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Driving Across the Iron Curtain: The British Experience of Self-Drive Tours of the Soviet Union

James Howe | University of St. Andrews

It seems paradoxical that amidst rising Cold War tensions, in a period which saw the Cuban Missile Crisis and the U2 Spy plane Incident, there was a relaxation of border controls in the Soviet Union. The rule of Nikita Khrushchev lasted from Stalin’s death in 1953 until his removal from office in 1964. He oversaw a period of ‘de-Stalinization’ and reductions in repression within the Soviet Union. Concurrently, the USSR became open to ordinary western travellers for the first time since the 1930s. This article will examine one small part of this phenomenon, self-driving tours of the Soviet Union which were permitted from the late 1950s. This article will utilise the works of two British travellers who overcame bureaucratic hurdles, crossed the Iron Curtain and interacted with the Soviet state travel agent, Intourist. The first is Robert Bell, a travel writer whose By Road to Moscow and Yalta (1959) acts as both travelogue and instructional guide. The other is George Mair, a doctor and writer who recorded his travels by car with his wife in Destination Moscow (1960). 

It would be easy to dismiss contemporary works of travel literature as mere propaganda, with one-dimensional views either for or against the Soviet Union. What emerges is a much more complex picture, exemplifying the difficulties of the contemporary Soviet situation, as well as the racial and spatial diversity within the Union itself. These writers are not communists, Mair declares himself ‘too much of an individualist’, but he sums up the value of these sources, affirming that to understand the changes occurring in Russia, one must visit. Self-Drive tours allowed for travellers to slip through the Iron Curtain, across the Eastern Bloc and into the Soviet Union, whereas those who arrived by plane were restricted to the inside of airports. Bell even affirms that they as travellers were far less restricted than diplomats.

Numerous bureaucratic hurdles faced travellers before they left Britain, and these were higher for those who wished to travel by car. A visa had to be received for Poland, East Germany, Czechoslovakia and the Soviet Union. Bell recommends using an experienced travel agency in London to supply the necessary visa forms and give guidance on ‘ambiguously worded questions’. Mair responded directly to an Intourist advertisement, receiving no response. He repeatedly sent letters, eventually receiving a brochure and list of travel agents who largely knew less about the subject than he did. Mair theorises that the organisation vetted potential travellers using bureaucratic obstinacy, which ‘weeded out the casually interested’, leaving only ‘the cream of enthusiasts’.

Cover page of Intourist Map of the Soviet Union and Europe
Cover of folding ‘Intourist Map of the Soviet Union’ showing Destinations in the Western Soviet Union (1939)
Inside the folding ‘Intourist Map of the Soviet Union’ showing Destinations in the Western Soviet Union
Inside the folding ‘Intourist Map of the Soviet Union’ showing Destinations in the Western Soviet Union (1939)

British Travel literature records visits across the entire Soviet Union, including Siberia and Soviet Central Asia. Car travellers were more restricted than those using public transport, Bell provides an outline of the major permitted routes. Travellers were allowed on the main road between Brest Litovsk on the Soviet-Polish border, and Moscow, passing through Minsk and Smolensk. Before this, they travelled through East Germany and Poland. Mair terminated his journey in Moscow, whilst Bell took the extended route which headed south through Ukraine to Kharkiv and eventually Yalta in the Crimean Peninsula. Travellers left by the same roads but diverted through southern Poland and Czechoslovakia before crossing back into West Germany. Within cities, they drove around as they pleased. This demonstrates that although they were not wholly free, visitors moved across thousands of miles of Soviet territory independently. They did so under the watchful eyes of their Intourist guides.

‘Pictorial Map of the Caucasus’ Issued by Intourist (c. 1930)
‘Pictorial Map of the Caucasus’ Issued by Intourist (c. 1930)

These guides were compulsory and met their guests at the border between Poland and the Byelorussian Soviet Socialist Republic. Both writers encountered a taste of Soviet officialdom when first meeting them. Bell’s guide Anatole chastised him for being late, despite arriving on time. It eventually transpired that Anatole was undertaking his first job at Intourist, and could not direct them to a petrol station, a currency exchange, or even the road towards Minsk. Interestingly, Mair encountered similar criticism. Their guide, Valerie, said that ‘it is typical of your capitalist insolence that you keep people like us waiting for you’.

The presence of guides shaped the experience of visiting Britons. Negotiating with them and their established agenda was a continual challenge. Valerie, for example, told the Mair’s that ‘I am an Intourist guide and that you must do what I tell you… You must not go off on your own.’ She informs them that their sightseeing tour of Minsk will begin at 9 AM, although they had only arrived at 2 AM. After pleading instead for a restful morning, Valerie informs them she was ‘ordered to see that you take ze zight-zeeing tour of Minsk and ze zight-zeeing tour of Minsk you will take’ (sic).

The Lenin Mausoleum and Red Square (1967)
The Lenin Mausoleum and Red Square (1967)

The entire travel infrastructure of the Soviet Union was operated by Intourist. This ranged from the grand Moscow hotels to small canteens in far-flung train stations and airports. Despite this, travellers were not as restricted as it first seems. Bell reports that his guides finished work at 6 PM, after which they were free to explore cities unsupervised. Additionally, the writers both describe encounters with ordinary Russians on the street or in shops and restaurants. Whilst it isn’t unreasonable to suggest that visits to state museums or collective farms were intricately stage-managed, it is impossible to assume the same of every single person they encountered in Moscow. A good example is Mair’s visit to Uspensky Cathedral where he was loudly accosted by a group of young men. A passing woman mediated, determining that they assumed he was a ‘Western spy’ using his camera’s flash apparatus to ‘spread radiation’.  

