Books

The Utopian Leisure of Soviet Sanatoriums

Unlike Westerners, Soviets preferred to vacation at sanatoriums, which were modernist structures infused with a sense of utopia.

Mineral water bath at Matsesta Spa, Sochi (photo by Dmitry Lookianov, all images courtesy FUEL)

The old spa center at Matsesta, Sochi, is known for its hydrosulphuric spring water treatments that can alleviate the mind and the body of an array of stresses. Built in 1940 by architect A.O. Golubev, the institution is one of many Soviet-era treatment centers still open today for those curious to try a hot mineral-water bath or enjoy a hydromassage.

In a book recently published by FUEL, writer Maryam Omidi provides a detailed and intimate tour of over three dozen of these still-operating medical resorts she visited in 15 states, from Armenia to Kyrgyztan. Holidays in Soviet Sanatoriums pairs her well-researched descriptions of each institution with photographs of their exteriors and interiors, as captured by eight photographers. The nearly 200-page tome provides an overview of a very particular culture that is fascinating to outsider eyes without treating it as exotic.

Cover of ‘Holidays in Soviet Sanitoriums’ by Maryam Omidi, published by FUEL

For those who grew up in the USSR, trips to these sanatoriums were a regular part of the year. Omidi explains, in the book’s introduction, how, under Stalin, essentially every citizen would get to enjoy short stays, and many individuals were given state-funded vouchers to visit an institution so they could rest and also reflect on their role in a socialist ideals.

“Unlike western vacations, which Soviets perceived as vulgar pursuits characterized by conspicuous consumption and idleness, holidays in the USSR were decidedly purposeful,” Omidi writes. “Their function was to provide rest and recuperation, so citizens could return to work with renewed diligence and productivity.”

The treatments offered were diverse, from a restorative soak in crude oil baths to radon-water douches to electrotherapy. At Belarus’ National Speleotherapy Clinic, you can still head over one thousand feet underground to breathe in the cleansing air of a working salt mine, where tunnels house doctors’ offices as well as gym equipment. Those who favor above-ground treatments might opt to lie in the glittering black magnetic sand on the beaches of Kolkhida in Georgia, which purportedly treats a wide variety of ailments.

Guests at the Sanitorium Kolkhida in Georgia, lying on magnetic sand (photo by Claudine Doury)

Shot documentary-style, the photographs in Holidays in Soviet Sanatoriums offer glimpses of the many contraptions used in these treatments, portraits of visitors and workers, and views of the buildings from a distance. The architecture of these institutions are just as intriguing as the activities that unfold within them; they represent unique examples of brutalist, neo-futurist, and even neoclassical styles, although many of these giants are now dilapidated.

As Omidi explains, many sanatoriums were destroyed during WWII while some were converted into hospitals to treat the wounded. Other buildings fell into disrepair after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 sounded the death knell for the industry. Many of those that are operating today have had to find ways to keep customers coming, whether that means offering contemporary experiences such as chocolate body wraps or marketing their services as a can’t-be-missed tourist experience. The buildings, however, deserve to be preserved as invaluable historical records, Omidi argues, as reminders of the ideologies that bred these experiences in the first place.

“Although aesthetically diverse, sanatoriums were infused with the utopian values of the era, which championed architecture as a vehicle for social reform,” Omidi writes. “Sanatoriums were more than just rest homes, they were social condensers, designed to foster individual growth within a communal environment.”

Druzhba sanatorium in Crimea, overlooking the Black Sea (photo by Michal Solarski)
Taking a crude oil bath in Naftalan, Azerbaijan (photo by Claudine Doury)
Patients exercise in mineral water at a bathhouse in the spa town of Tskaltubo, Georgia (photo by Claudine Doury)
A hyperbaric oxygen therapy chamber in Rodnik, Russia (photo by Dmitry Lookianov)
A guest relaxes during a luminotherapy session in Naftalan, Azerbaijan, (photo by Claudine Doury)
Women use ultraviolet light-emitting sterilisation lamps to kill bacteria, viruses and fungi, in Aurora, Kyrgyzstan (photo by Egor Rogalev)
Working salt mine at the National Speleotherapy Clinic in Belarus, where guests eat, drink and sleep (photo by Egor Rogalev)
White modernist sanatorium, built in 1978, in Sochi (photo by Egor Rogalev)
Sanatorium in Foros, Crimea (photo by Michal Solarski)
Reshma sanatorium in Russia, near the Volga River (photo by Dmitry Lookianov)

Maryam Omidi’s Holidays in Soviet Sanatoriums is available on Amazon and other online booksellers.

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