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The Vodka Trail: Finnish Travellers' Motivation to Visit the Former Soviet Union

Auvo Kostiainen

Department of History, University of Tampere, Finland.
E-mail: auvo.kostiainen@uta.fi

From the 1950's to the collapse of the Soviet system at the turn of the 1990's the number of Finnish tourists to the Soviet Union grew steadily from a few thousands to 200000 - 300000 per year. The Finns were the largest Western nationality of incoming tourists. Keeping in mind the political relationship between the two countries, the background of the Finnish Eastern tourism is complicated. This aspect had an effect even on the tourist motivation. The sources of this article consist of archival collections, past and present personal recollections of the trips as well as literature. Motivations were studied from the viewpoint of curiosity, presuppositions and adventurous expectations. It came out that the neighbouring socialist society certainly was interesting and aroused curiosity, but t even attracted many ideologically oriented travellers. Large majority was, however, ordinary Finnish mass tourists going to the Soviet Union and especially Leningrad by chartered buses, and staying abroad for a few days. The motivations were thus dominated by curiosity and search for new experiences. It appeared that women travellers were interested in the culture of especially Leningrad. Men's motivation was more based on leisure and reacreational expectations. A small minority of the Finnish tourists turned into infamous "vodka tourists" and troublemakers.

Tourism and travel may be understood as a sequence of encounters and contacts. Duration, forms and places of these encounters may vary greatly and they may be effected by a multitude of expectations, motivations and images as shown in many studies on the forms and variations of tourism both from the theoretical and empirical points of view.1 There are scholars who stress the push - pull factors of travelling, those who look for the effects of attractions and those who look for more psychological explanations.

The World Tourism Organisation (WTO) presents the hierarchy of needs by the psychologist Abraham Maslow as the starting point for the discussion on the tourist motivations. From his theory derives the travel career ladder theory which tries to explain the multimotive travel and tourism. Several ladders of travel needs from the lowest ladder of psychological needs to safety/security needs to relationship needs to self-esteem needs and, finally, to fulfilment needs are working together, the higher level motivations including the lower level ones. In addition, one motive at a time tends to be dominant. The motivations may also change over time and across situations.2

The purpose of this paper into find out the motivations of the Finns who visited the Soviet Union between the 1950's and the 1970's. Since there is a special political, economic and cultural relationship between the two countries, a discussion is presented about the "normal" tourism of the Finns. Was it ultimately effected by some other factors? The research material consists of a number of selected published and primary sources of the research period both from the "sending" and the "receiving" side: The role of tourist agencies, their publications and other activities creating demand for tourism will not be discussed here in detail because it is a large topic worth a study of its own.

The term traveller is used here in the general sense, referring to a person who is going to a certain place. However, the traveller has the meaning of individual travelling whereras the tourist is a term for persons who use "industrialised" forms of travelling, in our case primarily persons who travelled to the neighbouring country by charter busses. (Cf. Kostiainen 1996, esp. 58-62) In the following discussion, the persons travelling to the Soviet Union for business or other work tasks, or to study are not included.

During our research period the number of Finnish tourists increased and finally reached the level of a kind of mass tourism. At that time tourism became a major phenomenon in all the industrialised Western countries. The Soviet Union of that time was the other one of the two super-powers in the world. Finland was under a strong influence of the Soviet Union while at the same time trying to maintain contacts to the Western countries. At the same time important developments occurred: the world was recovering from the strains of the World War, economies were advancing rapidly, the standard of living was in the rise, and political relations of the "Cold War" were gradually getting warmer in the sense that contacts between states increased.

The Soviet Union had been closed society in its relationship with foreign tourists, althougfi it had used foreigners visiting the country as a kind of a propagandist weapon towards the rivalries in the West. Now, from the 1950's and the 1960's the Soviet Union gradually changed the policies since the Russians understood the various possibilities that tourism offered to them. Also, with the decrease of political limitations for foreign travel and tourism, the Finns could afford travelling abroad morefrequently like many counterparts in European countries.

The changing elements of Finnish tourism from Finland to the Soviet Union may be summarised as follows: (See Kostiainen 1998, 46-47)

1. From about 1950 till the early 1960's - the change from individual travel towards mass tourism. The number of tourists varied in the 1950's from a few hundreds to a few thousands per year, e.g. in 1955 appr. 2500 tourists.

