At the Crossroads of Europe & Asia

Photo credit: Heldge Pedersen

MIR’s Early Days: Our Travel Company’s Transformation After the Fall of the Soviet Union

Our company, MIR Corporation, has celebrated over 30 memorable years of travel beyond anything we could have imagined back when we first organized and led citizen exchanges, including a group of volleyball players to the U.S.S.R. After those initial successes in the mid-1980s, it seemed natural to turn our passion for travel into a business where we could share the Soviet Union with other intrepid travelers. Yet, there was a point when we weren’t sure MIR would last more than five years, back in the U.S.S.R. days of 1991 when the Soviet Union was turned on its head.

The Soviet Union’s Five-Year Plan

It’s ironic to think that the Soviet Union was built on a command economy of five-year plans, from highly structured industrialization to collective farming. And yet, I believe more change and transformation took place – most of it unplanned – in the five years from when MIR began in 1986 to the fall of the U.S.S.R. in 1991 than in all the years since the Soviet Union was created in 1922. These Soviet stamps and their subjects – Lenin, hammer and sickle, exhortations to the Motherland – reflect some of that history. 

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MIR’s Mission: Citizen Exchanges

Our travel business was made up mostly of citizen exchanges between Americans and Soviets, from doctors, lawyers, agricultural experts and athletes to alpinists, clowns, and police officers.

42 U.S. volleyball players and support – two men’s teams and one women’s – played their Soviet counterparts in 1987. Photo credit: Steve Richmond
42 U.S. volleyball players and support – two men’s teams and one women’s – played their Soviet counterparts in 1987. Photo credit: Steve Richmond

In these citizen exchanges, we arranged multi-city tours which spanned the territory of the U.S.S.R., with opportunities for participants to have deep round-table discussions with their professional counterparts. The meaningful and intense dialogue often resulted in friendships forged and lasting professional and personal connections. It was challenging and hard work, but we felt we were closing the gap between the U.S. and U.S.S.R., opening people’s minds up to viewing their professional counterparts as real people – personal friends, not enemies – and the Soviet Union as a richly complex and history-laden country – not the “Evil Empire.” 

An early MIR exchange: Los Angeles police officers swap caps with their Soviet counterparts, after joining them on a Moscow beat. Photo credit: MIR Corporation
In 1987, Douglas Grimes (center) scouts out routes in Tajikistan's mountains suitable for participants in MIR's alpinist citizen exchange. Photo credit: Douglas Grimes
Douglas Grimes and others land near Tajikistan's Peak Communism (24,590 feet) in 1987. Photo credit: Douglas Grimes
A 1987 article in the 'Communist Tajikistan' newspaper describes the efforts of Douglas Grimes and others to bring visitors to Tajikistan's famed mountains. Photo credit: Douglas Grimes
Douglas Grimes, in the early years of MIR. Photo credit: Douglas Grimes
  • An early MIR exchange: Los Angeles police officers swap caps with their Soviet counterparts, after joining them on a Moscow beat. Photo credit: MIR Corporation An early MIR exchange: Los Angeles police officers swap caps with their Soviet counterparts, after joining them on a Moscow beat. MIR Corporation
  • In 1987, Douglas Grimes (center) scouts out routes in Tajikistan's mountains suitable for participants in MIR's alpinist citizen exchange. Photo credit: Douglas Grimes In 1987, Douglas Grimes (center) scouts out routes in Tajikistan’s mountains suitable for participants in MIR’s alpinist citizen exchange. Douglas Grimes
  • Douglas Grimes and others land near Tajikistan's Peak Communism (24,590 feet) in 1987. Photo credit: Douglas Grimes Douglas Grimes and others land near Tajikistan’s Peak Communism (24,590 feet) in 1987. Douglas Grimes
  • A 1987 article in the 'Communist Tajikistan' newspaper describes the efforts of Douglas Grimes and others to bring visitors to Tajikistan's famed mountains. Photo credit: Douglas Grimes A 1987 article in the ‘Communist Tajikistan’ newspaper describes the efforts of Douglas Grimes and others to bring visitors to Tajikistan’s famed mountains. Douglas Grimes
  • Douglas Grimes, in the early years of MIR. Photo credit: Douglas Grimes Douglas Grimes, in the early years of MIR. Douglas Grimes

