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A photographic journey into the curious world of the former Soviet Union's sanatoriums
A photographic journey into the curious world of the former Soviet Union's sanatoriums
A photographic journey into the curious world of the former Soviet Union's sanatoriums
787 backers pledged £28,235 to help bring this project to life.

About this project

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The Last Resort: The Strange Beauty of Soviet Sanatoriums

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Soviet architecture often conjures up images of monolithic building blocks, but the era’s sanatoriums are among the most diverse and experimental structures of that time. Similar to modern-day spas but with a strong medical component, Soviet workers would spend a week or two each year at a sanatorium, paid for by the state, so that they could recover from the exertions of their labour. 

This book will be the first to offer a comprehensive collection of photographs and text on Soviet-era sanatoriums, both their history, and, more importantly, their afterlives. To be clear: this isn't ruin porn; the focus will be on those sanatoriums still in operation. The book will be an exploration of the utopian ideals that these sanatoriums were built upon, the unconventional treatments that they offer and the individual stories of those who visit them.

From the steppes of Kazakhstan to the wine-growing regions of Georgia, our team of six photographers and one writer will travel across the former Soviet Union to document the best sanatoriums from this era. Expect lush interiors, evocative portraiture and stunning architectural photography alongside in-depth interviews with guests and employees. 

From the series Hungarian Sea by Michal Solarski
From the series Hungarian Sea by Michal Solarski

Today there are many sanatoriums sprinkled across the post-Soviet space in varying states of decay. Their construction began in 1920 and continued right up until the collapse of the Soviet Union. According to Professor Diane Koenker, by 1922, two weeks of annual holiday were enshrined in the labour code and at their peak in 1990, the Soviet Union’s sanatoriums could house more than half a million guests at any time.

The question of leisure was one that preoccupied Soviet thinkers; free time and work were not separate but connected with the former seen as a way of increasing productivity. The spirit of the annual sojourn was pithily captured in 1966 by S Antonov, a metal fitter and model of socialist labour, who told a newspaper: “I receive my vacation once a year and I try not to waste a single day of it in idleness.”

A postcard of sanatorium Dnipro in Ukraine (1982)
A postcard of sanatorium Dnipro in Ukraine (1982)

Soviet workers were sent to sanatoriums once a year so that they could return refreshed and ready for work. Workers in the toughest industries, such as mining, were prioritised over others. Stays at sanatoriums were overseen by doctors; even sunbathing was monitored by health professionals. In addition to bathing in thermal waters and undergoing therapeutic mud treatments, sanatorium guests would engage in physical exercise and stick to a nutritious diet.

Sanatorium in Crimea
Sanatorium in Crimea

The idea for the book came about in early 2015, after I (Maryam Omidi) stayed at Khoja Obi Garm, a sanatorium nestled in the mountains in Tajikistan, known for its curative, radon-filled waters. I was blown away by the architecture and landscape — a giant concrete, brutalist block on top of a snow-capped mountain (see main image) — and warmed by the hospitality of those working and staying there. 

The treatments too, such as “hot treatment radon water sprinkling method between legs” and “friction and shaking with medical electrical equipment”, were as peculiar as their names suggest. I remember walking into the swimming pool on my first day only to be greeted by a group of Tajik women, totally naked, their pendulous bosoms bobbing up and down in the water and their smiles flashing gold teeth. These were the women I’d spend the next few days with, swimming, chatting, eating, dancing and sweating it out in the sauna. (You can read more about my experience here.)

Druzhba sanatorium, Crimea
Druzhba sanatorium, Crimea

On my return I sent an email to Fuel, a London-based design and publishing group, known for their beautifully designed books including the Russian Criminal Tattoo archive, Soviet Space Dogs and Soviet Bus Stops. The team at Fuel, Damon Murray and Stephen Sorrell, came back with an enthusiastic reply. If I could get the book together they'd cover its design and publication.

