About this project
Soviet architecture often conjures up images of monolithic building blocks, but the era’s sanatoriums are among the most diverse and experimental structures of that time. Similar to modern-day spas but with a strong medical component, Soviet workers would spend a week or two each year at a sanatorium, paid for by the state, so that they could recover from the exertions of their labour.
This book will be the first to offer a comprehensive collection of photographs and text on Soviet-era sanatoriums, both their history, and, more importantly, their afterlives. To be clear: this isn’t ruin porn; the focus will be on those sanatoriums still in operation. The book will be 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.
From the steppes of Kazakhstan to the wine-growing regions of Georgia, our team of six photographers and one writer will travel across the former Soviet Union to document the best sanatoriums from this era. Expect lush interiors, evocative portraiture and stunning architectural photography alongside in-depth interviews with guests and employees.
Today there are many sanatoriums sprinkled across the post-Soviet space in varying states of decay. Their construction began in 1920 and continued right up until the collapse of the Soviet Union. According to Professor Diane Koenker, by 1922, two weeks of annual holiday were enshrined in the labour code and at their peak in 1990, the Soviet Union’s sanatoriums could house more than half a million guests at any time.
The question of leisure was one that preoccupied Soviet thinkers; free time and work were not separate but connected with the former seen as a way of increasing productivity. The spirit of the annual sojourn was pithily captured in 1966 by S Antonov, a metal fitter and model of socialist labour, who told a newspaper: “I receive my vacation once a year and I try not to waste a single day of it in idleness.”
Soviet workers were sent to sanatoriums once a year so that they could return refreshed and ready for work. Workers in the toughest industries, such as mining, were prioritised over others. Stays at sanatoriums were overseen by doctors; even sunbathing was monitored by health professionals. In addition to bathing in thermal waters and undergoing therapeutic mud treatments, sanatorium guests would engage in physical exercise and stick to a nutritious diet.
The idea for the book came about in early 2015, after I (Maryam Omidi) stayed at Khoja Obi Garm, a sanatorium nestled in the mountains in Tajikistan, known for its curative, radon-filled waters. I was blown away by the architecture and landscape — a giant concrete, brutalist block on top of a snow-capped mountain (see main image) — and warmed by the hospitality of those working and staying there.
The treatments too, such as “hot treatment radon water sprinkling method between legs” and “friction and shaking with medical electrical equipment”, were as peculiar as their names suggest. I remember walking into the swimming pool on my first day only to be greeted by a group of Tajik women, totally naked, their pendulous bosoms bobbing up and down in the water and their smiles flashing gold teeth. These were the women I’d spend the next few days with, swimming, chatting, eating, dancing and sweating it out in the sauna. (You can read more about my experience here.)
On my return I sent an email to Fuel, a London-based design and publishing group, known for their beautifully designed books including the Russian Criminal Tattoo archive, Soviet Space Dogs and Soviet Bus Stops. The team at Fuel, Damon Murray and Stephen Sorrell, came back with an enthusiastic reply. If I could get the book together they’d cover its design and publication.
Next I contacted staff at The Calvert Journal, an award-winning online magazine dedicated to contemporary art and culture in the New East, and where I used to work as features editor. Apart from one, all the photographers involved in this project have been featured on the The Calvert Journal website. While some represent the best in young, emerging talent from this diverse region, others are more established; others still offer an outsider’s viewpoint. All bring a fresh perspective and a sharp eye to the work that they produce.
We have a shortlist of the best sanatoriums across the former Soviet Union, which we hope to visit with your help. Your contributions will help us create the content for this book before we hand over to Fuel for the design and publication part of the process. We have a range of rewards from the small (reproduction vintage postcards) to the big (a sanatorium stay for two) and of course, the book itself, which we plan to deliver to you by spring 2017.
Claudine Doury is a Paris-based photographer. She received the Leica Oscar Barnack award in 1999, the World Press in 2000 and the Prix Niepce for her entire work in 2004. Her first monograph, Peuples de Sibérie, was published in 1999. Since then she has published Artek, un été en Crimée (2004), Loulan Beauty (2007) and Sasha (2011).
Michal Solarski is an award-winning, London-based photographer whose work focuses on migration and memory. His work has been widely exhibited and published in numerous publications including the Guardian, Time, GQ and Vanity Fair among others. After finishing his masters in politics in Poland, Solarski moved to London to study at The London College of Communication where he received his second masters in documentary photography.
Egor Rogalev is an architectural and documentary photographer based in St Petersburg He is particularly interested in the Russian and Ukrainian suburbs where the simultaneous process of modernisation and decay is taking place. His work examines post-Soviet reality as a quintessential fragment of the larger pattern of modernity and tries to confront western stereotypes as well as the self-exotising visions based on them.
Olya Ivanova is a documentary photographer from Moscow with a fascination with the Russian village. Her work has been featured in a varity of publications including the Guardian, Monocle, the Financial Times, the Daily Telegraph and Vice and exhibited around the world in galleries in Belgium, France, the UK, the US, Italy and Thailand. She is a graduate of the Institute of Contemporary Art in Moscow and has a BA in Russian literature.
Dmitry Lookianov is an emerging talent on the Russian photographic scene. A graduate of the Moscow Rodchenko School of Photography and Multimedia, his series Instant Tomorrow examines issues related to globalisation from the perspective of the Moscow suburbs and high-rise buildings. For his most recent series, DKdance, Lookianov spent two years documenting what remains of the 18 Soviet Palaces of Culture in central Russia.
Berlin-based René Fietzek is a freelance photographer whose work has been published in numerous magazines including Vogue Germany and Neon. Aside from fashion photography, he has travelled extensively to countries such as Lebanon and Ethiopia to take photographs for NGOs. He is a graduate of visual communication in Hamburg and before that, theatre, film and media in Vienna.
Maryam Omidi is a former journalist. Her work has been published in a variety of publications such as The Guardian, the Wall Street Journal Europe and Reuters. You can see examples of her work here and here.
Special thanks to Gaetan Nivon for his filming and editing services, Lesya Myata for her tenacity as fixer and producer, and the management of Ai Petri in Crimea for giving us permission to film in their sanatorium.
Risks and challenges
One of the greatest challenges will be access. Several of the countries in the former Soviet Union that our photographers will be travelling to have authoritarian and unfriendly governments. Visas to these countries can be hard to come by, travel within challenging.
However, this is not the case for most of the countries in this region. As closed as some are, others have opted for the opposite approach, offering visa-free travel in a bid to boost tourism in their country.
Our team is ready and waiting to go. We need your help so that we can get to these sanatoriums to take photos that will, we hope, inspire you and perhaps even encourage you to visit some of these places yourself.