THE other day I joined my friends Tanya and Slava as they took a journey into the new Russia to buy a car.
If for Americans the automobile was always a symbol of freedom, in the old Russia, it meant privilege.
As late as the 1950s, the private car simply did not exist in Bolshevik Russia. The black Volga sedans that cruised Moscow's wide boulevards were the trappings of the gray bureaucrats who ran the Soviet Union.
Even when mass production began in the 1960s, cars were available only to the chosen - to Communist Party members and to ``model workers.'' The ordinary Ivan could only put his name on the waiting list and hope to buy his dream 10 years later.
But like many other formerly sacred icons, this too is changing in the new Russia. Newspapers are now filled with advertisements offering anyone with enough cash to ``come on down'' and pick up anything from a sturdy Niva four-wheel-drive to a Volvo sedan.
Nothing, however, is quite as simple as that in the chaos of Russian life today. Many car dealers are the province of the notorious ``mafia,'' as Russia's organized crime gangs are popularly known. In a typical scam, the buyer plops down his money, takes the car home, where the mafia boys promptly steal it back that night. In a short cut, they simply relieve the buyer of his money directly.
Hence with excitement, mixed with trepidation, Tanya and Slava set out to buy their first auto. We sought the help of another friend, Sasha, a 20-year veteran Moscow taxi driver, who accompanied us on our journey.
On his advice, they eschewed fancier choices for the reliable Model 2106 Zhiguli, a boxy four-door sedan designed by Fiat in the 1960s. A nameless firm promised a choice of colors, that it would come ``complete'' (which in Russia means the door handles are included), all for the low, low price of $5,500.
The address brought us to a large unidentified factory on a leafy Moscow street. As its anonymity suggested, it was one of Moscow's countless defense plants. Once shrouded in secrecy, now bereft of defense orders, they are desperately seeking new business.
We waited a half hour for our ``pass'' into the plant. Only three of us were allowed in - Tanya waited nervously outside. We were escorted through a winding series of sheds filled with lathes, with armored cars rusting nearby, until we reached a wire-fence enclosed lot filled with about 40 cars and manned by two young men. Later the car dealers explained that they rented the premises from the plant, which offered them protection from their mafia competitors.
The choice of colors was hardly generous - white or sea blue. Slava, trying to guess what Tanya would prefer, chose the blue. He opened the hood, checked to make sure all the parts were in place and ran the engine. A stream of smoke rose - no problem, one of the young men quickly assured us, just a leaky tube that was quickly sealed tight.
The boss, a 20-something ``biznessman'' in a double-breasted Italian jacket, with a cellular phone slipped into his inside pocket, finally appeared. The deal was consummated in an office decorated with car posters, a bare desk and a safe. Only after the cash - dollars only, please - was carefuly counted, did one of his cronies fill out the official bill of sale.
Back at the lot, deed in hand, Slava sat down behind the wheel and drove off out the factory gate. Tanya was beside herself. ``I can't believe it,'' she said, ``Just like that.''
Slava, fearful of car thieves, spent the next two days sitting and sleeping in the car, until the official registration was completed. A week later, Tanya, Slava, and their daughter went off in their new car to their summer vacation in Belarus, savoring the freedom of the road they thought would never be theirs.