The name sanatorium is misleading to us. The Russians use it to describe not only hospitals and convalescent homes but also the greater number of recreation and rest homes. Journey into Russia, 1964
Before the revolution, there were 36 spas and 56 sanatoria. Today there are 350 spas and nearly 2500 sanatoria where, last year, four and a half million people were treated. Pittsburg Post, 1955
Following Lenin’s decree in 1919 that ‘localities with curative properties are the property of the people and are to be used for curative purposes,’ Sochi has harnessed its 90 miles of spectacular, subtropical coast to this end. The New York Times, 1982
Like everywhere else, the hot water didnâ€™t work, the washstands had no stoppers, the bathtubs were rusted, tiles were missing in the floors, panes of glass were broken and the toilet sputtered all day long. But the rooms were very clean and the beds were comfortable. Pittsburg Post, 1955
The claims made for the waters of Matsesta vary from curing sterility in women to arresting baldness in men, and if nastiness is a measure of the quality of a medicine the smell in this sanatorium should be proof of its excellence. Journey into Russia, 1964
Medical treatment must rank among the most popular of organized Soviet vacation activities, and Russians often profess astonishment that Americans do not share their faith in sulfurous muds and radioactive springs. The New York Times, 1982
One may swim, go out in an outboard motorboat and join excursion groups under the aegis of a hostess. But at 10 p.m., everyone must go to sleep. Only high officials and general officers are exempt from this rule. Pittsburg Post, 1955
The diary of Viktor Ivanovich 1 Finally arrived in the sanatorium. The five-day train ride from Irkutsk has worn me out. The wakeful nights, the days half asleep, the invitations to come and drink wine or vodka in one of the carriages at completely random moments, the bread and leftovers getting older as the journey went on. But here in Sochi it is warm. I recognise the station, from the postcards and the holidays I spent here when I was young. I report to the reception at sanatorium Metallurg with my putyovka, the important proof that a place has been reserved and paid for you at this sanatorium. The document that brought down the Soviet Union, a friend of my father’s once joked. For a putyovka, you first had to be a party member, do jobs on the side for your foreman or otherwise be in good standing. Just like when you wanted a car or an apartment. You had to arrange everything through your network or buy it for large sums of money. My putyovka is replaced with another and torn into pieces to be filed in the different administrations. One for the head doctor, one for the chambermaid, one for the stolovaya – the canteen – and one to be kept at the reception. I receive a treatment booklet. I am shown my room – I have a nice balcony with a view of the fountain – and then I’m able to see the senior doctor. She reads the letter that my doctor in Irkutsk has written and sets to work. She fastens numerous clips to my chest and pumps up bands around my ankles and wrists, to take a cardiogram. Then she asks questions about my allergies and abnormalities and puts together a detailed programme of which I receive a neat print-out. Spring water three times a day, herb tea once a day, then a radon bath followed by electrically charged mud on your weak joints or organs. Sometimes the bath is replaced by a massage. In a different office a cut is made in your forefinger with a small knife, and a glass tube with bellows draws blood out of the cut. The blood appears to be put at random in various tubes, between tubes where other visitors’ blood still clings to the sides. I let it all happen to me; I am mostly here to recover – there is actually very little wrong with me. In the afternoon I settle into my bedroom and smoke on the balcony. Observe the kind of people here. This is my first time here and for now I keep an open mind. I’ll first catch up on some sleep and then find out what the relationships are like. 2 Almost late for breakfast. Terrible dreams about the sea where enormous fish and dolphins carry me away and do terrible things to me. I don’t like the sea; I always stay on the beach. A landlubber. In Irkutsk I work for the local government, in the infrastructure department, and am responsible, in part, for overseeing work on the roads. Work hasn’t been going well recently. Proposed projects are being hampered and budgets are disappearing. The governor has already asked questions. The coming weeks will be tense, someone will have to be held responsible for this failing. My marriage – two children – is on the rocks as a result of the stress that this has caused. Perhaps that’s why I was given a putyovka: I have my problems and they need some space.