A selection of books published by Fuel
A selection of books published by Fuel

Next I contacted staff at The Calvert Journal, an award-winning online magazine dedicated to contemporary art and culture in the New East, and where I used to work as features editor.  Apart from one, all the photographers involved in this project have been featured on the The Calvert Journal website. While some represent the best in young, emerging talent from this diverse region, others are more established; others still offer an outsider's viewpoint. All bring a fresh perspective and a sharp eye to the work that they produce. 

We have a shortlist of the best sanatoriums across the former Soviet Union, which we hope to visit with your help. Your contributions will help us create the content for this book before we hand over to Fuel for the design and publication part of the process. We have a range of rewards from the small (reproduction vintage postcards) to the big (a sanatorium stay for two) and of course, the book itself, which we plan to deliver to you by spring 2017.

Le port, Aralsk, Kazakhstan (2003) by Claudine Doury
Le port, Aralsk, Kazakhstan (2003) by Claudine Doury
                                       

Claudine Doury is a Paris-based photographer. She received the Leica Oscar Barnack award in 1999, the World Press in 2000 and the Prix Niepce for her entire work in 2004. Her first monograph, Peuples de Sibérie, was published in 1999. Since then she has published Artek, un été en Crimée (2004), Loulan Beauty (2007) and Sasha (2011).

From the series Cut It Short by Michal Solarski/Tomasz Liboska
From the series Cut It Short by Michal Solarski/Tomasz Liboska
                                                                                                             

Michal Solarski is an award-winning, London-based photographer whose work focuses on migration and memory. His work has been widely exhibited and published in numerous publications including the Guardian, Time, GQ and Vanity Fair among others. After finishing his masters in politics in Poland, Solarski moved to London to study at The London College of Communication where he received his second masters in documentary photography.

Nizhny Novgorod by Egor Rogalev
Nizhny Novgorod by Egor Rogalev
                                             

Egor Rogalev is an architectural and documentary photographer based in St Petersburg He is particularly interested in the Russian and Ukrainian suburbs where the simultaneous process of modernisation and decay is taking place. His work examines post-Soviet reality as a quintessential fragment of the larger pattern of modernity and tries to confront western stereotypes as well as the self-exotising visions based on them.

From the series The Village Day I by Olya Ivanova
From the series The Village Day I by Olya Ivanova
                                             

Olya Ivanova is a documentary photographer from Moscow with a fascination with the Russian village. Her work has been featured in a varity of publications including the Guardian, Monocle, the Financial Times, the Daily Telegraph and Vice and exhibited around the world in galleries in Belgium, France, the UK, the US, Italy and Thailand. She is a graduate of the Institute of Contemporary Art in Moscow and has a BA in Russian literature.

From the series Instant Tomorrow (2013-2015) by Dmitry Lookianov
From the series Instant Tomorrow (2013-2015) by Dmitry Lookianov
              

Dmitry Lookianov is an emerging talent on the Russian photographic scene. A graduate of the Moscow Rodchenko School of Photography and Multimedia, his series Instant Tomorrow examines issues related to globalisation from the perspective of the Moscow suburbs and high-rise buildings. For his most recent series, DKdance, Lookianov spent two years documenting what remains of the 18 Soviet Palaces of Culture in central Russia.

From the series Baltic Sea by Rene Fietzek
From the series Baltic Sea by Rene Fietzek
          

Berlin-based René Fietzek is a freelance photographer whose work has been published in numerous magazines including Vogue Germany and Neon. Aside from fashion photography, he has travelled extensively to countries such as Lebanon and Ethiopia to take photographs for NGOs. He is a graduate of visual communication in Hamburg and before that, theatre, film and media in Vienna.

K-2 Dacha by Egor Rogalev
K-2 Dacha by Egor Rogalev
       

Maryam Omidi is a former journalist. Her work has been published in a variety of publications such as The Guardian, the Wall Street Journal Europe and Reuters. You can see examples of her work here and here.

Le cirque, Tachkent, UZ (2002) by Claudine Doury
Le cirque, Tachkent, UZ (2002) by Claudine Doury

Please follow us on Facebook and Instagram for updates! 