2. The basis for mass tourism was created from the early 1960's till the end of the decade. Thus, in 1966 there were a total 50000 Finnish tourists going to the Soviet Union.

3. Mass tourism of the 1970's and 1980's. In the year 1974, for example, 178000 (Cf. Tuuli 1976, 3) Finns travelled to visit the Soviet Union.

In principle, travel from Finland to the Soviet Union may be divided into two types; firstly, "official" and "semi-official" travel (delegations and friendship groups), and secondly, the growing number of ordinary tourists visiting the country.

The total amount of Finnish tourists to the Soviet Union, 200000 in the mid-seventies and 300000 in the late eighties, was not especially high in terms of international tourism. However, the Finns were the largest Western tourist group in the Soviet Union. In addition, the tourism to the Soviet Union was by nature quite heavily seasonal. The most active months of travel were from April to August, connected with certain celebrations and festivals. Most typical were the trips to Leningrad (St. Petersburg) during Easter, May Day celebrations, and the October Revolution festivities. The summer holidays in Finland naturally had an effect on the timing of the trips to the Soviet Union. Opening of the border traffic occurred also quite slowly depending on the political decisions as well as the capacity of lodging the tourists.

The Finns made around 10-15 % of the incoming foreign tourism to the Soviet Union, the total number of which was 3,9 million in 1976. Leningrad was in general the most important destination of the Finnish tourists. It has been estimated that about half of the Finnish tourists went only to Leningrad and its immediate surroundings. Moscow as the capital of the country and later, the Black Sea coast as a health resort also became popular destinations.

But WHY did they want to go to the Soviet Union? The explanations are many-sided as will be seen from the following discussion. The motivations of the Finns to travel to the Soviet Union will be discussed in accordance with the scheme based on the psychological travel ladder problems mentioned above. Three questions in particular will be analyzed: curiosity, presuppositions to be tested in practice, and adventure.

Human Curiosity

A Finnish female tourist to the Soviet Union recalled her trip in May 1970 very warmly: (Museovirasto (National Board of Antiquities), Collection A 28:1, Travels of the Finns to the South and other places, person LS):

The beds were very clean and the linen white… I did not know the Russian language, so I accidentally bought a bottle of wine, and because I was thirsty I drank a half of it. I got heavily drunk until I noticed the contents of the bottle. After that I did not take any alcohol during my trip.

The person described above was a working class woman on her first trip abroad while student at a trade union school. She wanted to see what the neighbouring country looked like and visited Leningrad and Moscow with her school's student group. She probably had some positive expectations of the trip as she recalled in her notes "for a worker it was so nice to wake up at a Moscow hotel and hear the Kremlin bells call!"

Curiosity is one of the main driving forces among the travellers everywhere.3 What makes our case of Finnish travellers to the Soviet Union particularly interesting is the relationship between the two countries whose ties were getting closer during the research period for several reasons. The Soviet Union was a geographically close neighbour which was relatiyely easy to reach although there were many practical problems: were you granted the visa, were the border crossings organised, how was it going with,the customs officials, did you take illegal books or other materials, to the Soviet Union? Or did you buy something illegal to take home with you. Thus, in a way the trip to the Soviet Union was full of unexpected things!

The Berliz guide to Leningrad of 1976 simply stated that you should visit Leningrad because of its "irresistible beauty and grandeur of the past". (Leningrad 1976, 10).

A Soviet guidebook to Leningrad of the late 1960's invited everybody to come and visit the city of technology and culture, the cradle of the Russian Revolution, and above all, the showplace of V.I. Lenin's activities. (Kann, Leningrad 1970, esp. 20-57).

Among the tourists to the Soviet Union there were certainly many persons who wanted to see the former capital of the Russian Empire because of its "public" splendour and architecture. In addition, the close ties between St. Petersburg and the former Grand Duchy of Russia, Finland, had its effect on the curiosity of the Finns to see this city.

