Sanatoriums: Collective memory

Twenty years ago, any Russian taking their holiday in one of the sanitoriums that line the Black Sea's rocky coast would have been the object of great envy. Now, the former playgrounds of Politburo members and the KGB are all but abandoned. Jason Oddy went to the Crimea to record their decline in words and pictures
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The swimming pool at the Valery Tchakalov Sanatorium lies empty, its floor a mess of broken tiles. Nearby, every last pane of a vast greenhouse has been shattered, while towards the sea an abandoned lift shaft stands like a ghostly sentinel looking out from the past. In the spring sunshine, not even the sight of a handful of residents wandering the grounds can do much to dispel the overall impression of dereliction. Built in 1934, near the Black Sea port of Odessa, the sanatorium was once a showcase for the benefits of communism. But when in 1991 the USSR collapsed, it, like so much else beholden to that defunct ideology, began to fall apart.

The empire Lenin inherited in 1917 was equipped with only the most rudimentary of healthcare systems and, to help alleviate this situation, he set about converting a number of tsarist palaces into sanatoriums for ailing peasants. Many of these were located on the Crimean peninsula around the once fashionable resort of Yalta, a welcome addition to the mere 60 sanatoriums that had existed across the whole of Russia in pre-revolutionary times. From 1929, an extensive building programme began which meant that by the end of the Soviet era 2,500 of these establishments were operating across the country. By 1990, they had the capacity to accommodate upwards of half a million people at a time.

It may seem curious that during the same period which saw the decline of such institutions in the West, they proliferated in the communist East. Sanatoriums were singularly suited to totalitarian aims, since they allowed the state to keep an eye on you even during those moments when you were supposedly "off duty". A typical visit lasted 24 days and, inside, everything from medical treatment and sport to reading matter and entertainment was strictly regimented. There was even a full-time member of staff, the kul'turnik, who supervised cultural activities.Today, although no such programme survives, the Soviet agenda is still visible in the architecture and trappings of these places. But in the crumbling facades and deserted buildings, what is even more apparent is history's judgement on what was perhaps man's most hubristic dream so far.

Jason Oddy's exhibition `Sanatorium' is at The Architectural Association, 36 Bedford Square, London WC1 (0207 887 4000), until 11 December

Garden in 1966, designed as a private retreat with a central fountain, stained glass, landscaping and walkways. He never expressed any intention to be buried here, but his father, Vernon, had the bodies of Elvis and Elvis's mother, Gladys, moved to the Garden because the crowds were creating too much turmoil at Forest Hill Cemetery, their previous resting place. In 1979, Vernon himself joined them and, in 1980, Elvis's paternal grandmother, Minnie Mae, was buried next to Elvis.Garden in 1966, designed as a private retreat with a central fountain, stained glass, landscaping and walkways. He never expressed any intention to be buried here, but his father, Vernon, had the bodies of Elvis and Elvis's mother, Gladys, moved to the Garden because the crowds were creating too much turmoil at Forest Hill Cemetery, their previous resting place. In 1979, Vernon himself joined them and, in 1980, Elvis's paternal grandmother, Minnie Mae, was buried next to Elvis.Garden in 1966, designed as a private retreat with a central fountain, stained glass, landscaping and walkways. He never expressed any intention to be buried here, but his father, Vernon, had the bodies of Elvis and Elvis's mother, Gladys, moved to the Garden because the crowds were creating too much turmoil at Forest Hill Cemetery, their previous resting place. In 1979, Vernon himself joined them and, in 1980, Elvis's paternal grandmother, Minnie Mae, was buried next to Elvis.Garden in 1966, designed as a private retreat with a central fountain, stained glass, landscaping and walkways. He never expressed any intention to be buried here, but his father, Vernon, had the bodies of Elvis and Elvis's mother, Gladys, moved to the Garden because the crowds were creating too much turmoil at Forest Hill Cemetery, their previous resting place. In 1979, Vernon himself joined them and, in 1980, Elvis's paternal grandmother, Minnie Mae, was buried next to Elvis.Garden in 1966, designed as a private retreat with a central fountain, stained glass, landscaping and walkways. He never expressed any intention to be buried here, but his father, Vernon, had the bodies of Elvis and Elvis's mother, Gladys, moved to the Garden because the crowds were creating too much turmoil at Forest Hill Cemetery, their previous resting place. In 1979, Vernon himself joined them and, in 1980, Elvis's paternal grandmother, Minnie Mae, was buried next to Elvis.Garden in 1966, designed as a private retreat with a central fountain, stained glass, landscaping and walkways. He never expressed any intention to be buried here, but his father, Vernon, had the bodies of Elvis and Elvis's mother, Gladys, moved to the Garden because the crowds were creating too much turmoil at Forest Hill Cemetery, their previous resting place. In 1979, Vernon himself joined them and, in 1980, Elvis's paternal grandmother, Minnie Mae, was buried next to Elvis.Garden in 1966, designed as a private retreat with a central fountain, stained glass, landscaping and walkways. He never expressed any intention to be buried here, but his father, Vernon, had the bodies of Elvis and Elvis's mother, Gladys, moved to the Garden because the crowds were creating too much turmoil at Forest Hill Cemetery, their previous resting place. In 1979, Vernon himself joined them and, in 1980, Elvis's paternal grandmother, Minnie Mae, was buried next to Elvis.

