Once upon a time there existed a party in Britain that sought to carry its members from cradle to grave, which offered holidays, youth movements, sports teams, choirs, orchestras, literature and poetry, theatre, funerals, and even mail order furniture. I refer, of course, to the Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB). More than any other political party – more properly, we should say, political movement – it has embodied the idea that politics is not merely a career, or something to write about, or even a vocation, but it is a way of life. Long ago historians were interested in the CPGB for what it said about politics and political theory. But that was in the days of labour history that emphasised institutions over individuals, party personalities over the rank-and-file (who tended to appear as a mass blob), and parliamentary victories (or not) in place of the grassroots construction of alternatives. These days things are a little bit more balanced, although it needed never have been that way in the first place – all the information needed to discuss the soccer clubs linked to Labour and the CPGB has been there for decades!
But that sounds a bit like a rant, which I don’t mean it to be. As with anyone who grew up after the fall of communism in Europe, it’s easy to ignore the realities of war in the Cold War and focus instead on the things that would have struck Kremlinologists and the cold warriors of the totalitarian school as a bit twee (or at worst, as wholly missing the point). So what if, as really happened, students in Swansea were encouraged through their student newspaper in the late-1960s to take a holiday behind the Iron Curtain, that hardly explains just how evil communism really was, it just shows that some people are gullible and propaganda does its job in all contexts. But as Mr Spock reminds us, using that age-old Vulcan proverb, even Nixon went to China.
The Soviet Union established its own tourist agency – Intourist – in 1929, although its staff were hardly your average travel agent being typically recruited from the security agencies (at first the NKVD, later the KGB). Unsurprisingly Intourist was seen as a rather curious cousin of western tourist bureaus like Thomas Cook, prompting that classic Cold War joke ‘Intourist is to tourism what indigestion is to digestion’. As with the cultural exchange and fellowship agency, VOKS, founded in 1925, these institutions were part and parcel of the Soviet Union’s attempt at building relationships with western countries as a result of socialism in one country (that is, ending the push for permanent revolution around the world). Intourist published brochures in a variety of languages selling the virtues of particular destinations identified as ‘tourist’ friendly – Sochi on the Black Sea, for instance, the Baltic States, or the classic Leningrad/Moscow double tour. The latter had the advantage of being accessible from Finland. But other places such as Ukraine, Belarus and Armenia were also advertised to foreign tourists. (A warning to readers, apart from the Ukraine brochure, the above are all in German.)
The brochures are design showpieces in themselves, describing the tours through the various socialist republics of the Soviet Union in the kind of dreamy, ‘exotic’ language that one might now encounter in a guide to Alaska or somewhere equally remote to everyday tourism. Take this passage from one on Estonia (the original is in German so my translation here): ‘We will take you on a tour of the Estonian Soviet Socialist Republic – a place with historic castles from medieval and modern times, farms with thatched rooves […] windmills [… all] in a landscape of poetic beauty, in the land of song, white nights, and of course the sea’. Sounds amazing, which of course it is, but it’s hard not to imagine a West German or Austrian tourist reading that and reacting with a degree of scepticism. The original brochure can be seen here.
The equivalent to Intourist in Britain was the CPGB’s own travel agency, Progressive Tours Ltd, which ran out of an office near Marble Arch in central London – it was run for a long time by Landon Temple, father of Nina Temple (the last general secretary of the CPGB) and had been largely subsidised by the state-owned airlines operating in Eastern Europe such as Aeroflot, Deutsche Lufthansa, and Interflug. For those traveling to the DDR after 1965, it was also possible to go through the DDR’s own travel agency – Berolina Travel, but it was not all that successful in encouraging Britons to travel to the DDR until formal recognition in 1973, when it became responsible for organising visas for trade union and party political delegations. Slogans such as Come to the GDR – See For Yourself, used by Berolina in the mid-1960s, remind us that institutions like this had the dual purpose of encouraging western tourists and cutting across western anti-communism. Another agency specialising in trips to the Eastern Bloc was Yorkshire Tours (originally Yorkshire Communist Party Tours) based in Huddersfield.
A typical holiday arranged by Progressive Tours is this one from 1980. MAY DAY in USSR 1980 reads the headline, before moving to explain the eight-day tour to Moscow and Leningrad over the May Day festival celebrations. Tourists were housed in trade union hotels such as the Hotel Druzhba in Moscow. Fourteen storeys high, the hotel was located in Moscow’s southwestern district on the Vernadsky Prospekt. As Diane Koenker explains in her book Club Red, the hotel had been built by the Moscow tourist council in the 1960s to provide modern accommodation for foreign tourists. The total cost of the trip was £178, the equivalent of about £700 today (well, actually less than that but I’ve rounded up), with tickets to the ballet, theatre, or Moscow State Circus on sale for around £4 (about £15 today). By contrast a tour to Bulgaria in the same year – albeit direct from Cardiff – would set you back £207.
