Trips to the USSR

Towards the end of the 1920s, as his power solidified and his parochial policy of “Socialism in One Country” became state doctrine, Stalin ordered the creation of Intourist, the USSR’s first and only official travel agency.

Intourist survives to this day — though in a more innocent capacity. Its name is a contracted portmanteau of Иностранный [foreign] турист [tourist] and its sole purpose was attract visitors to the USSR, especially from the West, whose intellectuals Stalin and his cronies were keen to court and dazzle with the wonders of the “new civilisation” they were building.

In London Intourist was headquartered in Bush House, a fancy and ostentatious building on the Strand (and now home, or part-home, to my alma mater King’s College London). According to a Spectator article from 1930, Bush House was the place to be if you fancied a tour of the USSR, with the article’s author ending his piece — ‘For anyone who can spend the time, and money, it is surely amazing to leave this colossal experiment unvisited.’

As with most endeavours through the Stalinist era, the Soviets deployed eye-catching artwork in their efforts to increase tourism and win advocates abroad for their “colossal experiment” — and it worked. Intellectuals from Britain and beyond visited the young Soviet Union (2500 in the first year of Intourist’s existence) and returned to write articles and books like Beatrice and Sidney Webb’s Soviet Communism: A New Civilisation?

Often the posters presented feats, particularly of engineering: in the examples above we see towers under construction, a burgeoning high-rise, speeding trains, ships, modern cars (and, come the sixties, space shuttles)— these are bumptious posters that consciously played on the “brave new world” trope that captivated so many through the mid-twentieth century.

A surprising feature of the Intourist posters is the effort invested in illustrating the diversity of the Soviet Union. There is a great emphasis on the variety of the Soviet Union — its disparate regions, cities, peoples, geography, languages and so on, bound together, however unwillingly, in this great “experiment”.

Intourist artists often saw in Russia’s breadth and diversity its chief attractions, and the posters could often shamelessly exploit the cliché of the “exotic” (see below) that thrilled westerners, especially those who might have fancied themselves adventurers. Around one million mostly wealthy westerners visited the Soviet Union between Intourist’s inception and the start of World War Two, and not just the major cities — tourists flocked to Ukraine, Armenia, Georgia and beyond along the newly-modernised railways (a consequence of the manic industrialisation through the early Stalin years).