Picture 1. Traditional folk dance was one of the favourite things travellers and tourists saw in the Soviet Union (The front cover of a Finnish language brochure in 1961).
Picture 1

In 1976 the Finnish sociologist Hannele Palosuo compiled a questionnaire and a carefully planned study on the background of the Finnish tourists to the Soviet Union, particularly to Leningrad. She also studied the organisation of the trip, the tourist experiences in Leningrad as well as the feelings afterwards. The number of analysed questionnaires was 744. One of the primary reasons to conduct the study were the problems caused by the tourists in Leningrad, such as the extensive use of alcohol, illegal currency exchange and involvement with crimes. The persons she interviewed were charter or group tourists who came by buses. Individual or business travellers were not included, which may have an effect on the validity of the research results as a whole.

The questionnaire included a section on the motivations of the tourists as well as the after trip reflections. Palosuo compiled the categories according to what the travellers had expected and what was the feeling after the trip. The numbers below show the percentages of how many people had mentioned the category in question reflecting their motivations (=expected) and fulfilment after the trip (=result): (Palosuo 1976, esp. table 20, 76-77)

expected (%)

result (%)




















living conditions & Soviet society





meeting the local people










Accordingly, it was quite clear that the main expectations were to relax and to amuse. But we may also see that curiosity towards the Soviet society was another significant factor. Getting acquainted with local people was probably realised within groups which had prearranged programs with friends or trade union societies. We may also conclude that in this 1976 study one of the major disappointments was the encounters with the local people. This finding may reflect the fact that tourism in the Soviet Union was strictly controlled, and therefore, the Soviet citizens were not encouraged to associate with foreigners. Expectations were fulfilled especially in terms of relaxation and amusement, shopping as well as culture. What is especially noteworthy is that female tourists were very interested in cultural sights and occasions which they also had the chance to see and experience. Males were also quite interested in cultural sights. Hannele Palosuo even states that the tourism to Leningrad may to a large extent be called cultural tourism (Palosuo 1976, esp. 96).


As mentioned above, post-World War Two travel from Finland to the Soviet Union actually began with various delegations and other official or semi-official groups. Among them were many present or future politicians who wished to better their lot. According to the reports given out to public after the trip, they were also well treated in the Soviet Union. For example, Matti Kekkonen, Member of Parliament in the Agrarian Party who was the leader of a group of Parliament members on a trip to the Soviet Union, wrote in his report about their positive experiences (The statement by Matti Kekkonen, MP in the newspaper Maakansa, July 1, 1959):

All the persons we met made a strong impression on us with their openness and sincere friendliness.

It has, been earlier found out that the friendship tours (which occurred in both directions) were very popular. They included various politically oriented delegations, friendship society tours, student expeditions etc. (Kostiainen 1998, 46-50) The purpose and motivations for those trips were quite obviously to fill their expectations. In addition to political delegations the travellers participating in those trips may be called idealists, sympathisers, fellow travellers and probably to a large extent opportunists wishing to make use of the friendship tours.

Among those who were looking for the positive fulfilment of their ideals were many kinds of people, and to a large extent, these travellers have to be understood in the context of the Finnish-Soviet special relationships. Before the Second World War the relationships between the two countries had been very tense, and in Finland the communists were driven underground. The war changed everything even in the internal politics of Finland. Now the communist sympathisers became important in the government circles, and it was quite commonly agreed that a closer relationship and interaction at various levels had to be created between the two countries. One expression of this relationship was an effort to build contacts via travelling delegations, artists, sportsmen, trade union officials and politicians, of course.

The stream of those delegations and other respective groups rose to quite considerable numbers. It may be counted that yearly several hundreds of persons travelled to the Soviet Union via these prearranged and planned trips. The number of more unofficial friendship tours was also growing rapidly, and the friendship society Suomi Neuvostoliitto Seura (Finland Soviet Union Society) arranged in the 1950's and the 1960's an increasing number of tourist trips to the Soviet Union, primarily to the Leningrad area. While the Finns travelling to the Soviet Union grew in numbers, the SNS society arranged trips even for more than 20.000 persons in1977. (Kostiainen 1998, 48) As a follow-up - it was also reported that persons participating in the "friendship tours" had a kind of duty to spread the word among the Finns and tell about their experiences during the trip.4

Hannele Palosuo's study, on the bus travellers to Leningrad did not expose this type of tourists, even if there may have been friendship groups and the like among them.

