Inside The Strange World of Soviet Sanatoriums

Oct 11, 2017 0 comments

In Soviet Russia, vacations were as purposeful as work. Many state workers of the era, instead of wasting time in idleness, used the holidays to spend time at a sanatorium—which is like a modern-day spa but with a strong medical component. The idea was to recover from the strains of working hard throughout the year and return refreshed and more productive. All expenses incurred during their stay at the sanatorium, which could be up to two weeks long, were paid for by the state. Many workers actually looked forward to their state-funded holidays.


Vacationers at the Aurora sanatorium in Kyrgyzstan undergoing a treatment involving ultraviolet light-emitting sterilization lamps to kill bacteria, viruses and fungi in the ear, nose or throat. Photo reproduced from the book, “Holidays in Soviet Sanatoriums”.

Sanatoriums began springing up all across the Soviet Union starting from the 1920s, after the prescribed two-week holiday was inscribed in the 1922 Labor code. In 1936, when Joseph Stalin rewrote the constitution, the “right to rest” became a fundamental right for all Soviet citizens. By 1939, there were more than eighteen hundred sanatoriums all across the vast country. At their peak in 1990, the sanatoriums could house more than half a million guests at any time.

Stays at sanatoriums were overseen by doctors, who drew up tailor-made programme of exercises, dietary recommendations and treatments. Residents underwent all sorts of therapeutic treatments, including massages and mud baths, and more innovative treatments such as electrotherapy. Certain sanatoriums became known for their specialist treatments, such as crude-oil baths, radon water douches and stints in underground salt caves.

More than twenty-five years after the collapse of the Soviet Union, many of these sanatoriums are still in use as health resorts and continue to offer their Soviet-era treatments to visitors. Others are in critical states of decline.

About a year ago, journalist Maryam Omidi started a Kickstarter campaign and raised funds to send photographers to more than forty sanatoriums in post-Soviet territories to document their unconventional treatments. The pictures in this article are from the resulting book Holidays in Soviet Sanatoriums.


The Druzhba Sanatorium in Yalta, Ukraine, was built in 1986.


Patients exercise in mineral water baths at a sanatorium in Tskaltubo.


The White Nights sanatorium in Sochi was erected in 1978.


Guests exercising and inhaling in an underground salt mine, where sylvanite and rock salt can be seen in the walls.


A guest takes an oxygen steam bath at the Rodnik Sanatorium.


A guest relaxes during a luminotherapy session at a sanatorium in Naftalan, Azerbaijan. 


A guest bathes in crude oil at the Naftalan sanatorium in Azerbaijan 


Older residents unable to endure the heat of a full mineral-water bath, undergoing treatment for just the arms and legs.


A female guest undergoes magnetic therapy at a sanatorium in Belarus.


Vacationers at Kolkhida’s sanatorium bury themselves in magnetic sand. The glittery black powder that coats the beach is believed to alleviate various ailments related to the heart, blood, joints, circulation and bones.


A guest in the Naftalan sanatorium tries the quirky therapy of intense cupping that draws out blood from the pores, which is said to relieve back and neck pains


The marks left behind after the aforementioned intense cupping.


Guests at Janartij Bereg sanatorium in Jurmala, Latvia, getting their daily dose of light therapy.


High frequency electrotherapy at Kuyalnik Sanatorium, in Odessa, Ukraine.


Visitors to an estuary near the Kuyalnik sanatorium in Ukraine smear themselves in therapeutic mud.


A wrestler prepares for a swim at the Aurora sanatorium in Kyrgyzstan.


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