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Book review

by Susan Hillman

Turizm: the Russian and East European tourist under capitalism and socialism
edited by Anne E. Gorsuch and Diane P. Koenker

Published by Cornell University Press, 2006-11-16
ISBN 9780801444838

Turizm constitutes the first book-length examination of leisure travel in Eastern Europe, Russia, and the Soviet Union. Five contributions investigate tourism in capitalist Russia and Eastern Europe, followed by nine studies dealing with the socialist era. The editors’ well-crafted introduction provides the reader with all the necessary conceptual tools to help him or her navigate the individual chapters.

Despite the great geographical and temporal diversity covered in these pages, several unifying themes stand out. First and most importantly, the contributions reveal the innate historicity of tourism. Clearly, tourism is not to be conceived of as a timeless, monolithic concept but rather as occurring within a specific political and social context. The state’s role in the emergence of mass tourism similarly needs to be emphasized. Whether capitalist or socialist, the state viewed leisure travel as a practical means to transform the citizen and to solidify his or her national allegiance. Considering that leisure travel has been closely associated with the rise of the bourgeoisie, the intimate connection of tourism and consumerism comes as no surprise. Again, what is illuminating in connection with this particular theme is the fact that consumerism and consumption ‘transcended ideological and economic systems’ (6). The socialist authorities in charge of leisure travel were evidently aware of both the promises and the pitfalls of this sort of consumption.

This leads us to another key theme, in some ways the most intriguing of all: the crossing of borders. According to the editors, ‘the ways in which individuals seek to make sense of their experiences of voluntary border-crossings provide a powerful tool for understanding the culture of modern life’ (2). Though they did not undermine the regime’s hold on the individual, border crossings, whether in the traditional geographic or in the more elusive conceptual sense, opened up novel ways of seeing and experiencing that allowed the traveler to carve out a space that did not necessarily conform to the state’s project of purposeful travel or imperial mission. As such, the act of crossing borders, in some ways the essence of modern tourism, throws light on the limits of coerciveness and the individual’s agency in an inherently oppressive system.

The book’s first part deals with travel in capitalist Russia and Eastern Europe. It includes pieces like Susan Layton’s study of Russian military tourism during the Crimean war, Alexander Vari’s examination of nation building and tourism in Hungary prior to World War I, and Aldis Purs’ chapter on the Latvian state’s attempts to construct tourism and identity in the interwar period. Taken together, these essays set the stage for an investigation of the socialist period and, though they fail to form a cohesive whole, highlight important continuities.

The studies comprising the second part are of a consistently high quality. Diane Koenker’s contribution examines proletarian tourists under early Stalinism who were exhorted to admire a beautiful landscape in the proper socialist spirit. The result of such ‘purposeful travel’, it was hoped, would be the overcoming of the empty pleasures associated with bourgeois tourism and thus the creation of a conscious Soviet citizen. Eva Maurer’s essay on of mountaineering, ‘Al′pinizm as Mass Sport and Elite Recreation’, provides a useful case study of some of the predicaments inherent in proletarian travel. Previously an activity reserved for the wealthy, under Stalin mountaineering was democratized and incorporated into the broader vision of massovost′ (mass character and participation). To accommodate the growing numbers of would-be mountaineers, camps were constructed, which would not only serve their primary mundane purpose but also function as agitational base for the mountaineer/cultural ambassador and occasionally even as polling place to the local population. It will come as no surprise that the demand for these camps far outstripped the available resources and that there was a persistent shortage of travel vouchers. As a result, al′pinizm retained something of the elite character the new regime had been expected to overcome.

As one might expect, travel guides are a particularly fruitful source for the study of tourism. Turizm contains two studies based on such guides. Eleonory Gilburd’s essay on the Soviet travel writer Sergei Obraztsov who visited London in the 1950s and authored an immensely popular account of his experiences in the capitalist West can usefully be compared to Karl Qualls’s analysis of guides to Sevastopol. Whereas Obraztsov focused on points of communality between East and West and thus made Krushchev’s concept of ‘peaceful co-existence’ a reality for his readers, the authors Qualls studied were primarily concerned with doing justice to Sevastopol’s status as a ‘hero city’. In accordance with this vision, Soviet guide books concentrated almost entirely on historical sites and heroes and left out consumer-friendly information such as recommended restaurants, stores, time-tables, etc. In so doing, they encouraged a selective remembering of the past ‘based on the needs of the present’, as Qualls puts it (172–3). Interestingly, this has begun to change since Ukraine attained independence in 1991.

Two of the book’s most enjoyable contributions are Shawn Salmon’s ‘Marketing Socialism’, an examination of the Soviet tourist organization Inturist in the late fifties and early sixties, and Anne Gorsuch’s ‘Time Travelers’, an analysis of Soviet tourists in Eastern Europe who encountered a more advanced society than the one existing at home. Salmon’s discussion of the ‘very serious’ problem of bartending and Gorsuch’s equally priceless reference to Soviet working-class tourists in Eastern Europe dressed in greasy beaver coats, hats with ear flaps, and knitted underwear of a non-descript color are only two of the many instances that make reading these and other essays in the collection more than usually enjoyable. Anyone interested in the history of tourism and its connection to the modern condition can do no better than start with this splendid collection of innovative and well-written essays.