Special thanks to Gaetan Nivon for his filming and editing services, Lesya Myata for her tenacity as fixer and producer, and the management of Ai Petri in Crimea for giving us permission to film in their sanatorium. 

Risks and challenges

One of the greatest challenges will be access. Several of the countries in the former Soviet Union that our photographers will be travelling to have authoritarian and unfriendly governments. Visas to these countries can be hard to come by, travel within challenging.

However, this is not the case for most of the countries in this region. As closed as some are, others have opted for the opposite approach, offering visa-free travel in a bid to boost tourism in their country.

Our team is ready and waiting to go. We need your help so that we can get to these sanatoriums to take photos that will, we hope, inspire you and perhaps even encourage you to visit some of these places yourself.

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  1. Select this reward

    Pledge £5 or more About $7

    NOSTALGIA
    We're thankful for your help. In return we'll send you a selection of four reproduction vintage postcards of sanatoriums similar, but not necessarily the same, as those seen in the campaign text.

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    Pledge £20 or more About $29

    FANCLUB
    Thank you! A pre-ordered copy of the book will be yours in no time at all. BONUS postcard included!

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    Pledge £23 or more About $33

    BUNDLE
    One postcard not enough for you? Then why not go for this option: a pre-ordered copy of the book and four reproduction vintage postcards.

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    Pledge £30 or more About $43

    DELUXE FANCLUB
    For those looking to splurge: a slipcased edition of the book. Only 150 copies so get them while you can! BONUS postcard included.

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    Pledge £30 or more About $43

    DELUXE FANCLUB
    For those looking to splurge: a slipcased edition of the book. Only 150 copies so get them while you can! BONUS postcard included.

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    Pledge £35 or more About $51

    TWO OF A KIND
    Why order one book when you can order two? You know these'll make great presents! We'll even throw in a BONUS set of four postcards as well.

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    Pledge £50 or more About $72

    ONE SMALL PRINT
    Your home just got better with this signed print from a photographer of your choice (size = 8” x 10”). You choose the photographer and we'll send you options to pick from. Just in time for Christmas too! And we'll even send you a BONUS set of four reproduction vintage postcards.

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    Pledge £75 or more About $109

    ONE LARGE PRINT
    Make a statement with a print from a photographer of your choice (size = 12” x 16”) or buy one as a Christmas present. You choose the photographer and we'll send you options to pick from. And we'll send you a BONUS set of four reproduction vintage postcards too!

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    Pledge £80 or more About $116

    THE MINI PACKAGE
    Can't get enough of Soviet sanatoriums? Then this is the package for you: a copy of the book, a print from a photographer of your choice (size 8” x 10”), a set of four reproduction vintage postcards and an invitation to the book launch. You choose the photographer and we'll send you options to pick from.

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    Pledge £100 or more About $145

    THE ULTIMATE PACKAGE
    Well somebody loves Soviet sanatoriums. In return for your support, we'll send you a copy of the book, a print from a photographer of your choice (size 12” x 16”), a set of four reproduction vintage postcards and an invitation to the book launch. You choose the photographer and we'll send you options to pick from.

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    Pledge £500 or more About $724

    SANATORIUM STAY FOR TWO #1
    Why not experience the wonder of staying at a sanatorium for yourself? Choose this option and you'll soon be having your very own carbon dioxide bath in the mountain spa town of Jermuk in Armenia. Several sanatorium options available. Reward includes a three-night stay for two inclusive of all meals and treatments as well as a transfer to and from the airport and a complimentary bottle of wine on arrival. Flights not included but travel advice will be offered.

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    Pledge £500 or more About $724

    SANATORIUM STAY FOR TWO #2
    Enjoy a glorious three-night stay at Alatau sanatorium, in the mountains just outside of Almaty in Kazakhstan. Take in the fresh air and bathe in healing mineral waters! All meals, treatments and airport transfers for two included as well as a complimentary bottle of wine on arrival! Flights not included but travel advice offered.

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Funding period

- (30 days)