The Sochi Sanitorium

Kirsty Kay February 24, 2014

 The Sochi Sanitorium: Regimented Relaxation or Resort?

Svetlana Sanitorium, Sochi 1910

Svetlana Sanitorium, Sochi 1910

Although becoming known around the world as the host city of the 2014 Winter Olympics, most people are not aware that Sochi has a much longer relationship with fitness, linking Russia’s history to its changing ideas of health and well-being.

Since becoming a Russian territory in the 1860’s, Sochi has been used as a resort town for wealthy elites to rest and recuperate. The first Sanatoria opened in the early Twentieth century, and by the Revolution in 1917 the city was filled with resort hotels, spas and villas. These were nationalized by Lenin and used as holiday resorts for workers, becoming ‘health factories’ of the USSR, restoring body and mind of the Soviet proletariat rather than just for the aristocratic elites of the old social order. 

Although presented as beach holidays, these Soviet vacations were not restful family affairs with even free time  ideologically grounded in the Soviet way of life. A worker’s annual leave under Communism in the USSR was granted and paid for by the state, with each Sanitorium run by different trade unions offering appropriate treatments for their workers-Coal miners were given lung treatments and taught exercises to help their respiratory systems.

Sochi Waterfront, 1930's

Sochi Waterfront, 1930’s

Rather than a lazy, sun-soaked vacation, these state-sanctioned trips had strict daily schedules where people were subjected to shock therapies, strapped to complex machines that trained their bodies to work more effectively. Instead of cocktails and exotic food, visitors were given extra-strength vitamin shots to compensate for the lack of fresh fruit and vegetables in their diet in the rest of the year. Even sunbathing was regulated to give maximum benefits to the skin, and often followed by ‘cold water treatments’. 

The buildings of this new resort town were not as austere as the treatments, however, but continues the Nineteenth century neo-classical architectural style that Sochi was originally known for. The city was developed in this way, extending the values of the Sanitoria throughout Sochi: grand buildings placed in between a fully landscaped town center with fountains, statues and flowerbeds.

Ordzhonikidze Sanatorium, Sochi

Ordzhonikidze Sanatorium, Sochi

This was an attempt by the government to show workers they too were worthy of such grandeur. Not just for the old aristocrats, Sochi provided the proletariat with luxury they never before thought imaginable. Cultural activities were also part of the experience, with film and music festivals, classical music, ballet and sporting competitions for everyone to enjoy.

By the 1970’s the strict sanitorium life relaxed, with families allowed to visit the resort for more traditional beach vacations. The popularity of the resort grew throughout Communism, and by the 1980’s around 5 million people visited every year.

Sochi Boardwalk, 1873

Sochi Boardwalk, 1973

Sochi remains a popular tourist destination to this day, even without the appeal of the Winter Olympics, with locals still using the old Russian slang word ‘dikari’ meaning ‘savages’ to describe the hoards of tourists arriving from all over the old USSR to rest and tan themselves in the beautiful resort town that could be another planet compared to the often freezing and dismal life a worker had in Soviet times.

Today the Sanitoria have mostly been developed into luxury hotels or demolished to make way for modern high-rise accommodation for the Winter Olympics. Gone are the magical machines and strict health regimes designed for everyone to enjoy. One old Soviet Spa, the Rossiya, has been turned into a luxury hotel with rooms costing up to $5,500 per night. But the idea of Sochi being a break from everyday Russian life still exists: a playground for relaxation and entertainment that can be enjoyed by everyone-from the Siberian miner to old Vlad Putin himself. That the Winter Olympics are taking place there is a testament to its endurance as a site for the rejuvenation of the body, both physical and spiritual in the collective Russian mind.