However, there must have been among the tourists a number of persons with negative or nonchalant pre-attitudes and motivations as, for example, the following tourist recalling his experiences: (Museovirasto, Collection A 28:1, person UR)

The only word we needed, was "harasoo". I had trouble in the customs.

The person quoted above took his trip to the Leningrad area with a few fellow workers who happened to have free time at Easter. They left their wives in Finland and wanted to have some fun. They were not, however, heavily drinking vodka tourists mentioned below. The nonchalant attitudes found in his recollections may be quite typical of tourism behaviour.5

The basic attitude and motivation for a tourist on a trip of this kind is well-known from the past as well as the present. He is going to another place to confirm the presuppositions. The tourist hardly finds many positive things during the trip. He is going to another location in order to feel some kind of superiority and he often behaves that way, too. Today's travellers and tourists are tempted to behave in this way when visiting the third world countries or former colonies. On the other hand, there are also tourists who are not at all so interested in the destination itself (E.g. Selänniemi 1996, esp. 97-111).

In many cases the Finnish tourist on the Eastern route was tempted to make use of the leaking system of control of the neighbouring country. This is connected with the use of the "black market", i.e. illegal selling and buying of items, currency exchange etc. A number of tourists were certainly prepared for this kind of activities. One might, for example; sell certain clothes or other things in order to make the trip cheaper. The problem was recognised as early as in the mid-1960's. The ambassador of Finland, Mr. Vanamo told the Finnish Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Helsinki the information delivered by the Soviet officials: Finnish tourists had frequently broken the customs regulations, e.g. in the Leningrad area 60-80 tourists had been arrested the previous year because of selling and buying illegally. Cheap alcohol and its abuse was in many cases connected with illegal trade in the streets by the Finnish tourists. Thus, Mr. Vanamo asked for certain measures to be taken in Finland since the Soviet officials would tighten their grip on the arrested persons who claimed that they did not know the customs regulations.6

The last mentioned expectations may also be found in the following group of motivations which are loosely called adventure tourism.

Awaiting for Mental and Other Adventures

Travel researchers have found different personality types among the travellers. An "allocentric" traveller refers to a person who is continuously looking for something new and interesting. This type of personality is typical of exploration travel as he is looking for new experiences. Apparently quite a few Finns going to the Soviet Union, the former hostile and enemy country, felt like being explorers. A wel!known newspaperman Göran Schildt expressed his feelings about his trip stating that The trip was as much an adventure as a trip to the planet Mars (Schildt 1954, 9).

Picture 2. The tourist was even able to get a glimpse of the new Soviet type suburbs, but quite rarely got into apartments (Kann, Leningrad, c. 1970, photogallery at the end of the book).
Picture 2

This type of tourism thus includes several types of motivations ranging from individual personal images towards hard-core politics. The authors and newspapermen such as Schildt went to the Soviet Union in order to find out what the country was like after it was now opening its gates to Western foreigners. Even though those explorers may be classified as individual travellers, they may also be found among the "mass tourists", who also have the same kind of motivations and expectations as well as an "adventurous state of mind".

Quite a few misbehaving Finnish travellers could also be found among the large numbers of ordinary tourists in the buses. As recalled by Finnish tourists in 1974, it might even happen that The group leader turned into a vodka tourist. We did not see him for two days.7

When the problem of "vodka tourists" became public in the late 1960's meetings were organised to discuss the matter. In 1969 it was estimated that about 1.5 % of the Finnish tourists in Leningrad caused various kinds of problems. In most cases heavy use of alcohol was the primary reason for the troubles of these 700 persons. (See Kostiainen 1998, 47, 50, footnote 5)

Problems were found especially during Easter which was one of the favourite holiday seasons for the Finns to visit the Soviet Union. In Finland a meeting was held between the government officials from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Ministry of Education and other agencies with representatives also from the Soviet Union, to probe the problems. One special case were the school class trips to Leningrad during which lots of alcohol was consumed. This problem was an unprecedented consequence of the Finnish and Soviet officials to increase the visits of the school children and youngsters in order, to educate them for friendship.

