Registration Plates of Vehicles") were used in the Soviet Union for registrations of automobiles, motorcycles, heavy machinery, special-use vehicles as well as construction equipment, military vehicles and trailers. Every vehicle registration plate consists of a unique registration mark (also known as a registration number) embossed on a metal plate or a plate made of other materials. All vehicles were required to display the plates on the front side and backside, with the exception of trailers and motorcycles, which were only required to display one on the backside.
After World War II vehicle registration system in USSR required reorganization. During WWII many cars were mobilized for military needs and got army registration. After the war many trucks and passenger vehicles were transferred back to civil organizations. There were also many trophy vehicles that sometimes were running on the roads of Soviet Union with foreign license plates. In 1946 new standard of license plates where introduced in USSR.
License plates of 1946 year standard had two letters and four digits - black on yellow. Letter series identified region where vehicle was registered. However in most areas there was no correlation between letter series and region name.
In 40-s and 50-s privately own car was very uncommon. Therefore dedicated license plates series for privately owned cars existed mostly in large cities: Moscow, Leningrad etc.
License plates sizes: front plate - 385х110 mm, rear plate - 287х168 mm, motorcycle license plate - 210х140 mm.
Those license plates were issued until 1959, in some regions until early 60-s. In 1966 Government Automotive Inspection issued regulation that required to replace "yellow" license plates by ones of 1959 year standard. Not in all regions this regulation was strictly enforced. Some car owners resisted to replace license plates. Vehicles with "yellow" license plates could be seen on roads of Soviet Union in 70-s and even in 80-s. Currently it's extremely unlikely to see running car with license plates of 1946 standard.
1959 standard USSR trailer license plates had same colors combination and same size as vehicle rear license plate (293х174 mm or 11.5x6.8 inch), but only two letters and word “прицеп” (pritzep), which mean “trailer” in Russian. In most of regions letter combination on trailer license plates was same as on vehicle license plates, which usually was derived from the region name. In middle-late 70-s, when initial trailer license plates series run out of combinations, some regions started to use letter combinations that wasn't linked to a region name.
In 1959 new type of license plates was introduced in USSR. New license plates had four digits and three letters: white writing on black background. Most of European license plates at that time had same colors combination. First two letters in the new standard signified an area where vehicle was registered. Most of republics in Soviet Union had territorial divisions called “oblast” (province). Some republics, with relatively small population and no "oblast" subdivisions, had one license plate series for entire territory. In most of provinces third letter specified type of ownership: private or government. In USSR all businesses were owned by government. All trucks, buses, taxi cabs and special vehicles belonged to the government. Only sedans and small 4x4 vehicles could be privately owned.
There was no such thing like personalized license plates in USSR. However in most of provinces local authorities and communist leaders had cars with special series or special subsets of certain series. Such license plates guarantied more favorable treatment by soviet policemen.
1959 standard license plates had the following dimensions: car front plate - 467х112 mm or 18.4x4.4 inch, car/trailer rear plate - 293х174, mm or 11.5x6.8 inch, motorcycle plate (rear only) - 210х140 mm or 8.3x5.5 inch.
In USSR vehicles traveling to foreign countries have had to replace original license plates with special ones for the period of travel. Those license plates had same standard, but letters were only ones that have Latin transcription. Usually each province had special series for vehicles traveling abroad, but not always. For example, in Ukraine there was series common for entire republic. Not many soviet people had an opportunity to travel abroad, especially with their own cars. Therefore most of "foreign" license plates might be seen on trucks of the only Soviet international road freight transport company "Sovtransavto".
Lifecycle of a license plates was usually not longer then lifecycle of a vehicle. If vehicle’s operation was terminated license plates were returned to the local DMV (“ГАИ”) office. In case of change of ownership license plates were replaced.
