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Georgia’s ruined Soviet sanatoria and the displaced people who live there

The Soviet sanatorium was a unique phenomenon that has now been well-documented. The central Georgian spa town of Tskaltubo was one of the most popular holiday destinations for workers and elites alike — Stalin was a fan — and at its peak this small town was home to 22 sanatoria welcoming over 100,000 visitors a year, with four trains arriving daily from Moscow. These guests arrived to intricate and stunning estates designed in the high post-war Neoclassical opulence that characterised the Soviet sanatorium at its finest. Their sprawling complexes housed hundreds of rooms, various spas and saunas, medical facilities and verdant outdoor space.

This history of grandeur and leisure is now a distant memory. The sanatoria were abandoned and then ransacked for scrap following the fall of the Soviet Union. These days they could serve as yet more fodder for the post-Soviet ruin porn industry. But another, often neglected story has been unfolding within these walls for practically the entire post-Soviet period, one that connects the 20th-century history of the sanatorium with the 21st-century crises surrounding refugees and migration. In 1992, war broke out in the secessionist northwestern Georgian region of Abkhazia and tens of thousands of people were displaced; the abandoned sanatoria of Tskaltubo were offered as “temporary” accommodation to thousands of these families. 25 years later and several generations deep, around 800 displaced people are still living in the ruins.

Photographer Ryan Koopmans didn’t know about the Abkhazian population of the sanatoria when he first arrived hoping to explore the “abandoned” Soviet complexes, but he realised soon enough what was happening. “The fact that farm animals could be found wandering through the corridors was clear indications that people must be caring for them,” he says. “Upon discovering the families, my interest went from a purely architectural focus to a fascination with the inside of these spaces and to learn about the people inhabiting them.” The result is Sanatorium, a series on these remarkable buildings and the people who live in them.

The dynamic between the grandiosity of the past and the extreme challenges of the present struck Koopmans as he got to know the internally displaced people (or IDP) living in Tskaltubo. “When I was there I met an old woman who was grazing her flock of sheep in a housing complex formerly owned by Stalin,” he remembers. “To think of the dramatic changes that she has witnessed in her lifetime of living in Tskaltubo is interesting.” The past is alive not just in the built environment, but also in small details that reveal the human scale of what has been lost: “the sense that things are ‘untouched’ is what greatly drew me to the location. Broken plates, old postcards, original signage can all be found in the buildings.”

While the non-IDP population of the town does not seem to hold any negative connotations with regards to their “refugee” neighbours, conditions are harsh to say the least — something ably captured in Koopmans’ photos. “People live in what were once the guest rooms of those facilities,” he says. “They have makeshift apartments with their own decorations, furniture and cooking facilities. Electricity is scarce, and in only a few occasions did they have running water. There is no sewage system and waste management is also an issue. In the winter it can get cold, and the communal spaces are most often dark even when it is daylight.” The communities here must work together to get by, and Koopmans notes that they live “quite collectively”.

The IDP and their offspring are also bound by the memories of the homes and lives they lost. Among the most disarming photos in Koopmans project are those that document the myriad mementos that the residents keep in the sanatoria. One is an artist who paints images of his home village, sometimes directly onto the crumbling walls. Elsewhere there are family snapshots and children’s toys. “I also noticed a reoccurring theme of the typical Georgian church,” Koopmans adds. “In the form of wooden sculpture, as a painting in people’s rooms, as a ceramic relief or graffitied on the wall.”

“I met an old woman who was grazing her flock of sheep in a housing complex formerly owned by Stalin”

Sensitivity to these often fragile material worlds is crucial for Koopmans. “Although the predominant subject matter in my images is often ‘architecture’ so to speak, I am less interested in simply a building itself but more so the sense of place, the lived experience of the building or urban plan,” he concludes. “In an environment like Tskaltubo it is important to photograph, learn and explore with great sensitivity and compassion towards the subject matter. Although the community is generally friendly and hospitable, I never take that cordiality for granted.”

The future of the IDP communities in Tskaltubo is still unclear, a quarter of a century after they arrived in what were supposed to be temporary residences. Some of the largest buildings have been sold to private investors, but plans for investment and renovation remain vague, and the sanatoria inhabitants are yet to learn where, if anywhere, they might be relocated. Any redevelopment would see the removal of both the grand Soviet architecture and the precarious, interior worlds of the IDP — another reminder of how two very disparate worlds have been brought together across time and place in Tskaltubo.  

Image: Ryan Koopmans
Text: Samuel Goff

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