Tourism’s Cold War, Part Four

Shortly after the death of Stalin, Intourist began sending package tours not just into the rest of the Soviet Bloc but also to Western Europe. The tourists on these tours were expected to represent the Soviet Union’s best features. To be selected for one of the limited number of spaces required (as Anne Gorsuch puts it) “exemplary credentials, a squeaky clean past, political connections, and (usually) previous travel without incident to Eastern Europe.” Lectured on proper behaviour before hand and equipped with guidebooks that directed the how to act as proper, serious socialist tourists, they tended to toe the party line. Occasional embarrassments, like lecturing Austrian hosts that Russians were the master race, were reported – with deep embarrassment – by the trip leaders.

“Fighting the Cold War on the French Riviera” (the title of one chapter in Gorsuch’s book All This is Your World: Soviet Tourism at Home and Abroad after Stalin), these privileged tourists were engaged but not seduced by the material and political culture that they were exposed to. Gorsuch concludes that access to the West and Western consumer goods affirmed the traveler’s privileged position rather than undermining their confidence in the Soviet regime.

What, then, about foreign visitors to the Soviet Union? Were they seduced by Intourist?

Shawn Salmon sets the scene in an article on Intourist in the 1950s and 60s with a the following anecdote. At the end of a tour, a young British tourist is approached by his Soviet guide. Already dressed in Western clothing acquired from previous tourists, the guide makes an offer for his shoes: first rubles, then U.S dollars. Disgusted by the crassness, the tourist rejects both, He simply slips his shoes off and gives them to the man. “I did not want his money,” the tourist says, “I wanted to show him that outside of Russia there are people who will do something for nothing, who despite money and who are not always seeking their own advantage. I walked away in my stockinged feet.” Clearly, this was one tourist – the poet and essayist James Kirkup, as it happens – who was unimpressed with the material and commercial conditions that surrounded him.

Intourists hotels themselves were not necessarily impressive. In All This Is Your World, Gorsuch describes the two finest hotels in 1960s Tallinn, Estonia. Known as the “Soviet abroad” for its historic architecture, coffee houses, and European atmosphere, Tallinn was a magnet for Soviet tourists and – after regular ferry service to Finland resumed in 1965 – thousands of Finns visiting the Soviet Union.

The city featured two major hotels which accommodated foreign tourists: the Hotel Tallinn and the Hotel Viru. Built just below the Old Town in 1963, the former was an “austere five-story building with a concrete canopy,” that Gorsuch describes as “the first example of minimalist modernism in Estonia.” Viewed with hindsight, it hardly compares to the modern American hotels springing up around the world at the same time.

The Hotel Viru, on the other hand, is one of the few Soviet hotels to have attracted some architectural analysis, even if the hotel is most famous for having a full floor of KGB listening apparatus for spying on the guests. Positioned in downtown Tallinn to take advantage of thousands of tourists coming across the Baltic Sea from Finland, the Hotel Viru was almost three times the size of the older Hotel Tallinn. The original designs were by Estonian architects Henno Sepmann and Mart Port, but the Soviet government made the unusual decision to contract construction to a Finnish company.

Completed in 1968, the Hotel Viru followed a similar plan to International Style high-rise hotels elsewhere. A two-part vertical tower filled with hotel rooms rose out a horizontal two-storey block that contained the public and service spaces. Andres Kurg, who contributed a case study on the Viru to an academic collection on hotel lobbies and lounges, compares the hotel to Lever House in New York – for its asymmetric positioning of the tower and its open courtyard – and the SAS Hotel in Copenhagen – which also combined its lobby, lounges, and restaurant in a single, continuous space. Separated from the surrounding buildings by a park on one side and a public square on the other, the Hotel Viru isolated its international tourists and made them easy to monitor. A separate entrance to the restaurant for locals highlighted the separation.

Though its dominant position in the centre of Tallinn made the Viru into an de facto exemplar of Soviet modernity and its Finnish construction meant it was far better finished than the average Soviet hotel, the bland International Style still makes a poor comparison with the top tier of Western hotel design.

By the time the Viru was completed, Intourist had also undergone its own transformation. Expectations that tourism could help solve the Soviet balance-of-payments problem meant that the organizations was increasingly focused on separating guests from their hard currency. By the mid-1960s, Intourist was selling souvenirs and stocking bars in its hotels with imported wines and liquor. Western cocktails like Manhattans and Martinis displaced local specialties, and upselling (“additional services,” or dopolnitel’nye uslugi) became the organization’s byword. Creating an American consumer experience within the Soviet Union was the goal, if that was what would attract the most dollars.

The problem was that Intourist was unprepared to identify and meet foreign tourist’s needs. Worse yet, for many foreign visitors it was the primitiveness of Soviet hospitality that was the attraction. Salmon reports the American journalist James Robinson’s observation, “I bought two different brands of safety razor blades at the little kiosk [at the hotel] … Both kinds have rough jagged edges and are much worse than the used blades which Americans discard. Russian blades will make good souvenirs.” The Soviet Union was desirable as a destination precisely because its consumer goods were undesirable. In both Kirkup and Robinson’s stories, the Soviet Union was providing the chance to experience moral and material superiority. That was almost the exact opposite of what Intourist had been created to nurture.

On the other hand, the Soviets were good enough in one field not only to make inroads into the Western tourist market, but to make even geopolitical analysts anxious. What field was that? The cruise ship.

Forward to Part Five
Back to Part Three

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