Maryam Omidi on the Strange Beauty of Soviet Sanatoriums

Maryam Omidi came to her Soviet sanatoriums project almost by accident. She first heard about these curious Soviet-era medical resorts — part health spa, part hospital — as a journalist for The Calvert Journal, a website that covers contemporary culture in eastern Europe, the Balkans, Russia, and Central Asia. During the Soviet era, Omidi learned, workers in the USSR would spend up to two weeks a year at sanatoriums, as a sort of state-subsidized work holiday and health tune-up.

Some of these sanatoriums still exist, and Omidi knew she had to experience one for herself. In 2015, she visited Khoja Obi Garm, a sanatorium in the mountains of Tajikistan that provides treatments such as “hot radon water sprinkling between the legs” and “friction and shaking with medical electrical equipment,” in addition to more conventional spa offerings like a swimming pool and sauna.

Omidi was struck by the setting — a brutalist concrete building jutting from a snow-capped mountain — and the warmth and hospitality of the people working and staying there, she says. By the time she returned from her visit, an idea had formed: she would partner with photographers to document these sanatoriums and the “utopian, socialist ideals” they were founded upon.

Michal Solarski photographs a masseuse at the Aurora sanatorium in Kyrgyzstan

Michal Solarski photographs a masseuse at the Aurora sanatorium in Kyrgyzstan

In 2016, Omidi brought the project to Kickstarter, hoping to raise funds so she and her team could travel to and document sanatoriums all across the territories of the former Soviet Union. The resulting book would explain the historical context in which they were built, introduce readers to the sanatoriums still in use today, and meet the people who continue to visit them.

The project attracted the support of more than 800 backers, and Omidi and a team of six photographers — Olya Ivanova, Egor Rogalev, and Dmitry Lookianov from Russia; Rene Fietzek from Germany; Michal Solarski from Poland; and Claudine Doury from France — were able to travel to more than thirty sanatoriums in twelve post-Soviet countries.

“It was fascinating to see how each [photographer] worked,” Omidi says. “Some used digital, some used film. Some preferred to visit multiple sanatoriums in a short space of time, while others preferred to immerse themselves in their surroundings, taking photographs at a slower and more meditative pace. The creative process for each member of the team varied greatly, which I think is testament to the many different types of creativity and creative thinking in this world.”  

The photobook that chronicles their journey, Holidays in Soviet Sanatoriums, will be released in the fall. They recently returned to Kickstarter to launch a Kickstarter Gold project, offering some of their favorite images as prints, postcards, and calendars, including work from two new contributors and team members, photographers Vladimir Shipotilnikov from Ukraine and Natalia Kupriyanova from Russia.

“The sense of support one feels is overwhelming,” Omidi says of her experience working on this project. “Your project [suddenly] belongs to a wider network of individuals from around the world who have decided to back you. It is spiriting to know that good ideas do not need to gather dust in the back of your mind but can instead, with hard work and dedication, become a reality.”