How difficult was it for Soviet citizens to travel abroad in the 1980s?

Were only special people like politicians and scientists able to visit capitalist countries, or could common folk too if they qualified for a visa and met the government’s requirements? And how strict were the requirements? I know they generally had to have an invite from people they knew abroad, but was there anything beyond that needed?

Anecdote: One of my highschool teachers was an emigree. Essentially, his parents were ‘shown the door’ as less-than-desireable citizens (jewish academics), and there was zero trouble leaving the country.

Russian hockey players were allowed to leave and play in the NHL in 1989.

In the 1980s dissidents such as Yelena Bonner and her husband Andrei Sakharov had problems getting exit visas for themselves and their children Sakharov went on hunger strikes. Sakharov was confined to the city of Gorky, closed to foreigners, for several years.

The USSR and the Eastern Bloc made traveling abroad a big hassle. These governments grilled applicants on why they wanted to leave the workers’ paradise and why they wanted to go where they were going. The answer was frequently NO, and just asking cast a pall of suspicion on you and your family.

Some places behind the iron curtain were shoot to kill. The Berlin Wall, for instance.

There were exceptions, as the post above points out, but the exceptions didn’t come easy.

The standard of living was much, much better in Western Europe and the U.S. The Soviet/Communist elites knew that and thought it was better if John Q. Soviet did not.

That’s how I remember it growing up in the seventies and eighties.

Most citizens of the USSR and Eastern Bloc didn’t have the money to go abroad much even if it was allowed.

By that point, Mikhail Gorbachev was leading the USSR, and was instituting his *glasnost*policies. I suspect that it was his changes which allowed those players to play in the NHL, and it wouldn’t have been possible earlier in the decade.

Generally the only people who were allowed to leave were Jewish people who were emigrating to Israel and people who were on official business. Just applying for an exit visa could mean losing your job and make your life alot harder. Artists and athletes were allowed to leave for international performances or competitions but had KGB people assigned to them to keep them from defecting.

I studied in then-Leningrad in 1989, and a couple of my professors had been able to go abroad for academic conferences. The hilarious part was that they were given special permission to exchange a per diem into hard currency for food, etc. So what they all did was bring canned goods in their suitcases so they could bring the hard currency back to Russia, change it on the black market, and do other stuff with it. The black market exchange rate differential was so huge that one woman bought a fur coat with her per diem!

To be fair, making a trip to over the Iron Curtain opened several new files on you back in the USA.

Travel within blocs was reletively easy. Traveling between them not so much.

I was in Prague in 2014 and had a guide who had grown up there. She and her husband were both teachers and had both travelled to England. The authorities allowed them visas to attend conferences, but never both of them together. She still found it amazing that they could just buy tickets to go anywhere they wanted.

To be fair, both Sakharov and Bonner were well known dissidents, and f course Sakharov was one of the key developers of Soviet nuclear fusion weapon technology. Although Sakharov was not permitted to travel internationally and was eventually confined to the closed city of Gorky, Bonner was permitted some travel, including accepting Skharov’s Nobel Peace Prize in 1975 and for cardiac surgery in 1985.

Soviet scientists were permitted some travel for academic purposes but given that many of their best scientists were engaged in military weapon and defense research, their travel was heavily restricted (often only to Warsaw Pact and other Soviet allied nations) and were not allowed to travel abroad with familty, who were essentially held hostage. Average Soviet citizens could not travel abroad at all without work-related reasons or essentially forcible emmigration as “undesireables” (Jews, minor dissidents, criminals), and even within the confines of the Soviet Union travel was restricted and difficult. One perk of government service and Communist Party membership was the opportunity to travel abroad and somewhat ironically purchase Western goods and fashions.

In the post-Soviet era scientists, doctors, and other skilled professionals left Russia and other states of the former Soviet Empire en masse, moving to Western Europe and the United States and often accepting menial jobs to enjoy a better lifestyle and more security than the faltering Russian economy could provide. Those that remained often worked for companies doing business with the West, bringing hard cash that could be used to send consumer goods home to be sold on the grey market for considerable profit. The amount of expertise and secure information that left Russia at that time is truly incredible given the almost insignificant flow of trade and information that had transpired before Gorbechev’s rise and all-too-quick fall from leadership.


In the last few decades of the USSR, was Communist Party membership something which was difficult to get or demanded a lot?

Could you get perks just by being a member without much else?