CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — The Soviet Union had its Gulag. It also had its seaside resorts.
Sochi benefits from a mild climate. Its rock beaches give vacationers a place to take in the sun. In earlier days, sunbathing was considered a medical procedure and was supervised by medical personnel. | Photo by Diane Koenker
The same government that threw its citizens into labor camps also gave them vacations and places to spend them, some of them lavish, University of Illinois history professor and chair Diane Koenker says in a new book.
The most lavish of them all was Sochi, the Black Sea coast city hosting the 2014 Winter Olympics, and it was a focus of research for “Club Red: Vacation Travel and the Soviet Dream,” published in May by Cornell University Press.
Koenker’s history of Soviet vacationing and tourism does not dismiss the darker aspects of the country’s history, but it does supply a side largely unexplored. It shows a regime that envisioned vacation as part of “the good life” under communism, and a regime attempting to respond to consumer demand, even if slowly, and falling far short.
It also shows a different aspect of the state’s relationship with its citizens, which may have contributed to citizen loyalty and the resilience of the regime, Koenker said.
Perhaps most surprising, and a paradox at the heart of the book, is how an authoritarian and collectivist state used vacation and tourism to celebrate the individual.
“The regime encouraged people to travel, and by traveling, to develop independence and self-reliance and kind of an autonomous personhood,” Koenker said. “We think of the regime as being controlling and wanting to limit everybody’s possibilities. In fact the whole purpose of the promotion of tourism was to expand people’s possibilities and allow them to be citizens on their own.”
One example of this can be found in the years after Joseph Stalin’s rule, when many traveled outside the Soviet Union – mostly to communist Eastern Europe, but also to the West, Koenker said. In fact, from the mid-1950s to the mid-1980s, more people traveled abroad than traveled on official tours inside the country, she said.
By the 1970s and ’80s, maybe half the population was engaging in tourism, by that time mostly through unofficial means, on their own, she said.
The focus on vacations began early, Koenker said. Only five years after the 1917 revolution, the country was the first to stipulate in its labor code that every worker should have two weeks of annual vacation.
For the communists, however, vacation was first about purpose, not pleasure, Koenker said. It was there to aid workers in recovering from the toils of labor, and the emphasis was on rest and medically supervised treatments. (Sunbathing, for instance, was considered a medical procedure, and was monitored by medical personnel.)
Tourism was considered a separate category, often involving camping and strenuous outdoor activities.
Priority for scarce spaces in spa and rest facilities was placed on workers with the hardest jobs in the most vital industries. (Agricultural workers were almost completely left out of the system.)
The expenses were covered through vouchers, but workers officially could not choose the time or place, Koenker said. They also went alone, without spouses or families. Vacations were not designed to be family-friendly, though that would change in later years, very slowly, in response to public demand.
One result was a kind of hookup culture at vacation spots, stories of which Koenker gleaned from memoirs and other sources, despite the fact that sex was a famously taboo subject for Russians.
“The vacation was kind of this space of freedom to engage in things that one didn’t usually,” she said. Playing off the Las Vegas ad, she writes that “what happened in Sochi stayed in Sochi.”
Despite stated policy favoring production workers, the more-privileged and connected soon found ways to manipulate the system, Koenker said. “Somehow, starting in the ’30s and onward, officials and intellectuals always got the summer vouchers and workers always got the winter vouchers,” she said.
The well-connected also tended to get Sochi, the most-favored of the favored southern resorts along the Black Sea, Koenker said. It had mineral springs, a mild climate, a coastline and beaches, and a dramatic backdrop of the Caucasus mountains. And starting in the 1930s, under Stalin’s influence, it got special attention and resources.
By the 1960s it was home to a network of sanatoriums and rest homes serving the elite of Soviet society, and had retreats for artists and intellectuals, Koenker said. Its night life featured music, theater, film and a circus. Sports celebrities and cosmonauts trained and recovered there. And its lush settings made it ideal for many feature films.
“It became a kind of magical place, a kind of Shangri-La, depicted as the dream place,” Koenker said. “There’s even a saying today: ‘If only once in your life, everybody should go to Sochi.’ ” (See several photos of current-day Sochi here.)
This festive picture darkens when you realize that the same elite who took advantage of places such as Sochi were often the most vulnerable to arrest in political purges under Stalin, Koenker said. “What’s fascinating is the kind of parallel existence of this pleasurable vacation culture with the Gulag,” she said.
“It seems to me a contradiction that you can have both, but I think this is part of the history of the Soviet Union,” Koenker said. “It was not just the Gulag and it was not just coercion and suppression of free thought. There was this other side.”
Koenker is pronounced “conquer”; Sochi is pronounced SO-chee.