Travel

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Travel

On August 15, 1961, East Germany began to build its "anti-fascist" wall, which was in fact an anti-escape wall, whose purpose was to prevent the active population from fleeing. This wall became the symbol of travel limitations delineated by the no-man’s land surrounding the Eastern-bloc countries – what Churchill christened the Iron Curtain. Not a single Socialist country’s constitution granted the right to go and live in another country. The 1968 East German constitution only allowed travel within East Germany – which was at least something compared to Rumania, or, even more so, the Soviet Union, where kolkhoz farmers needed travel authorizations (propiska) to leave their home county. Even business travel required a "temporary propiska." The Eastern-bloc countries limited travel out of fear that their citizens would never come back once they had seen the huge gap between the propaganda and the reality of "non-Socialist foreigners". Traveling to the "foreign West" ("Westausland"), as they said in East Germany, was a privilege reserved for those who were seen as "trustworthy" (Party members or people who represented their country well), or who had earned a reward, or for retired people who, in certain circumstances, were allowed to spend a few days in West Germany. The authorities would make sure that close relatives (spouse, children) stayed behind in the East, to reduce the temptation to defect. There were exceptions: Yugoslavia, of course, the only Socialist country that allowed its citizens to travel to the West without a visa, and, to a lesser extent, Hungary, which, starting in the 80s, let hundreds of thousands of people travel to the West, and wound up establishing freedom of travel in 1988. Yet most of the countries were well covered in terms of infrastructure (the means of transportation ranged from trains to helicopters and planes for the vast territory of the USSR);conquering untamed spaces being one of Socialism’s goals. But that didn’t mean Western-style tourism. In Russia, that meant travel organized for specific groups – like sports teams, for example. Another kind of group tourism: the Pioneers, who did a lot of domestic travel or visited neighboring countries, staying at specific inns or summer camps; and workers groups, which went to spas. These trips, organized by the workplace (holidays on Lake Balaton, the Black Sea, the Crimea, spa cures etc.), were "paid for" with vouchers, and stuck to well-organized and well-supervised itineraries and resorts. Individual tourism was frowned upon, and attracted suspicion. Even traveling to "brother" countries was far from easy. The authorities wanted to prevent uncontrolled commerce over the border between countries with radically differently lifestyles (the Czechs, for example, weren’t allowed to bring children’s clothes, washing machines or certain types of porcelain – all of which were in short supply in their own country) back from East Germany. Traveling between Socialist countries required a passport – and obtaining one depended on the authorities’ good will. The procedure was long and applications were usually turned down the first few times. There was also the problem of train and plane tickets, which were both expensive and in limited supply. Let alone the shortage of hotel rooms.

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Ah, the Black Sea…

Crimea, the Caucasus and above all, Odessa, were the Soviet peoples’ favorite holiday spots.

country: Soviet Union / year:

Crimea, the Caucasus and above all, Odessa, were the Soviet peoples’ favorite holiday spots. In theory, all workers had the right to 24 days off a year. Anyone who could get a"putevka," a sort of vacation voucher from their union, went to the shore. People would often take advantage of these vacations to go for a cure at a spa (which was included in the price of the "putevka"), to improve their health, which was being ruined by conditions in the Communist workplace. Spas were therefore considered strategically important by the authorities. Like everything else in the USSR, putevkas were rare as were plane and train tickets. Families would spend days in train in order to get to crowded beaches where they would lie in the sun packed in like sardines. Of course, privileges and favors existed there too.

Intourist – vacations in (workers) paradise

As early as the 1920s, Soviet Russia established systems for handling foreign tourists – essentially revolutionary activists and workers delegations.

country: Soviet Union / year:

As early as the 1920s, Soviet Russia established systems for handling foreign tourists – essentially revolutionary activists and workers delegations. In the 30s, the USSR set up infrastructures for developing carefully selected and managed international tourism which was exploited for political purposes. This system was re-activated in the 50s. But by the 60s, tourism to the USSR had lost most of its ideological purpose and had become common-place. Intourist and Aeroflot’s goal had become to flaunt the people’s enchantment with Socialism, from Moscow to the Far East. Ironically, commerce became the means to achieve this.

D.I.Y.

