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Driving behind the Iron Curtain: Cars of the USSR at the Riga Motor Museum

Soviet ZIS limos, Latvian RAF vans, Russian Moskvitch sedans and more at this excellent Baltic museum.

Geoffrey Morrison Contributor
Geoffrey Morrison is a writer/photographer about tech and travel for CNET, The New York Times, and other web and print publications. He's also the Editor-at-Large for The Wirecutter. He has written for Sound&Vision magazine, Home Theater magazine, and was the Editor-in-Chief of Home Entertainment magazine. He is NIST and ISF trained, and has a degree in Television/Radio from Ithaca College. His bestselling novel, Undersea, and its sequel, Undersea Atrophia, are available in paperback and digitally on Amazon. He spends most of the year as a digital nomad, living and working while traveling around the world. You can follow his travels at BaldNomad.com and on his YouTube channel.
Geoffrey Morrison
4 min read
Geoffrey Morrison/CNET

When it comes to car museums, there are a few things you can expect. Usually you'll see a Ferrari or two, probably a Lamborghini. Many have early Fords, and most have more than a few muscle cars. But a GAZ? Or RAFs, ZIS and ZILs? Ever seen a Moskvitch? If a museum has any Soviet vehicles, it's usually just one or two.

Not so at the Riga Motor Museum in Latvia. It houses an impressive collection of Soviet vehicles, built not only in Russia but Latvia as well. From the cars of everyday people, to the limos of the Politburo, the range of vehicles is impressive.

There's even a Rolls-Royce owned by Soviet General Secretary Leonid Brezhnev... which he smashed into a truck. Overall, it's a slick museum in an impressive building and a better presentation than many far more famous museums. Here's a look inside.

Soviet and Baltic classics at the Riga Motor Museum

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(Looking) back in the USSR

When I first arrive, I'm a bit confused. There are a lot of Porsches. At least a dozen in a small parking lot next to the museum. Most are new or fairly new, but none appear "museum" quality. Then I hear it. From the forest behind the museum there's the unmistakable roar of a flat-6 at full chat. Then, appearing on a narrow road between some trees, a 911 zooms past, only to disappear again. It seems the museum is hosting an event, with a small adjacent track offering up some thrills to the local Porsche owners.

There are no Porsches inside, however. The main floor is a step back in time to the earliest cars, including the only surviving Krastin, a company founded by a Latvian in the US, two years before Ford. Downstairs is a mix of trucks and vans, many built in Latvia at the Riga Autobus Factory. The RAF vans were used throughout the USSR. If you've watched the HBO miniseries Chernobyl, you've seen them.

Geoffrey Morrison/CNET

Upstairs holds the some of the most fascinating exhibits. Here, massive hulking limos of the Politburo contrast with the tiny, almost fragile-looking sedans of the working class. It's interesting to see how in early Soviet designs they so clearly "borrowed" from the West, but slowly developed their own styling language and unique design. Usually these were far worse than their Western counterparts, but not always.

Easily the rarest vehicle here is the 1966 Rolls-Royce Silver Shadow, gifted to Brezhnev and apparently one of his favorites. He was quite the car fanatic. In 1980 he was driving in a convoy with the more traditional Soviet limos, when a truck driver pulled out in front of him. Not exactly a nimble vehicle in the best of situations, and likely driven at the high speeds Brezhnev was known for, the Rolls hit the truck hard and destroyed the front end. In a fantastic touch, a life-size figure of Brezhnev, complete with his trademark massive eyebrows, sits stunned in the driver's seat.

And if Brezhnev isn't your thing, one of Stalin's ZIS armored limos is here too. Apparently they're popular.

Baltic Beauties

Seeing the vehicles that were popular, or at least common, on the other side of the Iron Curtain gives a unique glimpse into what life was like during the Cold War. While most of the world had access to state-of-the-art vehicles from the US, Europe and Japan, Eastern Bloc citizens had plastic-bodied Trabants and heavy, underpowered Russian sedans. Life for the average car enthusiast must have been rough. Though with no internet and limited Western media, maybe not? I'm sure there are countless stories of Soviet teens hooning their Moskvitches around a muddy backwoods road.

Geoffrey Morrison/CNET

As far as the Riga Motor Museum goes, what a treat. Not only is it filled with cars I'd only ever seen in photos, and many more I'd never seen at all, it's all beautifully presented. Each car has some basic info on an adjacent placard, and nearby LCD screens offer even more detail and history in multiple languages. The café cooks a good burger, too.

The museum is open every day except for major holidays, and entrance is 10 euros (about $10, £10 or about AU$20). If you're visiting Riga without renting a car, there are two bus stops nearby.

As well as covering audio and display tech, Geoff does photo tours of cool museums and locations around the world, including nuclear submarines, aircraft carriers, medieval castles, epic 10,000-mile road trips and more.

Also check out Budget Travel for Dummies, his travel book, and his bestselling sci-fi novel about city-size submarines. You can follow him on Instagram and YouTube