Maryam Omidi’s Holidays in Soviet Sanatoriums is like stepping back in time. The first comprehensive collection of photographs and texts on this subject, the book documents establishments full of reminders of the Soviet-era from Armenia to Uzbekistan. Published by Fuel , all included photographs were commissioned especially for the project and were taken by a team of young photographers specialising in the post-Soviet territories including Claudine Doury, Egor Rogalev and Natalia Kupriyanova. The images presented are at once fascinating and incredibly odd, stark but also beautiful, providing a glimpse into a world many of us would never usually get to see.
Originally conceived in the 1920s, sanatoriums offered workers a place to holiday, courtesy of a state-funded voucher and the buildings themselves were among some of the most innovative and sometimes ornamental of their time. They challenge the notion that architecture under communism was “unsightly and drab.” It was both the buildings’ architecture as well as the experience of staying in a sanatorium that first captured Maryam Omidi’s interest. “In 2014, I stayed in a sanatorium in Tajikistan and was completely blown away by the experience. The hulking brutalist building at the top of a mountain was completely at odds with the usual urban context in which I was used to experiencing this type of architecture.” The more Maryam read about sanatoriums and the utopian ideals they were founded on, the more she wanted to know.
She teamed up with six photographers (a number which later expanded to eight), raised money on Kickstarter and then travelled to as many buildings as their budget would allow. Each country is dedicated a chapter with various sanatoriums documented within said chapter. The photos included portray each photographers interpretation and relationship with that building with some choosing to focus on interiors and equipment, and others more on the individuals staying there.
We asked Maryam about the most impressive buildings or spaces she encountered while making the book: “If I had to choose, I’d probably go for the sanatoriums in Crimea. The peninsula was a prized spot during the Soviet Union and a string of stunning sanatoriums was built along the southern shore encompassing a variety of architectural styles from neo-classical to futuristic,” she told us. When the team visited Druzhba, the most famous sanatorium in the area, they weren’t granted permission to take photos and so had to sneak in. “The structure itself resembles a series of stacked cogs overlooking the beach and the sea. The inside is also glorious especially in terms of the way light filters through the different rooms. They also have nightly “discos” on the terrace, which are pretty spectacular.”
Unlike western holidays, which the Soviets perceived as lavish and idle, holidays in the USSR were entirely purposeful: their function was to provide rest and recuperation so that workers could remain efficient and diligent. It was against this backdrop that the sanatorium was born as a cross between a medical facility and a spa. “Of course, I think it’d be great if the tradition of taking care of workers was continued but ultimately, it’s the innovation of the sanatoriums that stands out to me, especially in terms of architecture,” Maryam told us, adding “our definition and expectations of luxury have become so homogenous that most modern day health spas are fairly uninspiring.”
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