License plates of 1959 standard came after license plates of 1946 standard, which had two letters and four digits: black writing on yellow background. This standard at the end of fifties run out of combinations. 1959 standard license plates were issued until early 80-s. In many areas of former Soviet Union you still can see cars with black license plates. Those plates not only identify vehicle registration but also symbolize entire epoch that gone forever...
The first attempts to hold accounts for transports driving through cities were taken in the 19th century to only prevent tax evasion by owners of horse-drawn carriages. Somewhere in the 19th century, every coachman and his carriage had to have a registration number which is only valid for a year, with replacement available only after the payment of the tax. In the 1890s, after the publication of the resolution on the admission of cyclists in traffic, bicycles were also subject to compulsory registration, as well as cars which appeared later.
There was no standard for the registration numbers at that time. Every city had its own plate format and color, and the background color of plates could vary from year to year in a single city. The plates were required to contain the digit-only registration number and optionally the name of the city, the year of issue, the type of the vehicle as well as other information as requested by local authorities. Plates for automobiles were similar to those for bicycles in appearance, only increasing the size 5- to 8-fold. Regular fixation points were not provided for automobiles at that time, so the plates were simply drilled to have two holes and suspended with ropes going through them.
In 1920 the first attempt to standardize vehicle registration plates was made. On June 13, 1920, a decree named "About registration plates" was published, which required all vehicles to install the frontal license plate on the left wing and the rear one on the backside. In 1927 the standardization has proceeded with the introduction of "Rules of the All-Union Registry of cars and motorcycles", which standardized the form of the plates, dimensions for front and rear plates, as well as those for motorcycles, the color and height of the characters, and the width of each character stroke, whereas the background color continued to vary annually.
However, these changes did not affect registration plates of carriages and bicycles, which continued to vary in shape and color until their cancellation, which in the 1930s for the carriages and until the publishing of a decree on the cancellation of registration of bicycles near 1970.
By the early 1930s the number of automobiles and motorcycles skyrocketed, with frequent trips from a city to another on "motors". To conduct a full registration of all cars and motorcycles across the country, a unified standard for license plates for cars and motorcycles came into force in 1931.
1931 to 1946
During the 1930s the format of plates never standardized.
Format in 1931
The first Soviet registration plates issued in 1931 has an "L-NN-NN" format, where L represents a Cyrillic letter and N being a number. Every registration is linked to a single vehicle, while motorcycle plates differ from those for cars in terms of dimensions. 2 license plates were issued to every vehicles: a frontal plate and a rear plate. Frontal plates for motorcycles were to be mounted along the front wing of a vehicle, while rear ones were to be mounted perpendicular to the rear wing. Registration plates for test-drive vehicles appeared later, which contained the word "проба" (proba, literally "test") on the top, with the first pair of digits absent, therefore forming the format "L-NN". Two major drawbacks of this format were later found, with the first being that the letter was issued in sequential order regardless of any situation, while the second is that a letter could stand for two sparsely populated regions, and on the other hand, a large city could possess a number of letters. These drawbacks caused the termination of this format in 1934.
Format in 1934
In 1934, a new replacement standard was set: the letter on the former design was changed to a digit, and there was the name of the registry, or "Dortrans" below the digits. There were at first 45 Dortrans, one for each region, under CzUDorTranse, or in its full name, Central management of highways and dirt roads and road transport at the Council of People's Commissars of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, and then after a reorganization of administrative pisions, the number went up to 52. The former format was considered temporarily valid and owners must change to the new format before July 1, 1934. The format was not strict, i.e. the number of digits is not necessarily supposed to be 5, and the name of the region could reach up to 8 characters excluding dots and dashed, which made it often writte in abbreviated form. Test-drive and transit plates remained their format, except that the name of the Dortran was replaced by the word "транзит" (tranzit, lit, "transit"), or "проба" (proba, "test"). The plates have usual colors in their public transport variant, but there were experimental numbers in an inverse scheme.
