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Aurora­­, Kyrgyzstan | © Michal Solarski / Fuel-designs.com
Aurora­­, Kyrgyzstan | © Michal Solarski / Fuel-designs.com

Inside the Strange World of Soviet Sanatoriums

Picture of Zita Whalley
Updated: 15 December 2017

Soviet sanatoriums were state-run institutions that provided workers with constructive rest. Halfway between a spa and a clinic, they offered unconventional health and wellbeing treatments. And as Maryam Omidi, author of Holidays in Soviet Sanatoriums discovered, a handful of them still operate in Russia and the post-Soviet states today. Here’s everything you need to know. 

Background

Hundreds of sanatoriums are scattered throughout Russia and the post-Soviet states. They are found in places with an abundance of healing natural resources – particularly areas that have a reputation for healing ailments. The therapeutic effects of these natural surroundings form the basis of sanatorium treatments.

In Georgia, for example, there are magnetic sands which people believe can treat heart, blood, joint, and bone conditions. In Tskaltubo, 21 sanatoriums and 8 bath houses turned the area into a premier resort town – its healing mineral waters being the main attraction. During World War II, high ranking officials would flock to Tskaltubo to treat themselves with the water’s healing properties.

As part of the sanatorium experience, workers underwent treatments for their ailments. Historically, these practices were rooted in kurortology, a Soviet medical practice based on restoring the relationship between humans and the environment.

Famous sanatoriums

Eventually, certain regions became famed for healing particular kinds of ailments. While the blue waters and warmer weather of Crimea had enticed visitors for centuries, the sanatoriums here utilised the area’s coastal seas and clean ocean air to alleviate orthopedic disorders and heart diseases. Sochi’s sanatoriums became known for their climate therapies, specialising in respiratory and skin conditions.

In the Caucus town of Zheleznovodsk, the sanatoriums have long championed enemas as a method to benefit from the area’s mineral rich and healing waters, so much so that the town has erected a statue in tribute to the procedure.

Treatments

Sanitoriums offer natural treatments for a host of conditions, ranging from arthritis to gynaecological issues, rheumatism to mould in the nose, ears and throat. Among the world of strange and unusual health practices, crude oil baths, paraffin wax, electrotherapy oxygen shakes, magnetic therapies, ultraviolet light sterilisation lamps and salt therapy were offered as solutions.

Sanatorium buildings

Kurortology influenced architecture, as did State ideals. As a result, many buildings were at the forefront of the era’s innovation and creativity – architects were graced with more creative freedoms that other designers were not, perhaps in part because of the role sanatoriums played in serving the collective workforce.

Reflecting kurortology’s ideal of looking to nature for personal restoration, the seaside sanatorium of Druzhba in Crimea was built to maximise ocean and mountain views. It was designed in such a way that it would not damage the surrounding nature.

In keeping with Soviet ideology, communal spaces were emphasised, while individual living areas were minimised. Rooms were spartan and plain, meals were taken in communal dining halls and leisure time was scheduled. Group activities were encouraged, which fed into the Soviet tenet of collective living.

Sanatoriums today

Once entirely state run, nowadays many sanatoriums are privately owned and scores of them are in a state of disrepair. The ones that remain in use are adjusting to modern times. Organised leisure time has been scrapped as a compulsory practice. Some places even offer typically Western treatments, such as chocolate body wraps, alongside their old-school practices. In order for these relics to continue to thrive in the new post-Soviet world, sanatoriums have had to adapt to entice a younger crowd.

Think Soviet sanatoriums are unique? Check out these bizarre Soviet era bus stops.

Holidays in Soviet Sanatoriums by Maryam Omidi, published by FUEL