SOMEWHERE BETWEEN TULA AND ORYOL, Russia — Paint peels down the sides of the GAZ-M20 Pobeda. The car also has a smashed headlight. But a spark of life seems to come from somewhere deep down, as if at any moment the other headlight could turn on and the engine would start anew.
More than half a century passed before the vehicle ended up here on Mikhail Krasinets’s field. This model was produced from 1946 into the next decade at Gorkovsky Avtomobilny Zavod (GAZ), the car factory in the city of Gorky, now Nizhny Novgorod. Pobeda means “victory” in Russian and refers to the outcome of World War II. After the war, a total of 235,997 units rolled off the assembly line. The curves that define the design follow the aesthetic ideals of the period. The car became a symbol of life in the postwar Soviet Union.
Everywhere one turns in Krasinets’s vast auto graveyard, one meets the gaze of the variegated and evocative car fronts. He has more than 300 pieces in his collection, which can be found — with some effort — in the Russian hinterland, somewhere between the cities of Tula and Oryol, south of Moscow. Numerous species lie like lazy predators on a savannah in this outdoor museum. From behind large tufts of grass, they peek out in various stages of decay.
The section for Moskvitch (for whom Krasinets, 56, was a test driver and rally competitor) is particularly large, but Krasinets also possesses a significant number of Volgas, ZAZs, and Izh-Kombis. These are car brands mostly unknown in the West. In the USSR, however, they were national treasures.
“Here it is, a Chaika, also called GAZ-13,” Krasinets says proudly, showing off the pearl of his collection.
“Chaika” is the Russian word for seagull. His affection for this rarity is not hard to understand. The Seagull was intended for those in the higher rungs of the nomenklatura and embodies the ultimate in 1960s comfort. This was general secretary Nikita Khrushchev’s favorite car, and it is easy to imagine him in the back seat.
“The model here is from 1961,” says the founder of this museum as he gets into the driver’s seat and places his hands on the ivory steering wheel. A red GAZ logo is placed in the middle, like a hypnotizing ruby. It twinkles and sparkles in the afternoon sun.
Ordinary Soviet citizens stood no chance of ever acquiring a Chaika, but this luxury model could be rented for weddings. Only 3,179 Seagulls were ever produced, making them much desired and highly valued among collectors today.
Krasinets’s passion goes back a long way.
“My interest in everything connected with the theme began to develop in the late 1980s, when I was still living in Moscow. I founded the association Retro-Moskvitch. It was a club where we dealt with the history of the cars,” he says.
When the Soviet empire collapsed in 1991, Krasinets set out to gather as many examples of Soviet automobile production as possible. In the 1970s and 1980s, millions of vehicles drove out of the factory halls in Togliatti, Izhevsk, Gorky, and Zaporizhia. The car industry here began back in 1929, when Henry Ford agreed to use his know-how to build the factory in Gorky. In 1946, Soviet car designers received additional input from the West, when large parts of Opel plants were dismantled and moved from Germany to Moscow as war reparations. In the 1960s, the Soviet leadership once again sought Western assistance, when it formed a partnership with Fiat in Italy to begin production of the Zhiguli, a car that in other parts of the world became known as the Lada.
But it is the GAZ plant in Gorky that has Krasinets’s attention.
“It was a glorious era back then when the plants produced Volgas, Pobedas, and Chaikas. There was a special atmosphere. These brands were made in a certain spirit. Today this feeling is all gone. There is nothing left. None of these models are being made anymore. But to try to maintain that spirit, I began collecting the Soviet cars. I’m a collector,” says Krasinets.
To have room for his collection, Krasinets and his wife, Marina, sold their apartment in the city and moved to the countryside in 1996.
“For the money I got, I immediately bought a lot of interesting Soviet cars, which were sold at that time in Moscow. We drove them here to save them. Back then they cost between 100 and 150 dollars. It is a ridiculous price. In reality the cars are worth much more.”
For nearly 20 years, Marina and Mikhail have lived in a house surrounded by hundreds of cars.
Their place is not easy to reach; it is a half-hour by taxi from the village of Chern, in narrow mud tracks probably impassable in winter or after a rainfall.
Increasingly, the often extreme summer and winter temperatures are causing the unprotected cars to decay. The Krasinetses are limited in their efforts to protect the collection, as they run the auto museum at their own expense and live modestly on the dacha. They charge no admission and survive solely on what guests donate.
“I work at no other place. We have no income except from what people give. Some don’t give anything, some give 100 or 1,000 rubles. I put the money aside to buy more cars for the collection. Only in three years will I receive my pension,” he says.
Mowing the lawn is just one duty of the museum director.
“My wife and I mow it 10 times between May and October. It is hard work, but if we don’t do it, the place will get fully overgrown,” says Krasinets, who dreams about hiring employees to help him run the museum sometime in the future. He also hopes the government will eventually recognize the historical value of the collection and that some sort of grant could follow, ensuring the future of the museum.