The National Hotel, available to Western visitors, where Mair resided whilst in the city.
The National Hotel, available to Western visitors, where Mair resided whilst in the city.
The Ukraina, the tallest hotel in Europe.
The Ukraina Hotel, still the tallest hotel in Europe

Unlike other travellers who merely stepped off their aeroplanes in Moscow, Mair and Bell travelled the length of Europe, recording the differences they saw along the way. Bell directly states that circumstances in the ‘satellite countries’ differ substantially. East Germany was desolate and ‘hopeless’, Poland was filled with ‘an eeriness and a film setting of misery’. In contrast, he describes Czechoslovakia as retaining the ‘characteristics of Western civilisation’, with its peoples ‘gayness and vivacity’ demonstrating freedom from the ‘satellite mentality’ which he saw as widespread especially in Poland. Mair made similar observations, for example, favourably comparing the friendliness of Polish people to East Germans. He also notes that in Poland they rang church bells, something he never heard after crossing into the Soviet Union.

Travellers evidently expected to be monitored throughout their stay, and espionage is a recurrent theme. Though not unfounded, this sometimes veers into paranoia. For example, Mair notices a man loitering near his hotel who he immediately identifies as a member of the secret police, later he sees the same man reading in the lobby. Whilst attending a party at the US embassy, he confronted ‘his shadow’ only to discover that he was, in fact, Ed Gardner, an American comedian on holiday.

These works are indicative of both contemporary British society and the discourse on the Soviet Union within Britain. Their reaction to Soviet gender roles is perhaps the most striking example of this. Mair finds it worthy of comment that Soviet hospitals employed female doctors. Bell likewise remarks on the novelty of witnessing female labourers. When conversing with his guide Natasha, he questions whether her husband minds her working away from home. She curtly replies that even if he objected, ‘too bad if he did!’. Both authors also seize opportunities to report on private enterprises operating within the USSR, suggesting this was something they never expected. Bell affirms that ‘wide boys’ constantly attempted to buy the clothes of Western visitors. Additionally, small roadside markets were commonplace throughout their journeys.

Car travel allowed for deeper comparisons between East and West. Indeed, ordinary life beyond the Iron Curtain fascinated both authors. When visiting Livadia Palace, the site of the 1945 Yalta conference, Bell was surprised that visiting Russians ‘behaved as any group of holidaymakers in the Tower of London. Mair was similarly shocked to see Russians, who he assumed to be austere and dignified, behaving like a ‘scrum’ in Red Square’s GUM department store.

A busy day in Red Square’s GUM State Department Store (1968)
A busy day in Red Square’s GUM State Department Store (1968)

Mair concludes that upon publishing his book, he will be banned from the Soviet Union, whilst branded a ‘red’ by his compatriots at home. He affirms he is not a ‘red’, or even a shade of ‘pink’. However, he has a newfound respect for Soviet accomplishments despite disagreeing with their politics. These sources are of incomparable value to the study of contemporary Britain and the Soviet Union. Travellers from Britain did not simply act as empty receptacles to be filled with Soviet propaganda, and the propaganda they encountered was more complex than slogans and posters. Individuals working as guides, interpreters and officials for Intourist communicated this to their guests whilst acting as a direct point of interaction between them and the dictatorship. These works are important amongst the body of contemporary travel literature because of the self-driving tours they depict. Ultimately, their means of transport allowed the writers to undertake a comprehensive journey across the Soviet Union and its satellite states, exposing themselves to more of the internal realities within.


Further Reading:

Contemporary British Travel Literature

  • Bell, Robert, By Road to Moscow and Yalta (London: Alvin Redman Ltd, 1959).

  • Byford-Jones, Wilfred, Uncensored Eyewitness (London: Hale, 1961).

  • Chappelow, Allan, Russian Holiday (London: George Harrap Press, 1955).

  • Bigland, Eileen, Russia Has Two Faces (London: Odhams Press, 1960).

  • Mair, George B. Destination Moscow (London: Herbert Jenkins, 1960).

  • Philips Price, Morgan, Russia 40 Years On (London: Allen & Unwin, 1961).

  • Sillitoe, Alan, Road to Volgograd (London: W.H. Allen, 1964).

Secondary Sources

  • David-Fox, Michael, Showcasing the Great Experiment: Cultural Diplomacy and Western Visitors to the Soviet Union, 1921-1941 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012).

  • Gorsuch, Anne E. All This is Your World: Soviet Tourism at Home and Abroad After Stalin (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013).

  • Koenker, Diane P. Club Red: vacation travel and the Soviet dream (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2013).

  • Salmon, Shawn, ‘Marketing Socialism: Intourist in the Late 1950s and Early 1960s’, in Gorsuch, Anne E. and Koenker, Diane P. (Eds.) Turizm: the Russian and East European Tourist under Socialism and Capitalism (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2006), pp. 186-202.

James Howe is a PhD student at the University of St Andrews. His current research focuses on the history of tourism in twentieth-century dictatorships. He is writing his PhD dissertation on British travellers to the Spanish dictatorship of General Franco and the Portuguese Estado Novo. More generally James is interested in the history of everyday lives and travel which he occasionally blogs about.

Twitter: @JHowe1996


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