I have mostly sunny memories from my holidays in 1970s and 1980s. I was young, I was mostly lucky, and I didn’t know better.
Holidaymakers in the Soviet Union had to grapple with three sad facts:
- The country was enormous. For most people, the closest of the warm resorts was very far away.
- Resorts were few and located at the Baltic coast (sandy beach, cloudy days, cold surf, seaside towns looking like Europe), or Black Sea (sand or pebble, sun assured, crowded beaches, lousy food and accommodation, warmer bathing temperatures)
- The entire infrastructure of travel and leisure was shaped not by the eternal laws of demand and supply, but some suits in Moscow. These suits had their own ideas how Soviet people should spend their off-time. These seemed to hold a Communist conviction that people at work are good, and people who relax are not as good.
Every holiday was for us in so many ways a pinnacle of the year, emotionally, logistically and financially.
For most, it meant a challenge of spending many hours, or rather days, in transit. Imagine taking a train from the middle of nowhere in Siberia to a sunny beach in Crimea. This is how the majority of holidaymakers traveled at the time:
This image may help you better understand why Russia has produced the best cosmonauts and tank personnel. We excel in making the best packed in a barrel-sized space with a bunch of strangers without shower for days and even weeks: think the Trans-Siberian transit by train.
Some could opt for first class (only three other strangers to share your body odors and life stories with, not the entire carriage), or a plane.
To my recollection, a single 2nd class train ticket Moscow-Crimea was about 10% of an office clerk salary, train compartment about 15%, and plane 25%. Scalpers’ margin was about 50–100%, but as with the right connections could provide you tickets at the nominal cost.
For many, the travel was the ultimate escape bubble. A strange mix of anonymity and proximity on the Sardine Express turned even the darkest of introverts into gregarious party birds. People shared life stories, lunch packs and drinks with their new bunk buddies. You would meet most incredible people and learn life-changing stories in a way that were unimaginable before the Internet came around.
But the worst challenge was not the hardship of moving across the largest country on earth. It was getting the tickets. Standing in line for hours, a known substitute for the Capitalist yoke of demand and supply, often didn’t help. During the red season the most popular destinations were already booked long in advance by people with the right kind of jobs or connections. In the USSR parlance, a dismissive answer from a ticket clerk “There’s never been any tickets there” didn’t mean physical absence of transit to the destination. It just meant no booking had been available for retail distribution.
This is how I remember getting my holiday tickets:
The choice of the destination was defined not so much by your preferences, rather by the place where you worked. Resorts were owned by the government, its enterprises, or the trade unions. If you were lucky–or rather had the right job or friends–you could get a subsidized, or even free tour to one of the places.
This is a decent abstraction of what our resorts were expected to look like:
A cursory look at this picture may tell you some curious things. The body distance and the excitement of the couples on the photo suggest they are not married. Which is correct, those places were not family friendly. Only the most exclusive places could accommodate couples. (You got a separate room, but the marital requirement was on par with the modern Saudis: you were expected to document your relationship). And no kids! You had to find a place to stow away your kids. With some luck, in a similar place, but almost never close to your own resort.
And yet, the places were not particularly conducive to carnal pleasures. The holiday makers had to share room with strangers. Up to four persons usually shared a room. If you or your roommates scored a date with a view to the third base, an arrangement was needed to rotate the room for appropriate privacy.
At the same time, you got five decent meals a day, all inclusive (no alcohol), and often a kind of spa offerings. Think massage, mud baths, salt inhalation, therapeutic body exercises and other wonders of 19th-century convalescent and preventive treatment, with no extra charge. It all may sound like very high-class, if it weren’t for its typical echoing dungeon setting:
- If you didn’t have access to established resorts, you still had an option of “wild vacationing”. This Soviet expression didn’t imply drug use or promiscuity. This meant renting private accommodation. Someone could arrange it for you in advance, but many simply rented a room on arrival. It was more expensive, and quite substandard. Yet, it provided one of the most sought-after things so sorely lacking in our Soviet lives: privacy.
- Going “wild”, you also had to think harder about provisioning. Restaurants and diners were few, expensive and greatly varied in quality. Buying groceries and cooking at home was a budget option, if you were prepared to make the most of the scarce supply in the Soviet-era retail. To my recollection, sausages was the best I could find of processed meat. In order to buy milk, I had to get up early and stand in a line for half an hour or more.
- And then there was seaside camping. Contrary to what you may think, in the Soviet Union, this was the utter manifestation of affluent libertarianism. First, this required a car, which marked that you belonged to a small minority. Second, your banger needed to be decently tuned and maintained for the long haul. In the USSR, car maintenance was a real challenge, very expensive. Any breakdown along the thousand-mile route to the sunny beach in the private-car-averse Soviet was an outright emergency. And third, hitting the road with friends and heading to a place where we could find a solitary cove and luxuriate in the surf miles away from maddening crowds made us feel not only young and free – it made us feel almost American.
Here’s a short video about what “wild vacationing” in the USSR looked like. Soundtrack is in Russian, but from 0:20 and onward you can see a lot of happy Soviet faces.