See Britain, Intourist-Style

The proprietors of the Great British Theme Park were in town last week to stump up Russian business. British tourist agencies, the British Tourist Authority, and even the British heritage minister, Lord Inglewood, showed up to tout the country as a prime destination.

All well and good, you may say. But what their visit actually reminded me of was the bad old days when Intourist and the Soviet Culture Ministry used to encourage people in Britain to do exactly the same in reverse. At that time, getting a visa to travel to Russia as an ordinary individual was a major pain in the neck, just as it is today at the British Consulate in Moscow. If you weren't an approved guest -- such as a potential investor or rich businessman -- the lines were endless, the consular officials offensive and tiresome personal questions were invariably asked about your destination and your reasons for traveling.

Given all this, most British people at the time simply gave up and used Intourist or another of the Soviets' favored agencies -- especially if they lived outside London. And the result? The vast majority of British tourists, armed with visas organized for them, flew Aeroflot; they stayed together in groups; they forked out their money for all the approved tourist sites; and they gave the KGB a lot less bother than if they'd been traveling individually.

The point is that it would have taken a political na•f, even at the time, not to have seen quite clearly the connection between these two things -- that is between the intransigence of consular officials and the comparative ease of access to the Soviet Union via organized groups. And you don't have -- I submit -- to be the most dyed-in-the-wool cynic to see the same sort of connection in the British case today. The subtext of the good minister's visit -- not to mention that of the British Tourist Authority and of the British-based tourist agencies -- should be seen, in the end, as running something like this:

"Russians! Do by all means come to Britain and spend your money. But why, as an individual, face the rudeness, the selling of places in line and the sheer difficulty of actually getting to the British Consulate from thousands of miles away when it can all be made (by us) so much easier? You'll pay us cash down in advance (with a little something extra, of course, for the visa). You'll travel by our airlines. You'll fork out for approved theme-park souvenirs and mementos. And you'll give a lot less bother, along the way, not only to our consulate but also to our customs and immigration department. (N.B. This will not apply, of course -- plus ca change, plus c'est la m?me chose -- to potential investors and biznesmeny.)"

Now it's just possible, of course, that none of this folderol is exactly deliberate, that all we are seeing here is some sort of turning-the-tables of history (with the KGB and the British customs and immigration department -- natch! -- as the agents of that history). But you have to admit that Western dealings with Russia nowadays do give off more than a strong whiff of hypocrisy. And the British Consulate -- nice people though they may be individually -- can't be allowed to escape the rap. For they, too, are involved in a game, and the name of that game -- whatever the claims of natural justice may be -- is money.

You can't get to heaven -- in the words of the song -- in an old Ford car. And you can't get to the West in one, either. But you can get to the West if you lay down enough moolah (in a Mercedes, in other words). You can in effect buy residency in Canada, in Britain, in the Unites States, even in France. (Why do you think France puts up with all those ousted despots from other countries? It's those countries' stolen economies, stupid!)

More, you can buy your passports in Belize or elsewhere, and travel on them wherever you want to go. And nobody's going to ask too many questions about where you got the moolah for these things in the first place.

If you're poor, on the other hand, well ... you're hardly worth the bother, frankly. It's just much handier -- and a lot more profitable -- to handle you en masse: to package you as a job lot on your way to what Pushkin called "Foggy Albion." Besides, look, your notions of Britain, based on all that reading of Scott and Byron, Dickens and A.J. Cronin, are exactly what's available in our tourist theme park today. Let the rich play with the rich elsewhere, in other words, and create all the British poor, whom of course you won't see, either. But then that's none of your business -- is it? -- and besides another story.