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MIR’s Next Step

When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, we faced a watershed moment of whether to continue our five-year-old business or throw in the towel. After the 1991 coup, many of the organizations we worked with – on both sides – either shut down or stopped participating in citizen exchanges. Seemingly overnight, almost all of our travel business – mostly consisting of these meaningful, pioneering U.S.-Soviet citizen exchanges – vanished. We were faced with a fateful decision: Should MIR call it quits? 

Massive Lenin banners were once ubiquitous in Moscow’s Red Square, where this one hung in the 1980s. After the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, they quickly disappeared. Photo credit: Helen Holter
Massive Lenin banners were once ubiquitous in Moscow’s Red Square, where this one hung in the 1980s. After the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, they quickly disappeared. Photo credit: Helen Holter

After much reflection, we chose to retool and move forward. 

On the Road, 30+ Years

I don’t think anyone – not even us – could have predicted that the Soviet Union would collapse and become 15 countries in such a short time, but it happened. We decided to focus on bringing travelers to these new countries, each one steeped in its own culture, language, history, and traditions. As it turned out, the fall of the Soviet Union created pioneering opportunities to visit these places with a different perspective than when each was a Soviet Socialist Republic of the U.S.S.R.

Like Estonia and Latvia, Lithuania became a Soviet Socialist Republic in 1940, re-establishing independence in 1990. Photo credit: Michel Behar
Linchpin of the Soviet Union since 1922, Russia became independent 69 years later, in 1991. Photo credit: Joanna Millick
Belarus became an independent country in 1991, and was a Soviet Socialist Republic since 1922. Photo credit: Bill Adams
Among the original Soviet Socialist Republics since 1922, Ukraine declared independence in 1991. Photo credit: Douglas Grimes
  • Like Estonia and Latvia, Lithuania became a Soviet Socialist Republic in 1940, re-establishing independence in 1990. Photo credit: Michel Behar Like Estonia and Latvia, Lithuania became a Soviet Socialist Republic in 1940, re-establishing independence in 1990. Michel Behar
  • Linchpin of the Soviet Union since 1922, Russia became independent 69 years later, in 1991. Photo credit: Joanna Millick Linchpin of the Soviet Union since 1922, Russia became independent 69 years later, in 1991. Joanna Millick
  • Belarus became an independent country in 1991, and was a Soviet Socialist Republic since 1922. Photo credit: Bill Adams Belarus became an independent country in 1991, and was a Soviet Socialist Republic since 1922. Bill Adams
  • Among the original Soviet Socialist Republics since 1922, Ukraine declared independence in 1991. Photo credit: Douglas Grimes Among the original Soviet Socialist Republics since 1922, Ukraine declared independence in 1991. Douglas Grimes

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I am deeply humbled by all that has taken place at MIR in these 30+ years since we began to plan that early U.S.-Soviet citizen exchange in 1986, focused on my life-long passion of volleyball. MIR has exceeded all my expectations of what I thought possible back then, back in the U.S.S.R. and its chilly Cold War days. 