Most people here don’t have a job at all; they are invalids or pensioners and were given a putyovka by the state to complete a long course of treatment in a sanatorium. A proper course lasts 21 days – I am only completing eleven. 3 At around six in the morning you already start hearing the first noises outside. Old men who can’t sleep any longer shuffle with their walking sticks past the fountain and the pond with carp. Quietly, from the balconies, you can hear the others getting up. The water pressure in the shower drops momentarily and the benches in the park begin to fill with early sun worshippers. It turned into a late night last night. There was karaoke in the ballroom and afterwards we talked to other guests outside in the park. Everyone is new to me and everyone familiarises me with the hotel. Later, in one of the rooms, we drank vodka with Grisha, from Vladimir. He is sorry that the average age here is so high. I have formed a small club with Grisha and Dmitry. We go to the beach together, eat breakfast, lunch and dinner at the same table and drink vodka in each other’s bedrooms. The dance programme this evening was wilder than I have seen in a long time. Guests who until now I haven’t even noticed in the dining room wave their arms and legs, and old Lydia, our 63-year-old DJ, plays catchy songs and top hits as if it is the most normal thing in the world. Marissa detaches herself from the group. She spins around and finishes in the middle of the circle. With a broad grin and bowing to the clapping men and women in the circle she shows off her moves. She is phenomenally large. Her dress is red with pink and green stripes, which looks like it sounds. Her stuck-up blonde hair flies in all directions and it isn’t long before an old man plucks up the courage to join her. The circle tightens and dissolves until the dance floor is a swirling sea of mostly over-60s, from Belograd, Murmansk, Perm, Ekaterinenburg, St. Petersburg, Moscow, Krasnodar, Vladivostok. I stick to the balcony to smoke and feel a little homesick for the pubs in Irkutsk. On the smoking balcony I meet Yulia. She comes from Moscow and divorced her husband three years ago. We smoke a little and talk. When the wild dance party is over, some of the guests make a final round of the park, say goodnight to each other and go to their bedrooms. I go with Dmitry to the bar down the street. There, swept along by several Abkhazians singing raucously, we dance some more, drink heavily and smoke, which in the sanatorium is done rather furtively. 4 After lunch everyone goes to the beach. It is October, but still around 25 degrees Celsius. On the beach Evgeny dances in a circle. We drank Russia long ago! he calls, the self-professed alconaut. He has been drinking vodka, so I easily beat him at a game of chess between the sun loungers. Yulia is there too. She is young and also came alone. This makes her stand out. She swims gracefully into the sea and we watch her. My first love was also in Sochi, during a pioneers’ camp near Lazarevsky. Just before the collapse of the Soviet Union – it was a great time. Sochi has always had something of that magic, everyone knew Sochi as the dazzling centre of the best that the Soviet
Union had to offer – the Black Sea coast. Inspired by German spas such as Baden Baden, where famous Russian writers like Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy conversed with the European elite, at the end of the 19th century spas also began to be built here, on Crimea, but also on the recently conquered coastal region of the Black Sea around Sochi and south towards Georgia. During the October Revolution, Sochi had little to recommend it. It had just outgrown the status of final stronghold against the Caucasians and Turks, but for many it was still an unhealthy swamp where malaria was rife and where surely nothing could ever be made of it. If only they had known. In the first years of his regime, Lenin issued a decree in which he declared his desire to open up the whole coastal area around Sochi, the healing water of Matsesta for the Russian proletariat. And all the ministries, army units and unions started building the magnificent holiday and healing accommodation for their workers. The small, young Sochi became grand. A trip here as a reward for hard work or to recuperate from your injuries or illnesses was the best thing that could happen to a Russian at the time. Sochi was also a refuge for the Soviet leaders, for the highly regarded cosmonauts and actors, actresses and the Soviet Union’s other jet set. This sanatorium, Metallurg, was only built in 1956, three years after Stalin’s death, but exudes the architectural style associated with his name: large, pompous colonnades, fountains, steps, vast halls. This is precisely as he must have intended it – palaces for the proletariat. 5 Babushka Sveta and granddaughter Nastya have left. A pity, because they livened up the place. No day went by without Nastya hanging on your leg, or tearing around the stolovaya. Lunch with my regular mates Grisha and Dmitry. In silence we slurp our soup, rice pudding, cutlets and mashed potato. This is followed by a cup of coffee and a plate piled high from the dessert table, where from the beginning everyone has enjoyed helping themselves to large servings of cake and gelatine pudding. And large cups of smetana, the yoghurt-like cream that no one can get enough of. The same dishes are served every day and every day I fall for it. Once again too much soup, meat and cakes. Every day everyone gets a little fatter. The regularity of the day is improbable. Every day, at the same time the exact same thing happens. Even the occasional secret shots of vodka seem to fit into this. I actually need to think, make decisions and at the same time relax, but I find myself falling into a fatal, numb rhythm. I wonder what’s in the spring water. 6 After my apparat potok – the electrically charged clay – the cleaner is waiting for me and tells me off. For days I haven’t made my bed properly and why I haven’t unpacked my suitcase into the cupboards is a mystery to her. I have to demonstrate everything, how I tie the curtains in the right place, lay out the bedspread with the bare side facing up and finally how the floor has to stay free of clothes and suitcases. Frantically, she starts to vacuum and drives me into the billiard room. There’s no one there to play billiards with so I smoke a cigarette on the balcony. Grisha and Dmitry have both left; their stay at the sanatorium is over. The enormous emptiness of the proletariats’ palace suddenly hits me. I decide to look for Yulia.
