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Lucky turn put Russia’s Putin on road to riches

Russian leader gained tough winter-worthy car after mother won lottery.

Published September 21, 2012

With Team Canada alumni from the Summit Series being inducted into Canada’s Walk of Fame Saturday (they’ve also toured Russia, taken part in joint events and will be lauded at a 40th-anniversary dinner next week in Toronto), many Russians and Canadians are thinking back to 1972.

It was more than just a series of eight hockey games: it was a faceoff between democracy and communism, capitalism versus socialism.

And when it came to cars — the engine of Canada’s manufacturing might at the time — the choices couldn’t have been more stark. While Russians were driving Ladas and Volgas, Canadians were choosing between Gran Torinos, Mustangs, Chargers and Corvettes.

Russia is now a powerful and lucrative automotive market, but Russians haven’t forgotten their Soviet-era cars. And neither has President Vladimir Putin.

To most North Americans, the Lada Classic is synonymous with Russian automobiles, but a wide variety of cars existed during the 1970s: such as the Volga, the Zhiguli, the Moskvich and the for-government-officials-only Chaika. Few could own them, however, unless they had powerful Communist Party connections.

Putin says he acquired his first car, a 1972 Zaporozhets, by luck.

In his official biography First Person: An Astonishingly Frank Self-Portrait by Russia’s President, Putin was in his third year of studies at Leningrad State University when his mother won the car in a lottery. Instead of selling off the prize, she gave it to her only son.

Putin notes the car made his life easier and he drove it enthusiastically while studying international law, aiming for a career with Soviet spy agency, the KGB. He graduated in 1975, went to work for the KGB and 10 years later took up a post in East Germany as their “senior case officer,” whose main duty was to gather information on NATO.

One of the country’s most ubiquitous cars of the cold-war era, the Zapors even came with an optional hatch in the floor, which could be used for ice-fishing.

Manufactured by Ukrainian company ZAZ, the car was a cheap, easy-to-fix workhorse with rear-wheel-drive and a simple 41 hp air-cooled engine. It was tailor-made for braving Russia’s notoriously rutted roads and severe winters.

The car had a profound impact on Putin, so much so that he never discarded it. Decades later, he even showed off the quirky subcompact to then-U.S. President George W. Bush during a 2006 visit.

Of course, his automotive affinities also have a political motive. The Russian leader is often photographed participating in activities that show his power and masculinity. He also likes to strike a humble “everyman” pose: a man with simple tastes, in touch with the common, car-loving Russian. In election filings, Putin declared two vintage Volga M21 cars, which he inherited from his father.

Putin has seen the Russian auto market undergo profound changes in a relatively short time. According to U.S. Commerce Department figures, car ownership in Russia has risen by 70 per cent in the past decade. With a 39-per-cent jump in auto sales last year alone, Russia is forecast to soon overtake Germany as the largest car market in Europe.

With the rising middle class has come high expectations for better cars and better roads. Putin has pledged 14,000 kilometres worth of new roads by 2015 and increased traffic safety, although Russia still ranks well behind Western nations in traffic fatalities per capita.

The recent Moscow Auto Show was a telltale sign. Along with the Ladas, the concept crossover Lada Xray and the electric Lada Kalina EL, the show featured brands from around the world, eager to cash in on the booming market.

Putin remembers tougher days. He knows he was lucky to have had a car in his younger years, unlike a generation of Russians who recall what it’s like to walk in the cold.

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