A Soviet Socialist Republic since 1924, Uzbekistan declared its independence in 1991. Photo credit: Michel Behar
Turkmenistan became an independent country in 1991, after 67 years – since 1924 – as a Soviet Socialist Republic. Photo credit: Douglas Grimes
Brought into the Soviet fold as a socialist republic in 1936, Kyrgyzstan became an independent country in 1991. Photo credit: MIR Corporation
A Soviet Socialist Republic since 1936, Kazakhstan became an independent country in 1991. Photo credit: Michel Behar
1991 was Tajikistan's year of independence, and a Soviet Socialist Republic since 1929. Photo credit: Jake Smith
  • A Soviet Socialist Republic since 1924, Uzbekistan declared its independence in 1991. Photo credit: Michel Behar A Soviet Socialist Republic since 1924, Uzbekistan declared its independence in 1991. Michel Behar
  • Turkmenistan became an independent country in 1991, after 67 years – since 1924 – as a Soviet Socialist Republic. Photo credit: Douglas Grimes Turkmenistan became an independent country in 1991, after 67 years – since 1924 – as a Soviet Socialist Republic. Douglas Grimes
  • Brought into the Soviet fold as a socialist republic in 1936, Kyrgyzstan became an independent country in 1991. Photo credit: MIR Corporation Brought into the Soviet fold as a socialist republic in 1936, Kyrgyzstan became an independent country in 1991. MIR Corporation
  • A Soviet Socialist Republic since 1936, Kazakhstan became an independent country in 1991. Photo credit: Michel Behar A Soviet Socialist Republic since 1936, Kazakhstan became an independent country in 1991. Michel Behar
  • 1991 was Tajikistan's year of independence, and a Soviet Socialist Republic since 1929. Photo credit: Jake Smith 1991 was Tajikistan’s year of independence, and a Soviet Socialist Republic since 1929. Jake Smith

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We’ve expanded from one country, the Soviet Union, to 35 at the crossroads of Europe and Asia. MIR makes it possible to see places in this world that may otherwise seem difficult, remote, and unreachable. Our travelers tell us that MIR tours and custom journeys make them feel more connected and engaged with the places they see and the people they meet – and often befriend – along the way.

An early Soviet Socialist Republic in 1922, Georgia became an independent country in 1991. Photo credit: Paul Schwartz
Breaking away as an independent country in 1991, Azerbaijan had been a Soviet Socialist Republic since 1922. Photo credit: Peter Guttman
Mt. Ararat, seen from Armenia. Photo credit: Devin Connolly
Named a Soviet Socialist Republic in 1940, Latvia regained its independence in 1990. Photo credit: Peter Guttman
Estonia was named a Soviet Socialist Republic in 1940; it declared its independence in 1990. Photo credit: Martin Klimenta
  • An early Soviet Socialist Republic in 1922, Georgia became an independent country in 1991. Photo credit: Paul Schwartz An early Soviet Socialist Republic in 1922, Georgia became an independent country in 1991. Paul Schwartz
  • Breaking away as an independent country in 1991, Azerbaijan had been a Soviet Socialist Republic since 1922. Photo credit: Peter Guttman Breaking away as an independent country in 1991, Azerbaijan had been a Soviet Socialist Republic since 1922. Peter Guttman
  • Mt. Ararat, seen from Armenia. Photo credit: Devin Connolly Mt. Ararat, seen from Armenia. Photo credit: Devin Connolly Devin Connolly
  • Named a Soviet Socialist Republic in 1940, Latvia regained its independence in 1990. Photo credit: Peter Guttman Named a Soviet Socialist Republic in 1940, Latvia regained its independence in 1990. Peter Guttman
  • Estonia was named a Soviet Socialist Republic in 1940; it declared its independence in 1990. Photo credit: Martin Klimenta Estonia was named a Soviet Socialist Republic in 1940; it declared its independence in 1990. Martin Klimenta

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MIR’s Next 30 Years

MIR’s name has dual meaning: both “world” and “peace” in Russian. It’s a name that continues to resonate in all that we do. Travel promotes peace through deeper understanding not only of our geographic, cultural, and linguistic differences, but of our similarities as well.

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Do I wish I could go back to the U.S.S.R. and those 1980s early days of Cold War travel? They are great memories with enduring nostalgia, but I prefer to look forward to the future and all that lies ahead in the next three decades for me, for MIR, and for MIR’s intrepid travelers. 

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