It was virtually impossible for citizens of Soviet Union to move or travel abroad. Only some ethnic minorities (e.g. Jewish) with family members abroad could move out, yet with great difficulty.

  1. Why did Soviet Union impose such strong restrictions on travelling outside its borders?
  2. Was it possible for residents of Soviet Union to move/travel to other communist countries, such as China?
  3. Were there any move/travel restrictions in Western countries' in regards to the Soviet Union?
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    It wasn't only for the Soviet-union. All eastern block countries restricted travel / access to passport and currency for the citizens. Same true for most current dictatorships, too.
    – Greg
    Jun 30, 2015 at 23:54
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    Not just all eastern block countries, but all communist countries. (AFAIK, anyway: I'd be interested in hearing of any counter-examples.) As for why, it's basically the same reason that slaveowners in the antebellum south didn't let their slaves travel to the north: not many of them would come back.
    – jamesqf
    Jul 1, 2015 at 0:20
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    – T.E.D.
    Jul 21, 2015 at 15:47

4 Answers 4


The answers to 1, 2 are very simple.

  1. The Soviet Union presented itself as a "communist paradise." That is, a country where life was better than in capitalist countries. This was the main justification for communist power and social order. People traveling abroad could immediately see that this was not the case. When this had become evident to a sufficient number of people, the communist regime collapsed.

  2. Travel restrictions were severe, to all countries. But it was somewhat easier to travel to socialist countries. The reasons for restricting travel to socialist countries were that they were somewhat different, and the authorities were afraid to expose people to this diversity. Besides that, most European socialist countries enjoyed higher life standards and less ideological restrictions than Soviet Union.

  3. Visits of foreigners to Soviet Union were severely restricted, their movements inside SU were also very much restricted (most foreigner were allowed to visit only Moscow and very few other principal cities), and many of them were under constant surveillance. The main reason was the same as in 1. Contacts of Soviet citizens with foreigners were limited and strictly controlled.

  4. A very substantial number of people in the SU had the so-called "security clearance" ("dopusk" in Russian) connected with their jobs. When obtaining this clearance one had to sign an obligation to report to KGB on all their contacts with foreigners. If you had obtained a permission to travel abroad, after the travel you had to write a report and stand an interview with a KGB officer.

(All this is based on first-hand experience: I lived in the SU from the 1950s to the end of the 1980s.)

EDIT. Short comments on internal travel. Every citizen was equipped with an internal passport from the age of 16. This passport had a "residence registration" and was not valid without it. You could not freely change your residence registration: obtaining the registration from the local police was not a trivial matter, especially in large cities. One prerequisite was having a job in the city. On the other hand, hiring people who are not registered in this city was also prohibited. This created a "Catch 22" situation which very much restricted people's ability to move to another city. You could travel for short periods however: for stays of few days no registration was necessary. The purpose of this registration was to regulate the population of large cities where the life standard was higher than in small cities. Obtaining a residence registration in Moscow was almost impossible; a common way to obtain it was to marry a Moscovite:-)

The internal passport played the role of an ID (like a driver's license in the US) and in theory one had to carry it all the time. A policeman could request it to check your identity. Besides the residence registration and usual personal information the passport contained the data on your family state (spouse, children) and the weird piece of data called "nationality". (Russian, Ukrainian, Armenian, Greek, Jew, etc.) There was non-official discrimination against some "nationalities" in hiring and education.

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    I have heard about restrictions on internal movement within the Soviet Union as well as on travels abroad. Can you comment on this? (I read somewhere that in order to travel from one oblast to another you had to have some kind of passport - but I can't find any references to it now.)
    – Popup
    Jul 1, 2015 at 11:25
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    @Popup yes, you needed a passport to leave your area of residence. This was in place in Russia before it became the USSR and never changed. Made it a lot easier to control their population of course. Mind that "internal passport" is their name for it, it was typically valid for only a single trip so would more appropriately be called a travel permit or visa. Longer duration ones were available to for example farmers and others needing them for work (pilots, train drivers, etc.).
    – jwenting
    Jul 1, 2015 at 17:12
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    Certainly all European neighboring countries had a higher life standard and much more freedom at all times, I am not sure about Mongolia and China. There were few cases of immigration to SU indeed, but very few, and mostly these were Jews who were afraid of the Nazi. Other isolated cases were intellectuals of very high standing who were lured into the SU by promises of various privileges. Many of them later regretted.
    – Alex
    Jul 2, 2015 at 7:17
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    @dmit yes, some did. But only in cases where there was a risk to national security if that resident were to travel to the USSR and divulge (under pressure or voluntarilly) information. Think senior people from the NSA or CIA, high rank military personel, etc.
    – jwenting
    Jul 2, 2015 at 10:37
  1. As answered in comments, the authorities were afraid of their populations defecting en masse (as indeed happened when the borders were thrown open in the GDR and Hungary in the early 1990s, so their fears weren't unfounded)
  2. Yes, to a degree. Travel wasn't as easy by far as it was in the west, but it was possible.
  3. Yes, some. But those were mostly related to people who were deemed to be at risk from being targeted for abduction by the communist authorities and capable of revealing secrets. Think high rank military people and some people from the intelligence communities. For the most part, people in the west were free to travel to the eastern block (if those eastern block countries would grant them a visa of course). I've myself during the 1970s and 1980s visited Hungary, Czechoslovakia, Yugoslavia, Romania, the GDR, and the USSR, some of them several times.