Frontal plate format in 1936
At the end of 1936 the format changed once more, with the beginning of the sequence switched to a two-letter code of the regional registry, followed by two pairs of numbers separated by a hyphen, which made it an "LL NN-NN" pattern. The code uses letters of the Russian alphabet except for "Ё", "Й", "Ъ", "Ы" and "Ь". There was a single-line frontal plate plus a double-line rear plate for each vehicles, with motorcycle plates bearing the same format, albeit in a smaller size. This difference existed until 1994. Trial and transit numbers also remained, which replaced the region code with the word "транзит" (tranzit, lit. "transit"), below which positioned a factory code.
Rear plate in 1936 format
Military registration from 1940 to 1960; note the arbitrary hyphening
Near the end of the 1930s, in coordination to the current format, there was also a so-called "уменьшенного" (umen'shennogo, literally "reduced") format: The plate was smaller, used a narrower and slimmer font, and the regional code became smaller, shifted to the top-left corner, with the numbers down-scaled. At the same time a single format was developed for trailers, but seldom given. Subsequently, this format became the basis for the next change.
Shortly before 1941, all military equipment received a number format different from the civil format, the "L-N-NN-NN" format. There was no system in military plates at all. Moreover, there are a number of documented cases of plate type violations, including arbitrary hyphenation, adding of stars or anchors, and even violations concerning format, such as plates containing 4 to 6 digits, with 4 digits often for motorcycles, but with exceptions.
At the end of the 1930s, the first diplomatic plates were issued. Based on the "reduced format", a single digit replaced the first pair of numbers, with a large letter Д in the upper right corner.
1946 to 1959
After World War II the registration went into chaos with cars that had lost documentation, "mobilized" machines, war trophy equipment, automobiles and captured re-registered vehicles. All of these had to be taken into account, which prompted a mandatory replacement of old license plates with new ones in 1946.
Front plate format in 1946
Rear motorcycle plate in 1945
Trailer plate in 1946
The new format was once again based on the old "reduced" format, only changing the color of the background to orange and the color of letters and numbers to black. Diplomatic plates used a different "Д-NN" format for frontal plates, and the Д on the top row, the digits on the bottom row for rear plates. There were also formats for trailers, which formerly bore the same number as the truck attached to it. The format for trailers was the same as the rear version of civil plates, only with the inscription "прицеп" (pricep, literally "trailer") next to the regional code.
At that time, there existed a white-on-black format which is to be assigned to business- and person-owned cars. Later, the color scheme along with diplomatic plates were put into use.
An interesting fact is that this standard did not concern trial and transit plates. As "test" plates were common in autonomous regions, plates starting with "00" or "01" were often reserved for them, and the transit plate produced in any form on paper.
Front plates for motorcycles ceased to issue in 1946, ending the trend in which all motorcycles, similar to cars, had to have two plates, of which the front plate was single-lined, and attached to the front fender.
Since the 1940s, large enterprises and car factories and car factories were allowed to have their own license plates for test-drive and internal transport, without leaving the territory of the factory. Some enterprises have modified their plates to conform to the standard, while others remained unchanged. For example, cars for internal transport within VAZ in the 1980s have registration plates similar to the Soviet standard, but the three-letter suffix was always the letters "ВАЗ". These plates could still be found in some modern car factories.
1959 to 1982
Civil vehicle format in 1960
Motorcycle plate of the 1960 format
Military rear plate in 1960 format
In 1959, a reform on the format of registration plates within the USSR began, changing the format to "NN-NN LLL", with the first two letters acting as a regional code, and the last letter simply being a serial, again in a white-on-black scheme. Plates for trailers, as in the previous format, received only two letters, both making up the regional code, with the word "прицеп" added next to it. The introduction of the third letter caused violation of plate borders in the previous formats, which is another reason for the reform.
Military plate of 1960 format
Trailer plate in 1960
In the early 1960s, military equipment were issued new types of registration plates, with the format almost identical to the civil type, but dropping the third letter (the "NN-NN LL" format). Contrary to previous formats where the letters and numbers carried no information on the unit that was issued plates, the regional code was organized by the Armed Forces of the USSR themselves, which is why military plates don't actually "collide" with civil ones.
