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Soviet borders were closed for traveling from USSR for most Soviet people until late 1980s. I don't recall, however, the year/month when the borders opened. After 1986 and before 1991, but that's all I recall. Thus a few questions:

  1. When did travel from USSR for business become possible?

  2. When did studying abroad become possible for Soviet students?

  3. When did travel from USSR for pleasure become possible?

  4. When did emigration from USSR become easy, after the de-facto restrictions of late 1970s were lifted?

And, while we are on the subject:

  1. When did foreigners' travel to USSR for business become possible?

  2. When did unsupervised foreigners' travel to USSR for pleasure become possible?

All of that must be late 1980s; IDK though the specific years.

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    Soviets traveled abroad for business as early as 1924 (Amtorg) and foreigners traveled to the USSR for business en-masse in 1930 under Gosproektstroi.
    – SPavel
    Feb 8 at 21:30
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    Jewish immigration from USSR restarted (on a significant scale) in 1987. Feb 8 at 22:40
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    Angela Merkel traveled through Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan unsupervised & as a tourist in 1983, so it was certainly possible at that time (though not really legal, and probably not possible for all foreigners)
    – Jan
    Feb 8 at 23:10
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    @T.E.D., no, it was not for over 90% of the population. I remember. :-) Traveling abroad was a privilege until at least 1986. Party officials and their families could roam free. Performing artists and scientists would be scrutinized for allegiances, travel on business while heavily supervised, and leave their families at home as hostages so they wouldn't defect. This is NOT the traveling I'm talking about. And in 1991 you could travel freely; that is what I'm talking about.
    – Michael
    Feb 9 at 1:50
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    @Henry Ayn Rand left Russia soon after the revolution, while the country was in chaos - just like many Russian refugees in that time. This is unrelated to the period that question addresses. Russians could travel to fraternal countries only if they were in good standing with the party and had money. Most couldn't even afford vacations on a seaside within the USSR.
    – Roger V.
    Feb 9 at 16:04

2 Answers 2

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All those kinds of travel were always possible in principle. However, there was strong Communist party and KGB control, which made travel almost impossible for most citizens. The control was quickly relaxed in 1990-1991, and completely disappeared in summer 1991 when Communist party was ousted from power. Conditions also were different in Moscow and in "provinces" (=essentially the rest of Soviet Union).

My own experience: I worked in Ukraine. Until 1987, it was absolutely impossible for me to travel for business (I applied many times; my application was considered and denied, with no reason stated). For the first time I was permitted to travel (to Poland) in 1987. I had to pass all stages of party/KGB control/selection.

In 1990, I traveled to the US for the first time (also passing all the permission procedures). In spring 1991, the procedure still existed, but the permission was almost automatic. In summer 1991, it was abolished.

There is one more aspect of this: Soviet citizens could not legally possess any foreign currency (illegal trade or possession was a capital crime). Those who were permitted to travel obtained the right to exchange certain sum, which depended on the purpose of travel. But the main tool of regulating the travel was the issue of the passport, and an "exit visa" in it.

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  1. Travelling for business.

Private business restrictions started to be gradually relaxed since promulgation of the law on cooperation in 1988. Prior to that, there was only a very limited possibility for an individual to have a private business in the USSR. In most cases this would be something like shoe repair or knife sharpening booth, with no paid employees - a scale of business too small for the state to bother to create a state-owned enterprise, and for which one definitely doesn't need to travel abroad. In any case, international trade was a strict state monopoly.

There were private or quasi-private enterprises of a slightly larger scale in areas of prestige - such as arts, traditional handicraft, fashion industry etc. - that could justify some international cooperation. These cases were so unique that decisions could be taken on the government level.

One could have been sent on a business trip on behalf of a state-owned enterprise or institution, but I presume such trips are out of scope for this question.

  1. Studying abroad.

Studies abroad remained available even after revolution. As Stalin tightened the screws, such studies were stopped in early 1930s and many absolvents faced suspicion or direct accusations of spying or subversive activities.

After WW2, a "socialist bloc" emerged, and it was a matter of prestige to let some student exchanges between USSR and other "socialist" countries. One had to be very trusted to get selected into such a program. In late 1950s, exchanges became possible with "capitalist" and "non-aligned" countries, such as the USA. These, of course were even more limited in numbers.

  1. Tourism.

Again, it was a matter of prestige to let some people out of USSR for tourist trips, so some limited travelling was allowed to "socialist" countries after mid-1950s and to "capitalist" and "non-aligned" countries after late 1950s. However, it was tightly controlled and supervised. Tourist vouchers were distributed through trade unions, and one had to be considered fully loyal to be approved by the local CPSU and KGB bodies. The trip was always in an organized group; of course, selection and supervision in "capitalist" countries were much stricter.

The scale of travelling grew gradually. In 1956, there were ~561K tourists. In 1959, just a few hundreds went to "capitalist" and "non-aligned" countries; the population of the USSR was around 200M at that time, so one can get the idea how exceptional this was. In 1980s, the number reached ~5M tourists per year (~80% of them to "socialist bloc" countries).

In fact, in the last decade of the USSR there were even some steps towards liberalization of travelling. For example, USSR had concluded a few treaties with other "socialist bloc" countries on visa-free travelling, which slightly simplified things. Travelling to some of them was made possible even on the "domestic passport" (essentially the ID). One still had to obtain a permit though.

It has to be said that, even though trips were partly subsidised, they were still very expensive. My grandmother undertook a trip to Poland in 1965, and she told me that she had to borrow for it and that it took her a year to repay. So, when a few years later she was offered the opportunity to go to Hungary, she refused. However, some could make some tiny smuggling business out of such a trip and make it profitable.

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    Do you know a single example of a student from USSR who was allowed to study in a "capitalist country" (say, after the 2nd world war and before 1987)? In my field (math) I know some mathematicians from Poland who were allowed to go to the US for graduate studies in the early 1980s. But nobody from the USSR. Feb 16 at 5:25
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    AFAIK, study abroad and tourism to capitalist countries were reserved for high-level party functionaries and their kids (aka "мальчики мажоры", or "major kids"). Poland and other Warsaw Pact countries were far easier to travel to though.
    – Michael
    Feb 16 at 19:40
  • @MoisheKohan Of a group that went to the US in 1958–1959, there are two well-known names, Oleg Kalugin and Alexandr Yakovlev.
    – ach
    Feb 19 at 22:35
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    @Michael I think that your image of the Soviet system is way too simplified. Top of the top (Politburo and similar) functionaries wouldn't want to go somewhere as tourists. First, most of them "got high on their own supply", ideologically, and believed the nonsense they preached. Second, they had lots of chance to travel abroad in their official capacity. Third, simply enjoying their time somewhere abroad would be way too risky - "bulldog fight under a rug" was always ongoing. Fourth, for the same reasons, they watched each other very closely.
    – ach
    Feb 19 at 22:49
  • @Michael Then, going down in the hierarchy, there would be roles that are naturally associated with travelling or residing abroad (diplomacy, trade, espionage) - these are obvious. Functionaries in other roles could be sent abroad on occasional business trips but if they were to go abroad for tourism, this would be viewed as something highly irregular. A position of power brought definite well-being, but one had to maintain certain decorum and show patriotism and loyalty.
    – ach
    Feb 19 at 22:59

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