A tale of two niche car museums...one creative and clever, and one not
The plush and imaginative interior of the Retro Museum in Varna. Photo My Bathroom Wall
Within two weeks in June 2017 I happened to stumble on a couple of motor museums associated with car production in the Soviet era; one was the Retro Museum in Varna, and the other was the official GAZ Museum opposite the huge car plant in the Russian city of Nizhny Novgorod.
One was new, completely contrived and in a ghastly modern shopping centre, while the other was opposite one of Russia's most famous car plants in the former sealed city of Gorky. One was a crashing letdown and the other intriguing and top notch, but which was which?
Varna's central Grand Mall is the unlikely home of the Retro Museum. Photo My Bathroom Wall
I was in Varna as a guest of EasyJet on their first ever flight to the city, and as part of the itinerary, our guide took us to the unlikely Retro Museum. Located on the 2nd floor of the large and garish Grand Mall in Varna, it's based on the private collection of local businessman Tsvetan Atanasov.
In the Grand Mall you can browse Refan, Reebok, and Roberta Biagi; or the Retro Museum. Photo My Bathroom Wall
It opened in 2015 and showcases the car industry of the Soviet Union the Warsaw Pact countries of Eastern Europe from 1944 to 1989. All of the 50 or so cars on display are in full working order and driveable.
A wax Brezhnev next to a two-tonne V8 Gaz M13 Chaika. Photo My Bathroom Wall
The first machine you meet as you step into the deeply red carpeted 4,000 square metre space is a huge black and chrome Gaz Chaika with a life size waxwork of Leonid Brezhnev standing beside it. More than 3,000 Chaika's were built and were the limo of choice for the Communist Party elite - First Secretaries in the Soviet Union and abroad used them, and Khruschchev gave one to Castro.
General Jaruzelski and a lonely PZInz. Photo My Bathroom Wall
And this clever display theme is carried on throughout the large display area, with Nicolae Ceausescu standing next to examples of the Romanian produced Dacia, General Jaruzelski next to the PZInz, and Erik Honicker beside two East German manufactured Trabant and Wartburg. Even Fidel Castro gets a look-in standing next to one of Cuba's locally produced trucks.
A slightly Thunderbirds-esque Nicolae Ceausescu next to a Dacia. Photo My Bathroom Wall
Along the outer walls are also displayed lots of Soviet era memorabilia, in the form of children's toys, cameras, and even airline bumf from the days of Air Balkan.
A cornucopia of Communist-era cameras. Photo My Bathroom Wall
It's well lit, well presented, and definitely worth a look if you happen to be in Varna and have an interest in cars from the period, or happen to find yourself enduring an unusually rainy day.
A couple of weeks later and I was in Nizhny Novgorod, an important industrial centre 400 kilometres east of Moscow. I decided to use the 90 minutes before my train left for Moscow, to try and find the Gaz Museum.
In truth, since owning a Volga I had many times thought what it might be like to visit Nizhny. But whereas elsewhere in Europe there is interest in classic cars, in Russia I soon stopped mentioning the Volga, as it only ever solicited a weary shrug of indifference. Except for the Great Patriotic War - as the Russians call the Second World War, there seems scant interest in many aspects of their history inside the country.
The shockingly profound and remote Gulag Museum that I visited a few years back outside of the Siberian city of Perm has now been closed, and many important Soviet era structures are now in peril through neglect and disinterest.
Although my taxi driver spoke no English, I'm sure there was a glimmer of a smile when I said I wanted to visit the Gaz Museum - all the while pointing at a picture of my car on the mobile.
The Gaz training centre and car museum in Nizhny Novgorod. Photo My Bathroom Wall
It was 12 kilometres from the centre, and whilst you can't miss the vast Gaz factory, the driver's SatNav just brought us to a car park by the side of the busy road, in front of a few drab office blocks. Sportingly, he came with me and asked in one of the blocks for me, where the woman there gruffly sent us next door.
It was like no other museum I've been to. Outside were the words 'Training Centre' and inside a notice on the wall said 'Welcome to training centre'. It certainly had all the dreary hallmarks of a training centre, but there was a bemused human receptionist, and the taxi driver asked her about the museum. I mimed as back-up, and she beckoned me to go through the steel door to her side.
A less than inviting barrier to the museum, and a steel door by her side. Photo My Bathroom Wall
I half expected the metal door to be locked, but it wasn't, and I tore through and bounded up some stairs and across a hall, then through a small door. There was a simple cash office and I paid my 100 rubles.
In front the display area was poorly lit. Everything was in old display cases, and there was not a jot of English.
