How large was the Soviet cruise industry? The fifth edition of The Naval Institute Guide to the Soviet Navy, published in 1991 just before its topic ceased to exist, credited the Soviet Union with a passenger fleet of 50 ships. One mid-1980s estimate of their earnings was $153 million in US dollars.
As their presence in a guide to the Soviet Navy suggests, some commentators saw the Soviet passenger fleet as a potential geopolitical threat. The Guide‘s judgement was relatively restrained. Its author, naval analyst Norman Polmar, wrote that the ships “earn hard currencies for the Soviet Union, help to capture trade routes, provide an opportunity for political influence, and offer the potential for moving large numbers of troops by sea.” Others were less sanguine. A writer in Marine Policy darkly observed that “Morpasflot cruise liners quietly carry home Cuban wounded from Moscow’s current colonial war fronts.” The idea that the Soviet Union’s cruise ships were an invasion fleet in waiting was a little more plausible after the Falklands War, when the Royal Navy transported troops to the South Atlantic on the liners Queen Elizabeth 2 and Canberra, as well as using the Uganda as a hospital ship.
When it came to the battle for tourist hearts and minds, though, how significant were Soviet cruise ships? Though they attracted plenty of passengers, both Europeans and Americans (at least until Soviet ships were banned from US ports in 1980), the standard of service was not necessarily considered to be high. The occasional defector leaping overboard – like Liliana Gasinskaya, “the girl in the red bikini” – was embarrassing, as was the occasional collision – the Mikhail Lermontov ran aground off New Zealand in 1986, the Admiral Nakhimov collided with a freighter in the Black Sea in the same year.
While the hard currency earnings were significant, Soviet cruise ships were, like Soviet tourist hotels, insufficiently prepared to win the tourism war. It was a stark contrast with the American model, with its shining Hiltons overseas, and even with Soviet domestic tourism (beginning, as it did, with far lower expectations and far more rigid alternatives).
A Note on Sources: Annabel Jane Wharton’s Building the Cold War Hilton was essential for the first international Hilton hotels. Diane P. Koenker’s Club Red, Anne E. Gorsuch’s All This is Your World, and their jointly-edited essay collection Turizm cover Soviet tourism in admirable detail, though they are hardly the only sources on the subject. In contrast, the Soviet merchant marine is still waiting for a good history of either its business or naval design aspects. Most of what I found was gleaned from nautical reference material or from general, mostly Western, cruise ship histories. For that topic, Philip Dawson’s various books have been hugely useful, starting (but not ending) with Cruise Ships: An Evolution in Design.
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