The Soviet Union came to the cruise industry from a different direction than the West. In Western Europe, cruising was began as an off-season use for port-to-port ocean liners. Dedicated cruise ships tended to be older, less attractive liners, and purpose-built cruise ships were effectively unknown. The first ships built as single-class cruise liners were Nazi Germany’s Robert Ley and Wilhelm Gustloff, launched right before the Second World War.
Neither the Russian Empire or the early Soviet Union had a large passenger liner fleet, so off-season cruises weren’t the origins of the industry in the Soviet Union. Instead, Soviet cruising began as a proletarian mass tourism experience. River and coastal cruises were popular proletarian vacations both in the 1930s and after the war, when many of them were carried out on ex-German passenger ships acquired as war reparations. Liner service from Odessa to the Black Sea coastal resorts soon became a vacation in and of itself. In 1968, an eighteen-day luxury cruise cost as much as 230 rubles, more than twice the price of a twenty-day bus tour of the Caucasus and eighty rubles more than than a twenty-day Moscow-Caucasus tourist train. The Black Sea market was large enough to sustain major ship construction. The Soviets ordered five cruiseferries (car-carrying ferries with accommodations sufficiently luxurious that they qualified as a vacation in their own right) in the early 1970s to serve the Black Sea routes. When they were launched in 1975–1976, they were (briefly) the largest in the world.
Early postwar Soviet liners were also a necessary aspect of overseas tourism. It was ships like the Pobeda (“Victory”), which carried the Soviet tourists Anne Gorsuch discusses to and from Western Europe. Ironically, the Soviet liner experience was distinctly inegalitarian. The Pobeda had five classes of cabin, which led American travel writer John Gunther’s to comment that “if anybody still thinks that Russia has produced a classless society, he should travel on the Victory.”
Although the Soviets, Poles, and East Germans did build some ocean liners, a notable chunk of the Soviet liner fleet was, like the German war reparations ships, foreign built. For many years, the largest Soviet passenger liner was the Maksim Gorky, built as the Hamburg for the German Atlantic Line and sold to the Soviets in 1974. (As it turned out, the ship would host the Soviet delegation to the 1989 Malta summit, right as the Cold War was ending). Of the other eight large liners in Soviet service in 1989, two were ex-Cunard liners – the Ivernia and Saxonia – and one was the West German-built cruise ship Astor, bought by the Soviets in 1988.
By the time the Soviet Union was going on its Western-built cruise ship buying spree, the target audience was no longer Soviet citizens (who had been treated in the 1950s and 60s to a stream of movies featuring glamorous Black Sea cruises). Instead, it was budget-conscious European travellers who would book passage on a Soviet ship and deliver much needed hard currency. Just like Conrad Hilton took American luxury to the front doorstep of the Soviet Union (at least in his mind, and the minds of some Americans), Morflot (the Soviet Union’s maritime administration) was taking Communist (albeit European-bought) leisure to the coasts, or even the harbours, of NATO. And that made some observers unhappy.