ABSTRACT

In a recent book about the 1968 Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia, Leonid Shinkarev mentions a little-known fact about Soviet attempts to deal with the crisis a few months before the involvement of the army. In May of that year, the KGB authorised the dispatch to the politically troubled country of thirty Soviet spies who, under the guise of western tourists, were expected to infiltrate the counter-revolutionary forces. ‘People from the West’, Moscow reasoned, would surely earn the trouble-makers’ trust a lot faster than certain ‘neighbours from eastern Europe’, and could successfully help to uncover and thwart future conspiracies. 1 The anecdote allegorises the wide-ranging Soviet use of travel and tourism as official ideological tools. Never intended or experienced as purely a ‘leisure activity’, as a simple means of taking the traveller to ‘sites outside the normal places of residence or work’, sovetskii turizm was a ‘ritual of reassurance for the state’, a powerful propaganda weapon meant to confirm the Soviet citizens’ perception of themselves as politically and culturally superior to the peoples of visited lands. 2 The act of ‘spying on the other’ promoted the military, psychological and physical betterment of the self, and was an implicit part of the job of the conscientious traveller both within and beyond the actual borders of Soviet Russia. 3 The KGB’s choice of cover for its agents following the events of the Prague Spring thus serves as an explicit reification of the symbolic meaning of the act of touring other cultures in the eastern bloc.