Muscovite princes recognized that a reliable, all-weather transportation network was crucial for political control and economic development. Although the distances involved were immense, there were few physical impediments to overland transportation routes in the west. On the other hand, climate, permafrost, and relief combined to present major obstacles in Siberia. Initially, roads were constructed to bring goods and products to river ports and to maintain military control. Alternating frost, snow, thaws, mud, and dust hindered road development. Road construction materials were scarce in places. Geology, weather, and climate, along with low population density, slowed construction of a functioning road system before the Russian Revolution.
Overland transportation was busy only in winter when the ground was frozen or the snow compact. In 1917, the road system covered a distance of less than 18,000 miles (28,968 kilometers). During World War I, the Revolution, Civil War, and War Communism, the road system deteriorated. In 1928, the Soviet Union had 20,000 miles (32,187 kilometers) of gravel roads and only 6,000 miles (9,656 kilometers) of improved or paved roads.
Between 1928 and 1932, nearly 60,000 miles (96,560 kilometers) of roads were constructed, but road building in the 1930s was inadequate. World War II demonstrated the vital need for a good road system. This led Khrushchev and Brezhnev to make road building a high priority. By the mid-1960s, the Soviet road network had expanded to 220,000 miles (354,056 kilometers), but further expansion came slowly. Today, the country (which is about twice the size of the United States) has only about one mile of road for every six miles in the United States.
Russia's nearly 500,000-mile (804,672-kilometer) road system is terribly inadequate for a country of its size. The contemporary network requires improvements in existing roads and further expansion. There is a need for multilane highways and expressways to connect regional centers. Good roads are a key to successful development of remote areas. When built, they will increase individual mobility of Russia's population. The Soviet Union could not and sometimes did not want to pay to build new roads. Geographic mobility of population was not encouraged during the Soviet era. Russians tend to be much more stationary than Americans, who are extremely mobile.
During the twentieth century, American society and family life revolved around the automobile, while automakers were the largest employers. In Russia and other Soviet republics, that was not the case. Instead of being an integral part of life, automobiles were generally considered a luxury few could own. The situation, however, is rapidly changing. Russia adopted capitalism in the 1990s and cars flooded into the country. New millionaires and billionaires are buying the world's most expensive vehicles. Mercedes sells more of its highest-priced models in Russia than in any other country. Ordinary people are purchasing less-expensive models, from local or international makers.
Foreign automakers are eager to compete in the increasingly lucrative Russian market. In the spring of 2006, two heavyweights, General Motors and Volkswagen, announced the opening of plants in Russia. These projects are measured in hundreds of millions of dollars and will create thousands of new jobs. These companies join Ford and a number of European and Asian makers already present in the Russian market. Development of the auto industry will stimulate highway projects and toll roads in which foreign investors will gladly participate, because such projects are large profit makers. Capitalism is providing a huge boost in (literally) connecting Russians.