dirty!" one Kia salesman said in shocked tones when the idea was suggested.
Credit for the people
The big automakers like Ford and General Motors are counting on an emerging middle class for future car sales and they have tried to tap that new market by arranging for customers to buy cars on credit. Now most buyers arrive with stacks of hundred-dollar bills distributed among their pockets -- there are no checks here.