Healthy living, Mishkor Sanatorium, near Yalta

The break-up of the USSR saw the decline of many sanatoriums, but Mishkor, in a seaside village 10 miles to the west of Yalta, still operates at three-quarters capacity. Although at the equivalent of pounds 7 a day it is not cheap in a country where the average monthly wage is around pounds 35, the old practice of trade unions subsidising their members' holidays persists. Once you are in, all medical care is free. Pictured above is the corridor leading to the hydrotherapy rooms. Cures on offer range from remedial massage to prescribed doses of mineral water. Bathing is also encouraged - pictured opposite are a row of waterfront changing cabins.

Public rooms, Odessa Sanitorium

Under communism every sanatorium was affiliated to a trade union. Members earned their three weeks of sun, sea and treatment through a combination of loyalty to the party and hard grind. The Odessa Sanatorium used to belong to the KGB. Although sanatoriums were to be found right across the country, the Black Sea coast was considered a prize destination, reserved for party bigwigs and model workers. Today, the Odessa Sanatorium has passed into the hands of the Ukrainian Secret Service. As a result, although it may not be in pristine condition, it has certainly fared better than many of its counterparts. Pictured above is the spider-plant-filled TV room and, above right, the lecture hall.

Lift shaft to beach, Valery Tchakalov Sanatorium, Odessa

Marxist doctrine has it that history propels mankind along an evolutionary path, ending with the satisfaction of every material need. The Black Sea coast is precipitous and cliffy and many sanatoriums are hundreds of feet above the sea. Lifts were constructed to overcome these natural obstacles, since a socialist utopia that could put a man into space should certainly be able to convey vacationing comrades to the beach. Nowadays, few of these devices still work. Even though this one has found new life as a cruising spot for gay Odessans, it, like the greater part of the Valery Tchakalov Sanatorium it once served, now stands quite derelict.

Corridor, Magnolia Sanitorium, Odessa

With a little effort of imagination it is possible to picture this corridor when it was first built - a gleaming white arcade reflecting the totalitarian regime's conception of modernity. The Soviet authorities fetishised science, holding it up as a cultural model that would allow life to be lived in an ever more rational way. Yet the version of it they promulgated was often impractical and doctrinaire. After the collapse of communism, institutions made an effort to adapt to the larger post-ideological world. The Buildings, Roads and Machinery Sanatorium in Odessa changed its name to the Magnolia Sanatorium in 1995. But over the course of three generations, ideology embeds itself deeply, and it is difficult to see how such a simplistic image makeover was ever really expected to work. Although the corridor, with its peeling paint and rusting radiators, appears to be leading somewhere, it is no longer headed to the promised land. Instead, what it more properly shows is a vision of the future that failed. Outdoor cinema, Livadia Sanatorium, near Yalta

Long before the Soviet Union fell apart, Lenin's 1920 decree "On the Use of the Crimea for the Treatment of the Working People" had begun to ring hollow. From the Thirties onwards, the sanatorium programme it launched became less a way of treating sick workers and more a means of rewarding loyal party members. Since many residents came only for a holiday, and often alone, leisure-time activities became increasingly important. Most sanatoriums are equipped with theatres and dancing halls. These establishments were a hotbed of extramarital liaisons, and the open-air discos with which some are equipped can only have added further temptations. The outdoor cinema belonged to the Livadia Sanatorium, which is housed in the same Romanoff palace where Stalin, Churchill and Roosevelt carved out the new world order in 1945. In Soviet times, it used to show a mixture of Indian and domestically produced films. Nowadays, junkies' syringes lie underfoot and its columns are daubed with graffiti.

Although sanatoriums were found across the country, the Black Sea was considered a prize destination, reserved for party bigwigs. Today, the Odessa Sanatorium has passed into the hands of the Ukrainian Secret Service

From neo-classical to concrete, Black Sea sanatoriums

Neo-classical architecture found favour with the authorities just as the first wave of sanatorium construction began. The building above is part of the crumbling Russia Sanatorium in Odessa. During the Thirties and Forties, hundreds of these monoliths were thrown up. At the end of Stalin's reign, architects adopted a more forward-looking approach and today the Black Sea coast is also peppered with concrete towerblocks. The one pictured on the right was built shortly before communism's fall. It belongs to the Sosnoyova Sanatorium outside Yalta. Revamped two years ago by a Yugoslav-American consortium, it now caters to Russia's nouveau riche elite.

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