Tourism, Soviet-style

A friend recently came into possession of a set of 1960s tourist guides to the Soviet Union – there’s one for each of the 15 republics. I borrowed the Latvia guide, having visited the country in October and written my undergraduate dissertation about it back in uni.

Cover of Latvia guidebookThe Soviets were, it seemed, keen on tourism – presumably as long as you weren’t a spy and didn’t ask too many questions, and even then I bet they kept a close watch over you.

The book, published by the Novosti press agency, is a fascinating historical artefact and example of Soviet propaganda. It has, as you can see, a picture of a remarkably colourful-looking Riga on the cover, and goes into great detail about the country.

As you might imagine, it contains more than a little bias – the history section (entitled “Through Centuries to Freedom”) explains how Latvia’s short-lived inter-war democracy was usurped by “bourgeois nationalists… their regime gradually degenerating into a fascist dicatorship“, the people eventually turning to the USSR who generously agreed to the Latvians’ request to join the Soviet Union.

However, the guide goes on to explain, Latvia has since flourished, with a new Soviet constitution which “gurantees its citizens the rights to work, education and leisure, and the freedoms of the press, assembly and street procession” and “full freedom of conscience and religious worship“. Not quite how I recall the fascinating Museum of Occupation in Riga putting it.

It is faintly accurate, however, in its descriptions of old town Riga and the architectural heritage inspired by such cities as Paris. But the best bits of the guide are the great detail offered on the industrial and commercial development of Latvia’s economy.

The agriculture section makes particularly fascinating reading. For instance we are told that Latvian farms have “about 4,000 tractors, about 800 grain harvester combines, 1,300 lorries, 3,200 tractor-drawn ploughs, 2,100 seed drills, 4,300 cultivators, 1,900 mineral fertilizer spreaders and many other farm instruments.”

And if that’s not enough, “Today Latvia’s farms have 1,100 excavators, including 580 chain-bucket excavators, more than 700 bulldozers and many other machines, while the state bears the entire cost of soil drainage and liming.”

That’s got to count as one of the more original and detailed aspects I’ve seen in a guidebook’s country profile.

Lonely Planet it ain’t.

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