From 1936 onwards, Soviet citizens were granted a constitutional right to rest in addition to a right to work. However, this leisure was not, at least initially, intended to be “me-time”; rather, it was “we-time1.” It was intertwined with an official ideology of purposeful, rational rest. Sanitoriums were to provide “medically restorative” vacations so citizens could return to work with bodies fit and ready for productivity. Tourism existed to acquaint citizens with the diversity of Soviet lands, peoples and wildlife, in addition to providing recuperation from everyday concerns. Resorts offered concerts and political lectures. In short, vacationing was to be a means to an end: the creation of a new Soviet person. Any pleasure derived from your breakfast on the Black Sea wasn’t a designated end product – it was a byproduct of “rational leisure” done right.
However, as Diane Koenker reminds us in her book Club Red: Vacation Travel and the Soviet Dream, anything can look nice on paper, and things are rarely as straightforward as they seem. Soviet tourism existed in a paradoxical state. On the one hand, the state imposed an ideology of “rational leisure” and monitored citizens’ mobility via rationed access and a passport regime. On the other hand, consumer desires did matter – and trade union tourism administration (the Tourism-Excursion Authority) attempted to respond to it. Koenker uses the case of family vacations to illustrate this point. Family trips didn’t correspond to the ideal of “rational leisure,” since adult workers were supposed to vacation away from family, not with it. Later on, however, popular pressure prompted trade unions to incorporate family vacations into their packages.
Koenker also argues that the state’s collectivist ideology, when imposed onto vacation travel, actually helped to develop individual autonomy. In the eyes of a burgeoning number of vacationers, vacations weren’t just a means to repair body and mind, they were also for “pleasure, satisfaction, and self-identification” (p. 127). Soviet sanitoriums were on their way to becoming holiday resorts as early as the 1930s. After World War II, the medical dimensions of sanitoriums weakened or vanished, and vacation instead became an index of social prestige. It was a place to enjoy new experience, expand one’s knowledge, or perhaps begin a casual affair unbeknownst to one’s spouse.
An uneasy tension (or in Koenker’s words, an “uneasy coalition” [p. 91, 178]) existed between purpose and pleasure. If revitalization was the primary role of prewar vacation in the Soviet Union, then tourist travel with a distinctive element of pleasure came to play an increasingly large role after the war. These competing ideas of what leisure was “for” were neither fully accepted nor rejected. They melded together. The purposeful tourism of old, which emphasized performing physical feats and traveling by one’s own means to diverse places, was met and sometimes supplanted by the view that tourism was a relatively inexpensive way to experience a luxury spa vacation (p. 127). By the 1980s, Koenker argues, “proletarian” and consumerist tourism had converged.
It was also interesting to observe how vacationing was realized under a planned economy. Responding to a growing number of vacationers, the state significantly increased infrastructure between the 1960s and the 1980s. However, supply still fell short of consumer demand. The shortage economy constrained the system; it was too limited and inflexible to meet vacationers’ needs. There were never enough spots at resorts for everyone, yet not all spots were used: people would cancel at the last minute, and the seasonality of some vouchers made it difficult for their recipients to use them. Hoarding occurred in the echelons of union leadership. The travel voucher system, intended to prioritize heavy industry workers, veterans, pregnant women, and people needing medical care, was dysfunctional. Vouchers to the best spas were allocated in large numbers to well-connected party officials and the middle class. The tourist voucher system was similarly broken. They were not subsidized like travel vouchers, which made them too expensive for many workers to use. Peasants and agricultural laborers, who made up more than half of the population and possessed the least resources of all, received a fraction of all vouchers and had no other way to get them. And so it went.
Comparative perspective is a particular strength of Club Red. It focuses primarily on activity in the Soviet Union’s western parts, with forays into the Urals, Siberia and Central Asia. However, Koenker also brings Soviet tourism practices into conversation with those of the Western world. This is quite useful, as it helped me to assess norms and pratices on a global scale. Although the movement of Soviet citizens within and without the USSR was heavily monitored, its system of tourism and leisure did not exist in a vacuum.
Club Red convincingly demonstrates that the question of leisure under Soviet socialism is inextricably intertwined with broader issues of consumerism, insitutional dynamics, and the lived experience of individuals. Without discounting repression, it draws attention to other aspects of everyday life in the Soviet Union that might otherwise be overlooked. If you’re studying the history of tourism in the Soviet bloc, make sure to include Koenker’s book in your itinerary.
Club Red: Vacation Travel and the Soviet Dream by Diane Koenker. Pub. 2013 by Cornell University Press. Hardcover, 307pp. ISBN13: 9780801451539.
- A la Zamyatin’s novel We. I might’ve gambled on a pun and lost.