Anyone who hadn’t managed to get a vacation voucher, i.e. one of those famous "putevka," had to make do as best they could: renting a roughly furnished room, or even just a bed from a local, escaping to a tourist camp

country: Soviet Union / year:

Anyone who hadn’t managed to get a vacation voucher, i.e. one of those famous "putevka," had to make do as best they could: renting a roughly furnished room, or even just a bed from a local, escaping to a tourist camp (a sort of vacation complex found just outside most big cities, usually in the woods), renting a log cabin, camping out, or whatever else they could come up with… During the Brezhnev era, these escapades, which included extreme sports like mountain-climbing, rafting, kayaking etc., were a sort of pressure valve for young people. Facing a closed political landscape, values like courage, friendship, risk-taking, loyalty and helping others were prized and encouraged. Around a campfire, tunes by approved songwriters (Vissotsky, Vizbor Gorodnitsky, Kogan), were tolerated by the authorities, who encouraged this "free-spirited" lifestyle.

Friendship hotels

Considering all the restrictions on travel, the inauguration of a hotel, especially in a provincial town, was a major event

country: Soviet Union / year:

Considering all the restrictions on travel, the inauguration of a hotel, especially in a provincial town, was a major event. Don’t be put off by the subsidized-housing architectural style– that kind of housing was in great demand at the time. Formica tables, faded wallpaper, 70s-style interior decorating may look out of date, but they were all the rage for delegations of Hungarian workers and their entourage. These were also among the rare moments when citizens of brother countries could meet (more or less formally). After the Moscow Olympics, the gigantesque Hotel Cosmos (3,500 rooms, but it was almost never full) acquired a new aura. It began to attract foreign tourists – and their currency. But even there, the monotonous menus depended on what was available. And bananas were as rare there as elsewhere.

The Joy of Shopping 

When the Iron Curtain with Austria was abolished, 100,000 Hungarians crossed the border in a single day to buy refrigerators

country: People's Republic of Hungary / year:

When the Iron Curtain with Austria was abolished, 100,000 Hungarians crossed the border in a single day to buy refrigerators (by the Slovenian brand Gorenje) and video-cassette players. That day in 1989 proved that both Communist authorities’ fears about their citizens’ fleeing en masse and their Western neighbors’ parallel ones of an "invasion" of their labor market were unfounded. Hungarians took advantage of their new-found freedom of travel to get hard currency (which had previously been banned), which that allowed them to visit Europe and buy what they couldn’t find at home – and then take it all back. It was a time of change, when Hungarian state television could get away with doing a report about a privately owned jeans factory – run without Party interference – that was very productive. A time as well when Radio Free Europe was allowed to have a correspondent in Budapest.

The other world

Restrictions on travel to "foreign capitalist countries", which was reserved for the most trustworthy and deserving people

country: Czechoslovakia / year:

Restrictions on travel to "foreign capitalist countries", which was reserved for the most trustworthy and deserving people (and thus highly prized), meant that the options for tourism open to Socialists were fairly limited. There were only the brother countries – excluding Albania, which had become a bit of a loose cannon. Yugoslavia was open in theory, but was in fact considered somewhat suspicious, as it was a meeting point with the West (and its borders were porous). The Soviet Union was huge, but under strict control. Package tours with state-approved guides and hotels were encouraged. For private travel within the USSR, in addition to a visa declaring your itinerary precisely, you had to check in with local militia (police) every day. There was also occasionally the possibility of going to India or Egypt, which had close ties to the Socialist camp, Vietnam, or, for the most adventurous, North Korea. And then there was Cuba, the distant paradise. The number of "exported" and "imported" tourists per country, their destinations, date and length of stay, etc. were all defined by the State.

Hurray for holidays in brother countries 

A line at the border between Czechoslovakia and Hungary

country: Czechoslovakia / year:

A line at the border between Czechoslovakia and Hungary, a major tourist destination within the Eastern bloc. Hungary was both the most liberal country in the bloc and the richest (thanks to its "goulash socialism"), and it also had Lake Balaton, the largest lake in Europe, which was a popular tourist spot, among East Germans in particular. Hungarians recognized them by their cars, ‘two-stroke’ Trabants and Warburgs. In addition, at Balaton, a lot of Hungarians spoke German. Hungary was also the one place where East and West Germans could meet freely, without state supervision. Unlike excursions organized by the workplace, private travel required some foreign currency, as well as making the effort to find your own hotels, or more often, campgrounds.