7 I meet Sasha and Sergei during lunch. They have just arrived in the sanatorium and want everyone to know about it. At least half the guests here come to the sanatorium alone. Enough people, then, with whom to build contacts. But it is also a little like a monkey rock, on which a steady stream of new monkeys is let loose. Sasha and Sergei are obviously aiming for the top of the rock. I like them, together we can roam Metallurg’s grounds. We sit at the table and they tell me briefly where they are from. Sasha from Novosibirsk, Sergei from closer by, Nizhniy Novgorod. We make a cursory inspection of the crowd in the dining room, familiar to me, but completely new to Sergei and Sasha. In the back in the corner is shy Ivan, from Irkutsk like me, although I’ve never met him there. Over there is the table round babushka Ivana, a pitch-black Russian who has assembled her own clientele. Over there Evgeny, who always seems to be drunk. Yulia’s identity I keep to myself for now. At the back, near the balcony with a view of the sea, are the families. They are wrapped up in each other and keep themselves to themselves. Just like the invalids, often young men with similarly young wives. One of them, Valentin, fell off a ladder seven years ago. He broke his neck and little by little his body is beginning to function again. You can have a laugh with him, but that’s as far as it goes. I’m happy Sergei and Sasha are here. For a change, we order beer at the small bar in the dining room. 8 In the park I meet the new marketing manager. We start talking and out of nowhere he asks me if I don’t find the sanatorium terribly boring. I feel almost hurt, even though it is his place. Yes boring, he says. All those old people. That Soviet mentality. The personnel. We’re going to make a clean sweep, Viktor Ivanovich, he says to me. This is going to become a four-star hotel, with a large bar, a chlorinated swimming pool that always works and we’re going to get rid of all the medical facilities. We’re going to tackle everything, the walls, the parquet floors, the furniture. We’ll make sure that the palace is preserved but everything is going to be new and beautiful, so that during the Olympic Games we have one of the most beautiful hotels in Sochi. He sees my dubious expression. All well and good, but no more Metallurg for me, then. Oh yes, says Siray – he is a Muslim from North Ossetia – the large companies will still be able to buy putyovkas from us and put up their personnel here. I doubt whether the Irkutsk council will do that. 9 Underneath my balcony the senior nurse smokes a cigarette. The cat follows her and she gives it some fish from a plastic bag. The nurse has worked here for 32 years, unbelievable. But not for much longer. Within two years she will be discharged. They are going to regret it. After the Olympic Games, why will high-paying guests suddenly come and stay here, while the sanatorium is already nearly always fully occupied. Another visit to Matsesta today. Six minutes of inhaling sulphurous air for my lungs, 12 minutes in a sulphur bubble bath and that was it. Cursed Matsesta, my father would say. Thanks to the water from Matsesta, that old Brezhnev lived for another ten years. This was clearly something that bothered his successors, Andropov and Chernenko, far less.
The evening programme is a perfume presentation followed by a slide show about ‘berries and honey from the Caucasus’. The title says it all. In his room Sasha produces Armenian cognac from his bag, and the debauched evening that followed is buried deep in the recesses of my mind. 10 Up till now the sanatorium has not helped me gain much additional strength. The massage this morning is welcome but painful. In the evening the concert that was scheduled to take place in the concert hall is moved outside, down on the steps in the park. A simple chair is enough for the accordionist to play his heart out. He sings old Soviet songs that I can just remember from my parents. Thirty other guests sit in front of him on the park benches. They sing along exuberantly. Sergei and Sasha wink at me. Our little club of 30 year olds gets along well. We disappear to the bar again, below the park on Kurortny Prospekt. There is a disco there and young women. Our devushka has trouble refilling our 300gram carafes of vodka fast enough. We buy some more and decide to continue the revelry in one of our rooms. The accordionist is still playing, in the pitch dark. Several babushkas hang over the balconies. If the accordionist weren’t playing such beautiful songs, they would have complained. I meet Yulia in the corridor and in the pleasant state I am in, decide to have another drink with her. Grumbling, Sasha and Sergei go on their way. 11 It is the last day of my stay here. Sergei and Sasha will stay for another two weeks. Judging by the bags under their eyes they will have a tough time of it. My time is over. A five-day train journey back to Irkutsk. Maybe on the train I’ll get round to thinking. Once more I allow the electricity to shoot through my bones in the apparat potok, where Tamara Fedorovna hastily but always with a joke places the pieces of warm clay on my back. Once more the wonderful but always slightly painful massage from Ekaterina Fyodorovna. My wife will wonder how my back got so blue. Then to the buffet, cups full of smetana, and for dessert fresh kompot with those little gelatine puddings. And then the bus arrives to take me to the station. Sergei and Sasha have bought beer. I heard them yesterday evening singing loudly. For them the beer is a hangover cure; for me it has to be something festive. There is little chance that I will ever see any of the sanatorium guests again. Babushka Ivana comes and stands next to us, tutting. A couple of scoundrels, she says good-naturedly. I heard you yesterday. On my right I see Yulia sitting alone at a table. I will miss her. But in my head I have already said goodbye. Don’t forget to buy a few hundred grams of vodka at the station for in the train, shoots through my head.
The popularity of the spas seems to be in the Soviet character. There is something about treatment based on mineral springs, sun and air that appeal to a proclivity among Russian for folk cures, natural medicines and selfdiagnoses. The New York Times, 1982
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Published on Aug 16, 2011