February 07, 2020

Health in the Soviet Sanatorium

Health in the Soviet Sanatorium
Jermuk resort in Armenia. Katrina Keegan

This is where Armenian president Pashinyan came to feel well, our taxi driver proudly told us as we drove over a bridge that straddled a cliff-lined river, past fluttering clotheslines strung between pink stone houses. The tiny town looked like it could have been anywhere in Armenia, except for the large marble estates embossed with various combinations of the golden words Jermuk, resort, spa. The driver’s implication was clear: if the top man in the country enjoyed his rest here, so will you. 

Before the Russian Revolution, only elites could afford long stays steeping in hot springs at the mountain-or-sea surrounded corners of the Empire. Inspired by the tradition of hot spring healing in Western Europe, Peter the Great started to research Russia’s mineral waters and opened the first resort. Mineral waters unite not only time, but also the post-Soviet space, from  Nikolai Gogol’s small hometown in Ukraine, surrounded by birch groves and sunflower fields, to Mikhail Lermontov’s summer retreat in the foothills of the Northern Caucasus. 

Mineral waters in Kislovodsk
Many resort towns, such as the Russian city of Kislovodsk (literally: sour water) have “galleries” where you can sample waters ranging from refreshing, salty and bubbly, to so hot and heavy it feels it might drop right through your stomach. | Katrina Keegan

Equality of relaxation became a Soviet ideal, enshrined as the right to rest in the 1936 Stalin Constitution and facilitated by a vast network of sanatoriums. Now, the same destinations have been rebranded as “spas,” are adorned with Latin letters and offer oxygen cocktails alongside lukewarm mineral water baths. These are unheated, presented the exact way the water came out of the ground, a healing ritual virtually unchanged for hundreds of years. 

Jermuk hot spring
Around Jermuk, Armenia, hot springs are so common that we found this one on the side of the road. | Katrina Keegan

Just like the use of mineral waters, the central idea of sanatoriums has remained the same: wellness and relaxation are inseparable. Meanwhile, the Western model of medicine is based on double-blind, placebo-controlled experiments, explained William Nickell, a University of Chicago scholar with a forthcoming book, The Soviet Cure, who teaches on medical aesthetics and has studied resort towns like Sochi. The Soviet sanatorium is thoroughly unconcerned with separating effects into “placebo” and “real,” he said. The data they primarily collected at the sanatoriums were exit responses to a single question: do you feel better?

As a result, proponents of modern medicine may, at first glance, scoff at what Nickell calls “fossilized” treatments. According to Wikipedia, electric showers were discontinued in the early twentieth century. Nickell purchased one from a Sochi sanatorium in 2010 and was reassured that it was one of the best working examples in the area. When I was undergoing a “gums hydromassage” – a gentle sprinkler in my mouth – in the Armenian sanatorium, I struggled to control a fit of laughter at the absurdity of it all, causing the warm, salty water to spray all over the sink and my clothes. 

Jermuk sanatorium
This treatment felt rather like snorting a humidifier. | Katrina Keegan

Yet the treatments are beside the point, at least in isolation. According to Nickell, they are inseparable from the fresh air, the time off work, the group hikes or excursions to historically interesting sites, communal dinners, and social dancing in the evening. Given the time to rest and socialize, it’s no wonder that the Armenian president and countless Soviet citizens filling out exit surveys felt “well.” The sanatorium system wasn’t seeking to “treat” specific ailments so much as prevent health problems holistically. But perhaps even prevent is too negative, too illness-centric of a word.

“Be healthy,” the Armenian doctor told me as I finished my consultation and he signed my medical card full of treatments like salt caves and “gynaecologic irrigation.” I did, in fact, feel healthy after my visit to the sanatorium. I don’t know if that was caused by enjoying the beauty of a local waterfall, the intense exercise of a harrowing stair climb up a cliff from the waterfall, time spent lounging around the hotel with someone I love, the gums hydromassage, or my uncontrollable laughter during the gums hydromassage. The source of my wellbeing doesn’t matter. According to sanatorium philosophy, I feel, therefore I am. 

Myrhorod birch grove
Finding peace in a birch tree grove on the grounds of the sanatorium in Myrhorod, Ukraine | Katrina Keegan


Just for fun:

Trip Advisor's list of recommended resorts in Russia.

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