The Finnish tourists were thus loaded with many kinds of expectations ranging from people looking for fun to persons with problems with alcohol. Actually, Palosuo's study mentioned above compared the tourists' drinking habits in Finland before and during the trip. A total of 64 % of the tourists in the sample said they used more alcohol during the trip than normally. (Palosuo 1976, esp. 97) The result is a little bit hard to analyse reliably. However, it is probably quite common that tourists use alcohol more frequently during a trip than normally.


In our study the motivations of the Finns going to the Soviet Union were classified from three varying angles: that of curiosity, expectations, and adventure. However, it is quite difficult to draw a line between those three categories.

Regarding the Finnish tourist case presented here, we discussed mainly leisure, recreation and cultural interests. The trips to the Eastern neighbour were certainly multimotive. In practise, all the five ladders mentioned at the beginning of this article were found in the travellers' and tourists' explanations although various tourist personalities explained their motivations in different ways. The lowest ladder of psychological needs or "externally oriented needs" were the most common explanations: escape, excitement, curiosity, stimulation, as were also "internally oriented needs" such as relaxation, drinking etc.

The Finnish traveller or tourist was not a special case when compared with tourists from other countries and other parts of the world. The Finns expected to see something new. He or she wanted to see the giant socialist neighbouring country. Especially female tourists were keen on cultural sights. Therefore, we may ultimately conclude that the most important motivational factor was the fulfilment of curiosity. Some tourists certainly wanted to see the "advancement of socialism", others the failure of the Soviet system. In addition, a considerable number of tourists wanted to make the trip under the influence of alcohol.

It is another interisting question whether we may even call the ideologically oriented trips and the individuals participating in them as a kind of pilgrimages. There is, though, much similarity if we conclude that pilgrimage includes strong mental processes. The idea of pilgrimages in relation to the various trips to the Soviet Union has already earlier been applied to the inter-war period Western travellers to the Soviet Union. (E.g. Margulies 1968)

In our research case we may see another version of the concept of the "liminal trip" to another place. The crossing of the border somewhat "hostile" was the sign of leaving the familiar society; from there on it was a liminal place with new rules.

1. For a general view on the motivation problem, see Cooper et. al 1995, 22-26; for a listing of theoretical views, McIntosh & Goeldner & Ritchie 1995, e.g. 167-178, 446-447.

2. International Tourism 1997, 152-153. At the lowest ladder, the psychological needs include externally oriented needs such as need for escape, excitement, curiosity, need for arousal, external excitement, stimulation, while internally oriented needs include that of sex, eating, drinking, relaxation, safety/security ladder includes those of other directed needs to reduce anxiety, to predict and explain the world, while self-directed needs include needs to give love and affection; the ladder of self-esteem/development needs includes other directed needs such as status, respect, achievement, while self-directed needs include self-development, growth, curiosity and mental stimulation, mastery, control competence, self-efficacy, need for intrinsically satisfying behaviour; and finally the highest ladder of fulfilment needs, including need for self-actualisation and need for flow experiences.

3. One of the first sociological studies of tourist behaviour was Sutton 1967.

4. See, e.g. Selostus 21.9.-13.10.1953 Neuvostoliitossa vierailleen SN-Seuran valtuuskunnan jäsenten esiintymisistä. (A Report Written in Helsinki on November 27, 1953 on the presentations of the members of the delegation by the SNS -Society visiting in the Soviet Union from Sept. 21 till Oct. 13, 1953) The Finnish Language Correspondence of the Finland Soviet Union -Society (SNS), Group 25, Finnish National Archives, Helsinki.

5. The problem is widely discussed among the researchers, see e.g. MacCannel 1976; Turner and Ash 1975.

6. Ambassador Vanamo to the Foreign Ministry in Helsinki, 28.10.1965, no. 1917/427. Folder Suomalaisten turistien lainrikkomukset Neuvostoliitossa (The Illegal Activities of the Finnish Tourists in the Soviet Union), C 87. Ministry of Foreign Affairs Archives, Helsinki.

7. The experiences of a Finnish couple on their trip to Leningrad in the summer of 1974. Materials preserved by the author.


