My introduction to the weird world of Soviet sanatoriums was a vintage photo showing a group of children standing in a perfect circle to receive light therapy. If you came across a bunch kids staring directly into an ultraviolet lamp, you’d think it was eerie too.
As I later found out, this wasn’t the strangest therapy that could be purchased. The book Holidays in Soviet Sanatoriums gives an extensive glimpse into the medical treatments still on offer at these magnificent relics of the USSR. From crude-oil baths to electrotherapy, oxygen chambers to radon water douches, a visit to the sanatorium is anything but restorative by today’s standards. “Mealtimes too are unforgettable, with food in more shades of beige than you ever thought possible,” writes Maryam Omidi in her introduction to the book.
It’s a wonder Stanley Kubrick didn’t set The Shining inside one of the crumbling wellness palaces of Crimea, Georgia, or Azerbaijan.
It was the unsettling atmosphere of this photo that prompted me to contact Michal Solarski, who was one of the six photographers to document the absurd treatments for the Holidays in Soviet Sanatoriums book. He went on to visit a number of these spas for his series INFIRMI (one of the three winning projects at last year’s New East Photo Prize). This image was taken in the Issyk-Kul region of Kyrgyzstan, and shows a queue of people waiting to see the optician at the Aurora sanatorium.
“The doctor is a Korean missionary, who, together with his wife, moved from California to Kyrgyzstan to introduce pioneering eye treatment methods. He became very well known for his medical work there. People from all over the country, as well as neighbouring Kazakhstan, travel long distances to Aurora just to seek his advice,” the photographer explains.
It was Solarski who reminded me that though much of the sanatorium equipment looks as likely to kill as cure you of your ailments, these spaces served an important medical function that continues to this day.