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Photos: Selling Soviet tourism to Canadians in the Great Depression

Soviet tourism ads from the 1930s portray a land of progress and plenty — but the reality proved starkly different

  • Aug 25, 2016
  • 475 words
  • 2 minutes
A1934 ad for Soviet tourism that appeared in the Canadian Geographical Journal Expand Image

Imagine you’re a Canadian in the 1930s, flipping through a newspaper or magazine. In between stories about persistent drought, the crashing dollar, riots and record unemployment, you come across an ad inviting you to explore a land in transition, a utopia defined by fairness and progress, where your currency still has value. 

The general mood of 1930s North America was a mix of despair, guilt and hope for a better future. The young, politically isolated Union of Soviet Socialist Republics recognized in this — and in the western world’s increased tolerance for socialist ideas — an opportunity to shape public opinion about the Soviet state and attract much-needed foreign dollars. 

Throughout the interwar years, ads by Intourist, Inc., the official Soviet tourism agency, appeared in publications in the United States and Canada, including the Canadian Geographical Journal, the early incarnation of Canadian Geographic. The ads position the Soviet Union as an exotic yet affordable destination, offering the adventurous traveler world-class amenities and a chance to witness unparalleled social and economic progress. 

Intourist was out to change the world’s mind about the Soviet Union and refute the hostile criticisms of the capitalist press. The Soviets believed that foreigners who witnessed the reality of life in the USSR would naturally conclude that the Soviet experiment had been a resounding success. 

Of course, the “reality” visitors encountered was tightly controlled by the state. Tour itineraries were designed to highlight Soviet museums, monuments and cultural performances, and travelers were swept quickly from one destination to the next with little free time to explore. All activities were overseen by an Intourist guide, who after 1938 was most likely an agent of the NKVD, the state security directorate. 

At the same time as Intourist was introducing the Soviet Union to the wider world, Joseph Stalin was cracking down on his own citizens. Throughout the 1930s, the NKVD carried out a series of “purges,” murdering or imprisoning in labour camps any individuals the increasingly paranoid Stalin saw as a threat to his authority, which makes the bracing and optimistic tone of the Intourist ads below especially ironic. 

The start of the Second World War forced Intourist to scale back its operations, but tours resumed in 1947 and continued under the auspices of the Soviet foreign trade ministry until the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991. In 1992, Intourist was privatized and still operates today as part of the Thomas Cook Group. 

Two 1934 Intourist Soviet Union tourism ads Expand Image
Two 1934 Intourist ads; both emphasize the value for money of a vacation in the Soviet Union. (Images: Canadian Geographic Archives)
Intourist ads from 1935 promoting Soviet Union tourism Expand Image
Intourist ads from 1935. Because the ads — and Soviet tourism in general — were a propaganda tool, they frequently focused on the successes of Stalin’s Five-Year Plan. (Images: Canadian Geographic Archives)
Intourist ads from 1937 promoting Soviet tourism Expand Image
Intourist ads from 1937, the peak year of the Great Purge, which saw an estimated 600,000 to 1.2 million people murdered by the Soviet regime. (Images: Canadian Geographic Archives)

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