Clean break: a new book explores the forgotten architecture of Soviet sanatoriums

Clean break: a new book explores the forgotten architecture of Soviet sanatoriums

‘Visiting a sanatorium is like stepping back in time,’ writes Maryam Omidi in Holidays in Soviet Sanatoriums, in which she takes the reader on a health-conscious journey into a world of peeling wallpaper, statues of Lenin and alternative, new world medicine.

Part health-spa, part hospital, sanatoriums once offered a ubiquitous, ‘decidedly purposeful’ pastime, explains Omidi. Their function was ‘to provide rest and recuperation, so citizens could return to work with renewed diligence and productivity’. This rapidly developing need and popularity saw 1,829 new sanatoriums built across the USSR by 1939. Here, for the first time, is an architecturally-led account of what happened.

Jhoja Obi Garm, a hulking brutalist building nestled high in the Gissar mountain range, opened in 1934. Photography: Michal Solarski

From Stalinist, neo-classical grandeur in Abkhazia to Khrushchyovka concrete blocks in Armenia, a bewildering array of styles is on display. There are examples of rare Soviet-era architectural flourishes – take the green-marbled walls of Tskaltubo in Georgia – which were only allowed, writes critic Diane Koenker, because sanatoriums ‘were intended to astonish, encouraging a “less traditional approach”’ to municipal building.

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. Since then, there’s been a gradual, century-long shift towards more relaxed sanatorium culture. Though many sanatoriums now sit in disrepair, the few that remain popular have modernised and developed to varying degrees. The pages of Holidays in Soviet Sanatoriums are populated by a cast of modern day visitors: elderly women undergoing magnetic therapy in Belarus; teenagers playing ping-pong in a working salt mine near Minsk; babies in bubbling bathtubs in Alyans.

The future of these time-warped hubs remains uncertain, and this book intends to be more than just a platform for Western-purview ogling. Rather, Omidi hopes it will act as a catalyst for the renovation and preservation of the sanatorium’s singular architectural history: ‘in the hope that they will be protected and restored for future generations’.

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