This paper is based on the presentation given in the seminar "Exploring Mind and Tourism. In Commemoration of Giuseppe Acerbi's Trip to the North Cape 200 Years Ago" at the University of Turku, Finland, June 9, 1999.

Archival Sources:

Archival materials on Finnish tourism preserved by the author.

Museovirasto (Central Office of Antiquity Affairs of Finland), Collection A 28:1, Suomalaisten matkat etelään ja muualle (Travels of the Finns to the South and Other Places), persons LS, UR. Helsinki, Finland.

Suomi-Neuvostoliitto-Seuran arkisto (Finland-Soviet Union Society: Archives), Suomenkielinen. kirjeenvaihto ryhmä 25 (Finnish Language Correspondence). Kansallisarkisto, Helsinki, Finland.

Ulkoasiainministeriönrarkisto (Ministry of Foreign Affairs Archives). Folder Suomalaisten turistien lainrikkomukset Neuvostoliitossa (The Illegal. Activities of Finnish Tourists in the Soviet Union), C87: :Helsinki; Finland.

University of Turku Library; special collections, Finnish small sized broschures, travel leaflets Turku, Finland.


Maakansa (Organ of the Country People), Helsinki, July 1, 1959.


Cooper, C., Fletcher, J., Gilbert, D. and Wanhill, S. 1995. Tourism. Principles and Practices. Harlow, Essex.

International Tourism: A Global Perspective 1997. Ed. by Chuck Y. Gee. Madrid.

Kann, P. (c. 1970). Leningrad. Matkaopas. Transl. By Terttu Vikström. Moskova.

Kostiainen, A. 1996. Looking for the mass Tourist in History. - In Davies, Mark et al., History and Tourism - Empty Meeting Grounds? Seminar at Mid Sweden University, December 1994, Report 1996:1. Östersund.

Kostiainen, A. 1998. Mass Tourists, Groups and Delegates. Travel from Finland to the Soviet Union from 1950 to 1980. - Trends in Russian Research on Tourism. International Forum for Tourism Research No. 3 Savonlinna, Finland, 2-3 June 1997. Marita Heikkinen-Rummukainen and Arvo Peltonen (ed.). Savonlinna.

Leningrad 1976/1979. Editions Berlitz. 2nd. printing. Milan.

MacCannell, D. 1976. The Tourist: A New Theory of the Leisure Class. New York.

McIntosh, R. W., Goeldner, C.R and Ritchie, J. R. B. 1995. Tourism: Principles, Practices and Philosophies. Seventh Edition: New York.

Margulies, S. 1968 The Pilgrimage to Russia. The Soviet Union and the Treatmentof Foreigners, 1924-1937. Madison, WI.

Palosuo, H. 1976. Leningradin matkailu, Tutkimus Leningradiin suuntautuneen matkailun historiasta, nykyisyydestä, häiriöistä ja motiiveista. (Tourism to Leningrad. A Study Regarding Its History, Present Day, Disturbances and Motivations) Helsinnki.

Schildt, G. 1954. Kolme viikkoa Neuvostoliitossa. (Three Weeks in the Soviet Union) Porvoo.

Selänniemi, T. 1996. Matka ikuiseen kesään: kulttuuriantropologinen näkökulma suomalaisten etelänmatkailuun. (Tourism to the Eternal Summer. A Cultural-Anthropological View on the Trips of the Finns to the South). Suomalaisen Kirjallisuuden Seuran Toimituksia 649. Helsinki.

Sutton, W. A. 1967. Travel and Understanding: Notes on the Social Structure of Touring. - International Journal of Comparative Sociology, Vol 8, Nr. 2/1967. Cited in Palosuo 1976.

Turner, L. and Ash, J. 1976. The Golden Hordes. International Tourism and Pleasure Periphery. New York.

Tuuli, L. 1976. Suomalaisten ulkomaanlomat. (The Travel of the Finns Abroad) Matkailun edistämiskeskuksen julkaisuja, sarja A:4. Helsinki.

Published in Travel patterns: Past and present. Three studies. Discussion and working papers series 1. The Finnish university network for tourism, 1999, p. 33-48.

© Auvo Kostiainen

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