Today, revolution threatens. The Winter Olympics arrive next February, and everywhere five-star hotels are on the rise. The sanatoriums are battling for market share, advertising WiFi in addition to their baths in mineral water and sulfurous mud, and tarting themselves up. Hello, skin-nibbling doctor fish (Garra rufa); goodbye, leeches.
On Lenin Street in the Adler section of Sochi, workers dangle on ropes from the sides of the eight-story Yuzhnoe Vzmorye — Southern Beach — sanatorium. Their electric sanders roar as they ready the rough dirty-gray concrete walls for fresh white paint and bright yellow trim. A small kiosk inside the front gate greets guests with a cheerful assortment of newspapers, magazines, toys, Olympic souvenirs — and rolls of coarse gray toilet paper.
Inside, women in white lab coats preside, with nary a liveried doorman or bellhop in sight. Don’t look for a lobby bar in the dimly lit reception area — a lobby pharmacy dispenses its own cures for what ails. Where a concierge might otherwise officiate sits a consultant offering to book a special body cleansing treatment. Bottles labeled “vitamins” and “bacteria” adorn her desk — no jar of mints here.
William Nickell, assistant professor of Russian literature at the University of Chicago, first visited Sochi in 1989, just out of college. Returning 20 years later, he saw the city was already tearing down some of the old sanatoriums in pursuit of modernization — even before the pressure of the Olympics — and was inspired to document what might come. In 2010, he curated an evocative exhibit about Sochi resorts while teaching at the University of California at Santa Cruz.
“Each phase in its history has brought a re-imagination of what it can be,” said Nickell, now something of a sanatorium connoisseur. “But now they’re thinking Russian Dubai, with high-rise residential apartments and an elite resort, more like a contemporary spa than Soviet sanatoria.”
The Soviet sanatorium adopted the 19th-century legacy of taking the waters and added its own alternative remedies, which often involved strange-looking machines that delivered shocks or rooms applying magnetic therapy. Shots of megavitamins made up for often-scarce fresh fruits and vegetables in this enormous and cold country.
Nickell’s current project is a digital map of Sochi that will reveal its pre-Soviet, Soviet and present days. It will involve what he calls historical Yelping — encouraging Sochi visitors from Soviet times to post their recollections and photographs.