The champagne socialist is the quintessence of leftist hypocrisy — a rich civil servant or politico, social scientist or concerned celebrity, who calls for less capitalism as he drinks a bottle of sparkling wine that cost more than someone in the lower middle class makes in a week. They run rampant in New York, L.A., and D.C. But before the champagne socialist became the classic labor-leftist, the classic labor-leftist lived in Moscow.
In the capital city of the workers’ paradise, the most devoted leftists lived the high life to which they felt their devotion entitled them. The hypocrisy of Moscow’s champagne socialists — her caviar comrades, if you will — was best on display in so-called ZiL Lanes.
ZiL stands for Zavod imeni Likhachova, which means “plant named for Likhachov,” which was the factory where Soviet officials’ limousines were made. The limousines were called ZiLs, and they stood out like sore thumbs. In 1986, when Chernobyl’s fourth reactor melted down, three men were ordered to climb its smokestack to hang a red flag; they were each rewarded with a rare luxury item: a bottle of Pepsi. So you can imagine how much attention giant black limousines attracted.
From the late Fifties to the late Eighties, ZiLs ruled Moscow’s streets — partly because they carried implicit threats of the Lubyanka, partly because, in postwar Moscow, few people owned cars and there was rarely traffic. However, for caviar comrades, “rarely” wasn’t good enough. So, in the early Sixties, Moscow’s main thoroughfares were repainted, with brand new rezervniye polosy — reserved lanes — running down their centers. Reserved lanes were driven on exclusively by senior Soviet officials, most of them in their ZiLs.
By the Eighties, regular Russians had started driving in large numbers, and a Guardian reporter named Martin Kettle described Moscow’s traffic situation as of 1985: “You can spend up to 20 minutes sitting in a lengthening queue on the bridge that crosses the main access road to the Kremlin. The lights are controlled by the Kremlin’s own traffic control centre, and other cars simply have to wait. About a kilometre farther down the same road is the Oktyabrskaya Hotel, reserved for guests of the Central Committee. They, too, have a traffic priority, and when the cavalcades are leaving the hotel while the ZiLs are heading into the Kremlin, the whole of central Moscow can grind to a halt.”
As of 2015, most of the ZiL lanes are gone — but not all of them. The modern Kremlin’s favorite ZiL lane remains, the center lane of the Kutuzovsky Prospekt, which was built to give senior Soviets speedy access to their country estates. It’s still there, and it still causes traffic jams. According to the BBC, “every evening, as Muscovites sit stuck in some of the worst traffic jams in the world, they can watch their leaders sweep past to their dachas.”
Of course, that’s life in a dictatorship, or in a Soviet Socialist Republic where everyone is equal, but some are more equal than others. American leftists drink their champagne, but with a government of the people, by the people, and for the people, ZiL lanes are unthinkable; out of the question in a country where no man is above the law.
On the other hand, last week, traffic on the Florida Turnpike was reportedly stopped for an hour to accommodate a presidential golf outing. It was a news story that surprised no one and attracted little attention. And that makes you wonder.
— Josh Gelernter writes weekly for NRO and is a regular contributor to The Weekly Standard.