And time was running out if I was to make my train. I dashed through another door and downstairs past four woman in camomile-coloured overalls and head scarves. They were gossiping on frumpy maroon settees, with dusters and aerosols in hand,in case anyone important might appear at the top of the stairs.
Fusty display cabinets reveal little to the non Russian speaker. Photo My Bathroom Wall
The long room was crammed with Gaz cars, but there didn't seem to be any thought to the order, and there was nothing signed in English. But at least I'd made it, and so I raced along the sardine-packed line of cars, passing a Chaika and a cabriolet Chaika, before I found the one and only Gaz-24 mark I on display.
The sole Gaz-24 Mark I in the museum, of over one million made. Photo My Bathroom Wall
Considering the plant across the road made over a million of them, and that they were used by the KGB, the police, Soviet ambassadors abroad, and latterly taxi drivers, plus were rallyed, were converted to ambulances, airport ramp vehicles, and even for railways track inspection, it was a poor show.
I learnt precisely nothing from the museum, as the meagre signage was only in Russian.
I was crestfallen to see the museum looking so woebegone, but happy to have made it. I'd spent so little time inside that the woman in the cash desk waved her arms and shouted in Russian that the cars were downstairs. Then I burst back into the sunshine, and my taxi driver took me back into the city and to the train station.
Nizhny Novgorod has a impressive new football stadium at the confluence of the Volga and the Oka rivers, and Russia is making great play of it hosting the football World Cup in 2018, with Nizhny as a host city. Such a shame that nobody has yet thought to spruce up the Gaz museum with a more use friendly entrance and some English signage inside.
And for once I was positively looking forward to exiting via the gift shop, but there simply wasn't was.
One more thing...The Gaz factory has an unusual history. In 1930 Henry Ford struck a deal with the Soviet Union and 'exported' 300 workers from his Detroit plant to help build a new car making factory in Nizhny Novgorod. The city was known as Gorky between 1932 and 1990 as Russian writer Maxim Gorky was born there - it is now back Nizhny Novgorod. The plant was part of Stalin's first Five Year Plan to industrialise the Soviet Union and started producing cars in 1932. It became known as GAZ (Gorkovsky Avtomobilny Zavod, or Gorky Automobile Plant).
The Gaz factory main gate, Nizhny Novgorod. Photo Gaz Motor Company
The deal represented a significant leg up for the Soviet motor industry, which went on to produce the Ford Model A (as the NAZ-A) and Ford Model AA (NAZ-AA), and later the Chevrolet G506 army lorry. But the timing for the US workers couldn't have been worse. They arrived in 1930 and had just got settled when Stalin's Great Purge began, which led to many of the Americans - including their famllies - being arrested, deported, or disappeared.
The most famous of the unfortunate Americans was Victor Herman. He and his family, like many of the others who made the journey to Russia in 1931, held communist sympathies. He was 16 when his family upped stickes from the States; his father signed up for a three-year posting while retaining their US citizenship, which was part of the deal.
Another lorry counted off the end of the production line
Herman's athleticism was noted by the Soviet Air Force, who taught him to parachute. Then in 1934 he made what at the time was the world's highest parachute jump - from 24,000ft. But on the world record forms he put his citizenship down as US - and not the USSR as the authorities had wanted - and so sealed his fate.
His extraordinary 18-years in captivity that followed was written up as 'Coming Out of the Ice' in 1979 and was made into a TV film in 1982. Both follow the story of his arrest in 1938 for 'counter-revolutionary activities', his year being tortured in a local prison, followed by an even more brutal 10-year stint doing hard labour in a Siberian gulag.
Stalin died in 1953 and the gulag system began to creak. Herman was eventually allowed to leave Siberia, but not yet Russia, and so spent 20 years in various locations doing odd jobs, before finally being allowed to return to the USA in 1976. Hi died on the 25th of March 1985.
Varna Airport is nine kilometres west of the city centre and handled 1.7 million passengers in 2016. EasyJet fly there from London Gatwick and Berlin Schoenefeld. Most flights are seasonal - running from May to October - but there are year round flights from Sofia and Burgas with Bulgaria Air, from Vienna with Austrian Airlines, Istanbul with Turkish Airlines, and Moscow with S7Airlines.
Nizhny Novgorod International Airport is 3.5 kilometres southwest from the city and handles almost a million passengers annually. There are year-round flights from Moscow with Aeroflot, UTair and S7, from Minsk with Belavia, Istanbul with Pegasus, St Petersburg with RusLine.
Gaz Museum, Nizhny Novgorod; unsurprisingly there isn't a website for the museum. For info about the Gaz company now, see http://gazglobal.com/. For World Cup 2018 information, see Fifa 2018 and Welcome 2018