A tractor plate of 1960 format
Trailer plate in the 1960 format
In 1965, two new types of plates were introduced specifically for tractors and tractor trailers. Previously, registration for tractors was not compulsory and motorcycle plates were issued to them while trailers were not subject to registration at all. The color scheme was inherited from the previous format as black-on-orange, but the indication of a tractor and a trailer has been shortened to "ТР-Р" and "ПР-П" respectively. Sometimes a tractor bearing a plate that has a white-on-black scheme could be seen, which was originally intended for military use. However, this distinction soon faded as civil tractors and military ones soon bore plates of the same format.
In response to a growing car market and the increasing demand of purchasing and selling cars from different regions, the oblong transit plate was introduced, based on paper. When registered, the car was given two plates which should be attached to the inner side of the windshield and the rear glass. The word "транзит" and "передний номер" (perednij nomer, literally "Frontal number") or "задний номер" (zadnij nomer, lit. "Rear number") was written on the top row, the second row contained the three-letter regional code (or the two-letter one for military vehicles), and the third row housed the four digits. The oblong metal transit plate was the same with the car, but the regional code contained only 2 letters, which were positioned beneath the word "транзит". This format does not distinguish between civil and military equipment.
Diplomatic plate, frontal, 1960 format
Diplomatic plate, rear, 1960 format
The diplomatic format received a change as well. The color scheme was the inverse of that of normal plates (white-on-black). Initially, it was the same as the previous diplomatic format, only with the letter "Д" moved to the first place (or to the bottom row on rear plates), but later on the Cyrillic letter eventually got replaced by its Latin equivalent, "D". From the mid-1960s onward the standard for plates belonging to foreign entities was in force, which sets the format as "L-NN-NNN", where a "D" in the place of L meant a member of diplomatic representatives, a K for correspondents, and an M for sales representatives. It is worth noting that there was a slight change for the plates beginning with M, which removed the dash between the letter and the first number. For example, "M51 01-10" where the first two numbers succeeding the M is the country code.
In the same year, three more variants were introduced, which replaced the regional code with the word "проба", "полигон"(poligon, lit. "Testing grounds"), "спорт"(sport, lit. "Sport"), or "милиция" (milicia, literally "Police"). The "Testing grounds" and "Sport" plates bore only one digit at the start of the number sequence, which were issued to vehicles meant for testing on the automobile testing grounds and for those taking part in sports events, respectively. All of these had their sequence drawn onto the board instead of embossed on it. Motorcycles belonging to the MVD initially had these three variants, but after a standard was introduced later, motorcycles from MVD began receiving regular plates.
Since this standard was introduced, all vehicles travelling abroad for a short period of time had to receive a "replacement plate" before leaving the USSR. The format of these replacement plates retained the white-on-black scheme, but the letters forming the three-letter code was restricted to those that coincide in shape with Latin letters, and special regional codes for exiting the USSR were reserved. These replacement plates were either valid All-Union or republic-wide. Upon travelling abroad one has to get a replacement plate from the traffic police (with the exception of those who had plates that had no special Cyrillic letters), and must hand the replacement plate over when one returns to acquire the original plate.
At first the switch from the 1946 format to the new format was not compulsory, but a decree issued in 1967 required all vehicles to replace their plates. Despite the decree, citizens were not in a hurry to replace the plates, and the traffic police didn't insist on this much either. In 1970, on the 100th anniversary of the birth of V. I. Lenin, a decision was made regarding restoration of order, which created a stir within areas of the National Traffic Police. One consequence of this spur-of-the-mind decision was the decision to terminate registration of all traffic police mopeds and bicycles. Before this, mopeds had a reduced size of normal license plates, and in a reverse format, and the plates for bicycles differ from city to city with annual re-registration.