In the USSR, a spa weekend wasn’t a pampered holiday. It was a requisite, prescribed by the Soviet state. In their heyday, millions of citizens across the Soviet Union visited sanatoriums each year, on an all expenses retreat paid for by the state. Today these icons of communism are crumbling, in varying states of decay, with just a few still welcoming guests.
The Right to Rest and Leisure
At the dawn of the USSR, Joseph Stalin amended the Soviet constitution to ensure that all working citizens of the Soviet Union would receive an annual two week paid vacation. “It was against this backdrop that the sanatorium holiday was born.” Workers received putevki (vouchers), which they could use to stay at state-sponsored sanatoriums all across the Soviet Union. Paid annual leave also kick-started an entirely new industry. Just three years after enshrining the two week vacation into law, more than 1,800 new sanatoriums with almost 240,000 beds had been built.
A cross between a medical institution and a spa, sanatoriums played a critical role in Soviet society. Citizens were sent to spa towns in Georgia, Crimea, and Kazakhstan where they bathed in warm radon-carbonate waters from nearby springs - in Azerbaijan they bathed in oil. The mineral waters (and oil) were prescribed to cure ailments ranging from eczema to infertility. While western vacations were characterised by their decadent consumption and idleness, Soviet holiday’s, like everything else in the USSR, served a purpose. They existed “to provide rest and recuperation, so citizens could return to work with renewed diligence and productivity”.
The Train to Tskaltubo
In January 1950, Soviet architects I. Zaalishvili and V. Kedia created plans for a new sanatorium town in Tskaltubo, Georgia. The town would have 19 sanatoriums and 9 bathhouses, all surrounding a large park. More than 4,000 workers worked around the clock, almost 24 hours a day, to build the town. In December 1950, less than 12 months after construction first began, the first bathhouse opened to the public. Under the Soviet-mandated ‘right to rest’, Tskaltubo quickly became the most important sanatorium town in the USSR. Visitors came from all over the Soviet Union, with four trains arriving from Moscow each day. Joseph Stalin even had a dacha (summer residence) nearby.
Soviet sanatoriums were striking. Their vast size, neoclassical designs and intricate ornamentation were the peak of opulence and decadence. “Such buildings challenge the standard notion that architecture under communism was unsightly and drab...Despite these moments of ornamentation, cold-floored functionality prevails. This is reflected in the stoic attitude of a young Soviet Union, when every aspect of sanatorium life from ‘sleep to sunbathing’ was strictly monitored.”
The Death Knell for Sanatoriums
The collapse of the Soviet empire in 1991 sounded the death knell for sanatoriums and state-sponsored vacations. Without adequate funding, most sanatoriums shut their doors to the public. They were boarded up and left empty. But, the Tskaltubo sanatoriums weren’t left empty for long. In 1992, rising tensions in Abkhazia, a breakaway autonomous republic, led to a devastating war and the ethnic cleansing of Georgians from the area. Of the estimated 200,000 ethnic Georgians who fled the war, some 8,000 refugees were given temporary housing in the now vacant sanatoriums.
More than quarter of a century later, many of the original refugees and their families have settled for good in these crumbling sanatoriums. Over the years, they’ve adapted the buildings to suit their needs. Clothes dry on washing lines strung across hallways, while children play on grand arching staircases beneath ornate chandeliers. Prohibitive maintenance costs meant that these palatial neoclassical relics have been left to crumble and decay. Fires and floods have further damaged the structural integrity of many buildings. Internal fittings like furniture, equipment was sold off, while wooden panelling, doors and floorboards used as firewood in the early days of an independent Georgia. Today, Tskaltubo receives just 700 visitors a year according to official figures (pre-Covid). With only passing interest in preservation, these crumbling ruins of a magnificent past face an uncertain future.