Nostalgia for men of marble: Andrew Higgins pays a visit to a potent symbol of Stalinism in the resort of Gagra on the Black Sea, inside the breakaway region of Abkhazia

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The Independent Online
THE last paying guests, a group from Poland seeking sun and sea air, fled the 17th Party Congress Sanatorium when shooting started next to the front desk last August. Damage was relatively light: a shattered windowsill and a few loose chunks of pink plaster. More harmful was the unusually bleak Black Sea winter that followed, endured without heating because of fighting over who should rule this idyllic but cursed stretch of what used to be the Soviet Riviera. Parquet floors buckled; pipes burst and walls blistered with damp.

Most of the staff at the 17th Party Congress Sanatorium drifted away, including the Russian director who fled north across the Psou River with his Georgian wife to escape tit-for-tat ethnic pogroms. The santorium was built to serve senior Soviet bureaucrats in 1952, a date inscribed on the stone wall outside. Today it is a government guest house for the self-proclaimed Republic of Abkhazia and has been renamed 'Abrskil' after a local mythical strongman. But everyone, even the unruly Abkhazian patriots playing with their guns on the pavement outside, seems to prefer the cumbersome but familiar Soviet name.

The architecture of the 17th Party Congress Sanatorium is as ponderous and pompous as its name: classical columns sprout from every balcony and hallway; revolutionary heroes brood on stone pedestals; statues of Greek maidens lurk among the cypress, pine and camphor trees in an overgrown garden facing the sea. It was at the 17th Congress in 1934 that Stalin consolidated his despotism. Today, though, it recalls an almost golden age of peace and prosperity, not because of any faith in Communism and even less because of any sympathy for Stalin, whose ethnic gerrymandering is largely responsible for the current conflict, but because the Soviet era guaranteed a measure of order.

For Russians, this stretch of the Black Sea coast has had a special allure since the turn of the century. Before Abkhazia declared itself all but independent last summer and Georgia sent troops in retaliation, Gagra boasted 30 sanatoria. Soldiers sit on a veranda overlooking the Black Sea and test fire new Russian weapons into the sea. The din is horrendous but the bullets seem almost innocent, sending up delicate splashes of spray.

'It was like a fairytale here before. They were such wonderful days,' coos Emma Konstantinova, a relentlessly nostalgic and cheery Russian who watches over the deserted colonnaded entrance hall at the 17th Party Sanatorium. She likes to show off the bullet holes in the wall.

When the Poles left last August, Miss Konstantinova intended to go with them and stayed only because her passport had expired. 'I hope the fairies will return.' The first faint sign that this might just happen was a ceasefire accord signed by Georgia and Abkhazia on Tuesday in the nearby Russian resort of Sochi. But yestereday even this dim glimmer of hope faded as Abkhazian and Georgian leaders accused each other of violating the agreement almost as soon as it went into effect.

Before the war, Miss Konstantinova was one of 18 doctors working at the 17th Party Congress Sanatorium. Only three are left. Her own speciality was physiotherapy, acupuncture and, for those apparently numerous Soviet bureaucrats whose faith veered beyond the bounds of scientific socialism, astrology.

From a musty drawer, she takes a batch of yellowing thank-you letters from former patients: Communist officials from Berlin, Vietnam and a leader of the Israeli Communist party. There is also a large logbook with a handwritten label on the cover: Journal of Suggestions and Treatments, started in September 1985. It is filled with messages from comrades who visited her surgery: rector of the Kharkov Higher Party School; the editor-in-chief of Agitator; a regional party boss from Orenburg. The only hint of a more ordinary clientele is a group tribute signed by '30 Ukrainian comrades'.

The book covers a total of nearly six years, the first entry dating from six months after Mikhail Gorbachev came to power and the last from shortly before the August 1991 coup. At no point does the drama and tumult of those extraordinary years seem to have penetrated the wrought-iron gates of the 17th Party Congress Sanatorium. The Communist Party's most faithful servants - the only ones admitted to this spa - fretted about cricks in the back, pains in the joints and bouts of dizziness. Their insouciant and confident jottings seem to belong to another age.

(Photograph and map omitted)