They were so paranoid that those who were allowed to travel usually had to be married, preferably with children, and those would have to be left behind as hostages to guarantee their return under the implied threat of repercussions against them if the traveler decided to defect.

You still had to apply for an exit visa from the USSR (for example) as well as an entry visa to the other COMECON country which would generally only be granted if you had valid business there (iow, were traveling on government business).

  • Re:2. For ordinary people, travel even to eastern bloc countries was almost out of the question. Jul 1, 2015 at 6:45
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    @FelixGoldberg This is depending on country and on years, so this statement is rather overgeneralized. Also, people here seem to forget that average (even wealthy) people in eastern bloc simply not had much money to spend for travels. Neither you could buy foreign currency freely. So part of the reasons of limited travel were pretty practical.
    – Greg
    Jul 1, 2015 at 7:55
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    Regarding 3, I think that until recently the US had restrictive rules about travelling to Cuba.
    – Carsten S
    Jul 1, 2015 at 15:33
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    @EvilWashingMachine I've been back to Uzbekistan in 2011 and there have been lots of changes. The place feels a lot less oppressive, and though it's certainly not a free market democracy as we're used to in the west and effectively a dictatorship still, there's a lot more activity, people seem happier and less afraid, etc. etc.
    – jwenting
    Jul 19, 2015 at 16:45
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    @EvilWashingMachine I've been back to some areas in central Asia, and in general things have improved. They're nowhere near capitalist democracies like the US or western Europe, but the economy is better, there is more freedom both of economic and political nature. And with increased foreign investment and influence in these new nations, things slowly but surely get better. Can't revert the damage of 70 years in even 20.
    – jwenting
    Nov 13, 2017 at 17:16

This is not directly answering your question, but you might consider the German partition during the Cold War. This is illustrative because the Germans initially had open borders.

  • The GDR (East Germany) suffered a massive population and brain drain in the 50s and early 60s, with 3.5 million East Germans coming to the FRG (West Germany). The Communist regime tried to stem this, first with the Iron Curtain and then with the Berlin Wall to close the last loophole.
  • It is telling that travel and emigration was allowed for pensioners, but not for working age people.
  • Most people in the GDR were able to receive FRG radio and TV, except for the Dresden area. So restricting information was difficult. GDR propaganda had to try and exaggerate the worst aspects of the FRG, and even so it was seen as a bad joke.
  • A much smaller number of Germans went from the West to the East, for family or political reasons. Angela Merkel was born in the West, but she moved into the GDR as a child when her father became a pastor there.
  • The western democratic countries did not, as a rule, restrict emigration of their citizens. There were a few exceptions, cf the answer by jwenting, but mostly even officials with a security clearance could travel, they just had to file contact reports afterwards.
  • That being said, there were times when being branded as a commie-coddler could be bad for your career. Cf McCarthy.
  • Since you have brought up Eastern Germany, it might be worth pointing out that travelling to other Warsaw Pact countries (except USSR, and Poland after 1980) was pretty painless and routine for East Germans.
    – Jan
    Oct 13, 2019 at 23:45

Regarding question 2, it should be noted that before a voyage to another country a Soviet citizen had to undergo a scrutiny by local Party organs, ostensibly to ensure his or her strict moral values. Some KGB checks were surely performed as well, but those were hidden. Questions by Party (Komsomol for younger people, I guess) were, on the contrary, open, and could be pretty humiliating in case of family matters, such as divorce. And a petty Party official had full authority to prevent you from visiting even Bulgaria, to say nothing of DDR.

By the way, while tourism abroad was rather rare, a considerable number of Soviet skilled persons went on business trips to friendly developing countries, such as Vietnam, Egypt, India, Cuba, to build or supervise plants, electrical stations and so on. They obviously had to undergo similar checks to tourists.

Travelling to the Western countries for leisure was unheard of. For business reasons (no need to remind that all business was state owned?) or cultural ties, probable but all checks were much stricter. And, as @jwenting mentioned, having a hostage of sorts was a huge plus. If a writer, for instance, went to France to receive an award from La Republique, going with his wife wasn't likely to be approved.

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    and of course people traveling to the west were rarely if ever allowed to go alone, they'd always travel in groups, with the members being mutually responsible for each others' return and proper behaviour.
    – jwenting
    Jul 2, 2015 at 10:40
  • Yes, that's true. In addition to mutual responsibility, groups of considerable size could include a KGB person. He would go "undercover", pretending to be a colleague or friend (and sometimes really being one), though it was usually an open secret to the group. Taking this into account, KGB career was the surest way to visit the outside world, second only to diplomatic profession or Vneshtorg (external trade).
    – IMil
    Jul 2, 2015 at 11:51
  • @IMil Vietnam and Cuba were Peoples Republics (aka "Communist") and India was heavily socialist and state controlled from the 1950s through 1980s. Very friendly to the USSR.
    – RonJohn
    Oct 8, 2017 at 3:25

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