Back home, party members and others who read the party magazines, could access a whole range of communist cultural materiel through mail order or in party bookshops such as Collet’s. Back in the 1960s, Collet’s – with its branches in London, Leeds, and Glasgow, and mail order business – didn’t just sell books but also sold (in its words) a ‘range of folk music records’ shipped in especially from the Soviet Union, Poland, Hungary, Romania, the DDR, and France. They even published their own journal dedicated to this type of music – Recorded Folk Music edited by the intrepid Albert Lancaster “A. L.” Lloyd, a key figure in the post-war folk music revival in Britain. Symptomatic of Lloyd’s involvement in this arena are two unlikely mid-1960s records – Folk Music of Bulgaria and The Music of Albania both released on the Topic Records label established by the communist Workers’ Music Association in 1939.
None of the above is really much of a surprise – often enough you read about communist holidays, I’ve written myself about communist soccer clubs in South Wales, and the idea of buying records and books through specialist left-wing bookshops is not really that shocking. But it gets rather better. For anyone who grew up in the years before the internet made shopping a point and click exercise, particularly from working-class households, the mail order catalogue was a common sight. I well remember my own mam buying things through the Kays catalogue in the 1990s and big grey parcels of clothes arriving through the post. Communists of a certain age may well remember the Star Market, which was physically based on Farringdon Road (near Farringdon tube station) but had its own mail order business too. All the profits from the shop and the catalogue business went into maintaining the Morning Star. I happened across a catalogue of theirs from 1978 today and it is a remarkable piece of communist culture (even kitsch). For instance, what left-minded home would be without a five piece Russian doll set?
There’s a more serious side to this, which is that the Star Market gave western consumers access to socialist goods such as Vega transistor radios made by the Berdsk Radio Works in Siberia and a range of Soviet-made cameras. For avid fans of the spiralizer today, back then it was possible to buy – for the not-too-shabby price of £5.50 (more than a ticket to the Bolshoi at any rate) – a food slice made in the DDR. You could also buy East German irons, hair driers, Czech vacuum cleaners, and a frankly rather dangerous sound device that you plonked into a cold cup of tea and it heated up directly in the manner of an immersion heater. ‘All appliances […] comply with safety regulations’ they encourage would-be buyers, but I’m not so sure such a thing is really that good an idea.
All of this poses a rather interesting question of post-war communism. Frequent complaints in communist countries were raised about the quality and availability of consumer goods, whether watches, cameras, radios, or more exotic non-everyday items. The availability of some of these goods in the west, as alternatives to ‘capitalist’ consumer goods marketed directly at communist party members and fellow travellers, perhaps suggests something about the priorities of communist governments in building up support outside rather than maintaining a happy society within those countries that were supposed to be building ‘actually existing socialism’. That may be an unfair judgement but a rather fine looking Sekonda watch sold by Star Market was less than £20 in the late-1970s, we can only wonder at the relative cost of one in Moscow or Leningrad, or even Tallinn, Yerevan, or Donetsk.
What struck me in encountering the catalogues, tourist pamphlets, and the readiness of party branches to book holidays to the Soviet Union, the DDR, and elsewhere, is just how much of it was about feeling part of a common transnational culture. The fact that you could sit in a house in, say, Onllwyn or Aberdare, and listen to music and radio programmes on a Soviet-made transistor radio, sleep on sheets made in Czechoslovakia, iron your clothes using a steam iron made in East Germany, and store nick-knacks in a box made in Poland, made communism seem like a real alternative to growing capitalist consumer society. Similarly, the very act of going on holiday from the South Wales Coalfield, West Yorkshire, or London, places that had libraries, cinemas, playing fields and sports clubs, and at one time had healthcare provision, that was all made and run by workers added to that sense of alterity that British communism was all about.
Any historian of the CPGB or the CP-I (that is, the Communist Party of Ireland) will tell you straightforwardly that its internal debates can sometimes be mind-numbing to read and to digest. But the British road to socialism was not just paved by dogma and ideological debate, it was to be forged by sharing in what was seen to be a common culture. And it was a culture that, for some at least, was bought by mail order.