Motorcycles & Motorcycling in the USSR from 1939 Book Review
From the end of World War II until the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, the world was haunted by a political apparition known as “the Iron Curtain.”
Sir Winston Churchill coined the term in 1946 to describe the Soviet-era policies that divided the western democracies from old Russia and its conscripted post-war satellite countries in the “Eastern Bloc,” which were then collectively (literally) called the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics—the USSR for short.
What went on behind the Iron Curtain for those years was largely shrouded in mystery on just about every topic—motorcycles and motorcycling included. What little information about anything that seeped out from the USSR we were assured by western governments was not to be believed—unless it was bad news for the USSR.
Having grown up in the final decades of the existence of the old USSR, it really never occurred to me that there even was a motorcycle industry or anything resembling western-style motorcycle racing or motorcycle culture on the other side of the Iron Curtain. At least, if there were those things going on, there was precious little coverage of it in the Western motorcycle press. It turns out that there was and it was surprisingly active, particularly in the later years!
In his remarkable new book, Motorcycles & Motorcycling in the USSR from 1939, author Colin Turbett pulls back the Iron Curtain on those shadowy years and tells a fascinating story.
In five superbly detailed chapters, Turbett takes the reader from those chaotic early days in the aftermath of WWII through development of a state-run motorcycle manufacturing industry geared to build bikes for internal consumer and military use to limited (to communist-bloc) export to the sporting and social aspects of motorcycling in the USSR all the way up to the collapse of the Soviet Union.
Turbett covers how the Red Army (as was the case with all the victors in the War) looted German factories of machinery and technology right down to motorcycle manufacturing infrastructure and carted it off to mother Russia. Whether that amounted to plunder or reparations depends on your point of view, but the influence of that captured material from manufacturers such as DKW and BMW was plain in post-war models.
Turbett explains how major motorcycle manufacturing decisions were made in a centralized government ministry bureaucracy—with dubious results for efficiency and product quality. Even which products were made where was subject to bureaucratic decree as Turbett describes:
“The plan for motorcycle production developed in the early 1950s determined that Kiev and Irbit would make the larger flat-twin machines, Izhevsk the 350cc two-strokes, Kovrov, 125cc and 175cc two-strokes, and Minsk, 125cc two-strokes. Other plants were designated to produce the smaller capacity scooters, mopeds and cycle motors.”
Turbett sheds light on inside details of the range of models and manufacturing that produced them and how, even after improvements in management, product quality lagged for decades.
Despite manufacturing infrastructure that was outdated and hobbled by mismanagement and ideology, Turbett reveals motorcycles and motorcycling had some vibrant and inventive chapters in USSR history. There were racing heroes, motorcycle movies and Turbett shows in images from his personal collection a whole lot of motorcycle events involving groups and individuals.
Turbett tops it all off with a detailed appendix that provides technical data on the various models produced during the years he covers in the narrative.
Whether you crave new frontiers in motorcycle history, find the old days of the USSR fascinating, may even ride, collect or find the bikes of the USSR interesting or just plain want a great read, Colin Turbett’s Motorcycles & Motorcycling in the USSR from 1939, is a great book with an unusual story to tell.
- Title: Motorcycles & Motorcycling in the USSR from 1939
- Author: Colin Turbett
- Published: First published in 2019, hard cover. 128 pages. Measures 8.0” x 9.8.” Hundreds of color and black & white images, diagrams and illustrations.
- Publisher: Veloce Publishing, Parkway Farm Business Park, Middle Farm Way, Poundbury, Dorchester, DT1 3AR, England
- Veloce Publications are distributed in North America by: Quarto Publishing Group, 400 First Ave. North, Suite 400, Minneapolis, MN 55401. Books can be ordered by e-mail at: email@example.com or call: 1-612-344-8100. See: www.quartoknows.com
- ISBN: 978-1-787113-14-5
- MSRP: U.S. $40.00 U.K. £25.00 CAN $53.00