May 18, 2019

The Pull of Stalin's Riviera

The Pull of Stalin's Riviera
Source: David Levine

Have you ever been to the Soviet Riviera?

Well, neither has anyone else. At least, it is not clear where the Soviet Riviera might actually be. But, in 1959, if you were reading a French magazine, you might have chanced across an ad beckoning you to visit such a place, promising golden beaches, lush greenery and chic fellow vacationers.

This, of course, was the version of the Soviet Union advertised by Intourist, the Soviet agency which marketed the country to foreign tourists.

Tours to the USSR
Let's Go Russia! (Source: David Levine)

Intourist was founded in the 1929, the year Joseph Stalin called a "great break," as the new Soviet regime was desperate for global recognition and, more importantly, foreign hard currency. Intourist immediately became a monopolist in the field of foreign tourism, and was responsible for bringing one million foreigners to the Soviet Union in the first decade of its existence, which happened to overlap with Stalin's worst purges.

Tours to the USSR
Signed A. Salensky '31. (Source: David Levine)

The images created by Soviet artists to market the new Soviet state abroad ran in western magazines, and of course did not mention any such atrocities. In fact, they ran against all aesthetic canons of the Soviet state, which by the late 1930s embraced socialist realism and declared avant-garde artists unpatriotic. 

These artists were asked to use the officially discredited style to produce extremely stylish ads portraying a parallel reality on the Soviet tourism posters. Some of these are on show at the Museum of Moscow this week.

"They tried socialist realism and realized that this won't attract tourists," says exhibit curator Yekaterina Popova. "The theme of the working man was unattractive, it didn't work in the West."

Instead, out came images of impeccably stylish women with flowing hair, shiny cars on perfectly smooth highways, white yachts and sandy beaches. The sandy beaches are prominently featured on posters of Crimea (perhaps this is meant to be the "Riviera"?), which in fact has no sandy beaches at all: the coast is exclusively made up of small pebbles, a strange inconsistency remarked by a New York Times reporter who described her fancy Intourist tour in 1979.

Sample posters and marketing (most from the site of David Levine)

The images construed an "ideal image of the country," says Popova. They look "bourgeois" and blend perfectly with the context of the magazines in which they were placed.

Once in the country, the foreigners were chaperoned by trained Intourist guides, who were provided with propaganda training and even clothing that vastly surpassed anything regular Soviet citizens could access or afford. Tourists only went on designated tours where Intourist facilities were available. Venturing somewhere outside this quite limited range of accommodation and politically-acceptable hospitality required ditching the Intourist guides, which some daring travelers managed to accomplish. For instance, US economist Frank Whitson Fetter created a fascinating photo archive made in 1930 Kazan, where he lived in secret, never recording the names of people he associated with.

The government invested large sums into bringing in visitors from America and Western Europe after 1934 and up through WWII, even offering trips to the Arctic and eventually hunting trips geared toward Americans (something modern tour agencies in Russia continue to offer).

The Intourist legacy is now in shambles. Most of the posters are in foreign private collections. The agency's central hotel in Moscow was demolished in 2002. The agency was then bought by Thomas Cook and now, 80 years later, is providing package tours for Russians who want to travel abroad. 

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