THAWS and freezes in the cold war have a predictable impact on the number of American tourists who head for the Soviet Union. While exact figures are not easily obtained, the number of US visitors to the USSR rose by about 40 percent between 1980 and 1984, according to Intourist, the Soviet government travel organization.
After the affable November summit with its promise of cultural exchanges, the outlook for the upcoming year is even more favorable. Some travel specialists have dared to predict that 100,000 or more Americans will visit the USSR in 1986.
To plan a trip you can write to Intourist (630 Fifth Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10111), and it will send brochures, information, and a list of travel agencies specializing in the USSR. (All United States and Canadian travel agents must work through Intourist.)
A focus for a winter trip could be cross-country skiing near Moscow and Leningrad, or downhill skiing in Armenia. Or it might include the Farewell to Russian Winter Festival, held in Leningrad, Feb. 19 to March 5. Extras include a troika ride at the USSR Exhibition of Economic Achievements, or a folklore celebration.
Russian-language seminars and cruises on the Volga and Dnieper Rivers are among other options. Special-interest tours can be arranged for groups in a given profession, such as architects, teachers, artists, or music or nature lovers.
With some agencies specializing in individual travel, it's not always necessary to travel in a group. ``In the major tourist areas you can rent automobiles and just go around,'' according to Betty Vaughn, Intourist spokeswoman.
Seven or more people traveling together qualify as a group with Intourist and can obtain a package that includes three meals a day, sightseeing, and the ability to design their own trip. For individuals, only breakfast is included, but ``you're entitled to eat [lunch and dinner] in the hotel. Usually the hotels for tourists have the best restaurants,'' according to Robin Royal of Tour Designs, a Washington, D.C., travel agency.
Intourist offers a VIP service, with a guide at your disposal 15 hours a day, in Moscow and Leningrad. The cost is $200-$350 a day for one, plus $75-$100 for an additional person.
Unusual trips can be organized by the Citizen Exchange Council (CEC), a nonprofit organization that sponsors trips by Americans to the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe in order to increase understanding between people with similar interests. Many of these programs, such as trips for math teachers or professional ballet dancers, are closed. But others such as the cross-country skiing trip (Feb. 14 to March 1) and basic trips to Moscow and Leningrad are open to anyone. Tours generally last from 10 da ys to three weeks and cost between $1,400 and $2,500, including air fare. Contact CEC, 18 East 41st Street, New York, N.Y. 10017 (telephone 212-889-7960).
A more conventional high-quality tour is Maupintour's ``Art Treasures of Russia,'' taking in Moscow, Leningrad, Kiev, and six other cities ($1,838 to $1,998, double occupany, plus air). Maupintours offers five escorted tours between May and September 1986.
Your local bookstore may not have many Soviet guidebooks on its shelves, but there are some in print. The Blue Guide puts out ``Moscow and Leningrad'' (Ernest Benn Ltd., $17.95). Fodor's has a general guide, ``Fodor's Soviet Union'' (McKay, $14.95), and Nagel's offers several: ``Nagel Travel Guide to the USSR'' (Hippocrene Books, $45), ``Nagel Travel Guide to Moscow & Environs'' ($26), and the ``Nagel Guide to Leningrad and Environs'' ($26).