These Soviet-Era Spas Are Still Accepting Guests
Between the Russian Revolution of 1917 and the dissolution of the USSR in 1991, the Soviet Union built hundreds of sanatoriums across its vast empire for the relaxation and recuperation of its citizens. Such sanatoriums—half hospital, half spa—were ordained by Lenin himself, who in 1920 issued a decree entitled “On Utilizing the Crimea For the Medical Treatment of Working People.” The Labor Code of 1922 declared that all working people must stay at a sanatorium for at least two weeks a year; at their peak capacity, in 1990, Soviet sanatoriums could handle up to half a million guests at a time.
Many of these sanatoriums closed their doors after the fall of Communism, with some becoming makeshift refugee camps. But dozens more are still in operation across the former Soviet bloc, operated either by the state or by private companies. Eight photographers recently collaborated on a book about these surviving sanatoriums, including London-based Michal Solarski, who grew up in a small Polish town that had its own sanatorium. “In Poland, this way of spending holidays was very popular,” he says. “Almost every middle-aged or elderly person would go these places before the fall of the Iron Curtain.”
The ideal Soviet holiday differed significantly from the Western concept. While Westerners generally use their vacations to relax or travel, workers in the USSR were expected to spend their time off improving their health so that they could return to their jobs more productive than ever. To that end, they received free or discounted treatment at a state-designated sanatorium, where their first stop was at the doctor’s office to receive their prescribed course of treatment. Depending on the sanatorium, those treatments might include anything from electrotherapy, to a crude oil bath, to spending time breathing the air a thousand miles below ground in a working salt mine.
For his contribution to the book project, Solarski photographed working sanatoriums in the former Soviet provinces of Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Crimea. Many of the sanatoriums remain architectural landmarks thanks to their grandiose Constructivist architecture. “Some of the places I visited are jaw-dropping,” he says. “There’s one sanatorium in Crimea that looks like a Coke bottle. When it was built, Western intelligence agencies apparently mistook it for a missile silo.”
As can be inferred from his photographs, the “treatments” at these sanatoriums are hardly state-of-the-art. But for people who remember life under the Soviet Union, that may be part of their appeal. “In Kyrgyzstan, the sanatorium reminded me of Poland 40 years ago when I was a kid,” Solarski says. “It’s so far from Poland, but it was very familiar to me—the foods, how people behave. It’s kind of frozen in time.”