Inside the state-funded Soviet sanatoriums
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For most, a health spa is a haven for rest and relaxation and nothing more.
But in the USSR they were designed to further the needs of the country, to restore the health of the workers so they could be even more productive.
Sanatorium visits were distributed through the workplace and a fascinating new book – Holidays in Soviet Sanatoriums by Maryam Omidi – offers an insight into these architectural gems, about which very little is known in the West, with a comprehensive collection of photographs and text on their history.
Kyrgyzstan: Two women use ultraviolet light-emitting sterilisation lamps in their noses to kill bacteria, viruses and fungi
High-rise: The White Nights sanatorium in Sochi, which was erected in 1978 and remains active today
Foros sanatorium in the Crimea: Millions have attended the retreat, which borders on the shore of the Black Sea
Kolkhida: While some sanatoriums offered mud baths, Kolkhida’s main attraction has always been its magnetic sand – the glittery black powder that coats the beach is believed to alleviate various ailments related to the heart, blood, joints, circulation and bones
When pampering gets political: ‘Sanatoriums were more than just rest homes – they were social condensers, designed to foster individual growth within a communal environment,’ writes Omidi
Millions would visit them for two-week breaks using vouchers – either for free or for a subsidised rate – and undergo treatments such as crude-oil baths, radon-water douches and being immersed in magnetic sands.
Omidi explains in her book that visiting a Soviet-era sanatorium is ‘like stepping back in time’.
The buildings themselves are often quite ornamental, she explains, but now they lie in varying states of decay, with few very few still open for business.
She says: ‘Vestiges of another age linger all around – in fragments of decades-old wallpaper stubbornly clinging to walls, or colourful mosaics glorifying the Soviet worker.
Tailor-made treatments: For patients unable to endure the heat of a full mineral-water bath, this topical treatment allowed the submersion of just arms and legs
Healthy? The purifying layers of sylvanite and rock salt can be seen in the walls of this underground salt mine, where guests can be seen exercising and inhaling as much as the oxygen as possible
Rodnik Sanatorium: A guest takes an oxygen steam bath. The treatment is reported to aid slimming by burning calories, as well as reducing the appearance of cellulite and other skin conditions
‘Plants of all shapes and sizes inhabit every corner, while spartan guest rooms with single beds evoke a bygone era when guests travelled to sanatoriums alone. Mealtimes too are unforgettable, with food in more shades of beige than you ever thought possible.’
She goes on to explain that free time ‘greatly engaged Soviet leaders as they set out to define and shape the New Soviet man’.
Soviets regarded western holidays as vulgar and idle. In contrast, their vacations were designed to improve diligence.
Good, clean fun: A guest bathes in crude oil for up to ten minutes at the Naftalan sanatorium in Azerbaijan
Under the 1922 Soviet Labour code a two-week vacation was mandatory and under Stalin’s rule every citizen had the ‘right to rest’.
Omidi adds: ‘It was against this backdrop that the sanatorium holiday was born.’
She insists that her book is not ‘ruin porn’ but ‘an exploration of the Utopian ideals that these sanatoriums were built upon, the unconventional treatments that they offer and the individual stories of those who visit them’.
Holidays in Soviet Sanatoriums by Maryam Omidi, published by Fuel, is out now.
Making a splash in Tskaltubo! Patients exercise in mineral water at Bathhouse 6, which once included a private room for Stalin
Naftalan sanatorium: A male guest relaxes during a luminotherapy session, which sees him covered in floral bedsheets
Druzhba: When it was built in 1985 by architect Igor Vasilevsky and engineer Nodar Kancheli, its neo-futuristic style caught the eye of the Pentagon and Turkish intelligence, who mistook it for a missile-launch facility, while others thought it was a UFO
Cupping: A brave man in the Naftalan sanatorium tries the quirky therapy, which is said to relieve back and neck pains
Force for good: A female guest undergoes a form of bizarre-looking magnetic therapy at a sanatorium in Belarus
Out now: The images are part of a wider collection in Holidays in Soviet Sanatoriums by Maryam Omidi, published by Fuel