Soviet Union

"Every Soviet citizen has the right to rest," according to Article 41 of the Soviet Constitution, the words of which are strung up in large white lettering along the beachfront of this popular Black Sea resort.

Beneath the slogan, several hundred determined vacationers swarm along a dock and onto a boat that will take them up the Crimea's indented coastline. In their haste to get on board, some young men clamber over the boat's railings -- triggering a furious harangue from the captain who is standing on an upper deck.

"I'll teach you, you uncultured louts," he screams. "If you think you can jump the line, you've got another think coming. A boat like this is too good for oafs like you."

The captain's ranting, which continues for a good five minutes, divides the crowd. Some grin in amusement. A few resent being yelled at and start to argue back. The majority seem to accept the need for a "strong hand" to bully them into line, even on vacation.

A holiday Soviet-style is a curious, if hallowed, institution. The Russian word is otpusk, which means literally "letting go" -- and that certainly forms a major part of what Russians look for in places like Yalta. But there are also constant reminders that they are not here solely for their own good.

"The health of each is the wealth of all" proclaims a slogan on one of Yalta's pebbled beaches -- providing the ideological justification for a host of regulations that prescribe exactly what a Soviet vacationer may or may not do.

"IN FUTURE, I order you to come to breakfast between 8 and 10. It will be better for you and better for us," the hostess at the restaurant of the 3,000-bed, 16-story Yalta Hotel told a couple of Western visitors who showed up late one morning. Her limited English (she probably wanted to say "advise") produced an unfortunate effect -- but one that caught the spirit of an establishment where the staff, not the customer, is always right.

At the entrance to the hotel beach, there is a long list of rules written in four languages about bathing in the sea. The first dip, it cautions, should be limited to five minutes -- but this can be lengthened gradually to 20 minutes on subsequent days. On no account must anyone swim after meals or "while drunk."

The passion for regulation reaches its peak in the sanitariums and convalescent homes that are dotted along the coast. Here white-robed doctors and nurses patrol beaches marked "zones of strict control" prescribing for their patients carefully calculated doses of sun, sea and air. Guests are obliged to stick to a rigid schedule from the time they get up (7 a.m.) to the time they go to bed (11 p.m.)

Leonila Spartesnaya, the chief doctor of the plush Parus Sanitarium explains that Yalta's climate is uniquely suited to the cure of respiratory and cardiovascular diseases such as tuberculosis and bronchitis. High mountains shield the coastline from the harsh north winds and the sea air is rich in all kinds of minerals.

"Anybody coming to Yalta is likely to feel better after a few days here," she says. "But it's also possible to overdo things -- to stay out in the sun too long, for example. For maximum benefit, expert medical supervision is necessary."

The beneficient climate of the Crimea, which juts out into the Black Sea, has long been recognized. The great Russian playwright Anton Chekhov came here to recuperate from tuberculosis -- and the last czar, Nicholas II, built a summer residence just outside Yalta. The present Soviet leader, Leonid Brezhnev, who is reported to have heart and lung problems, habitually spends most of August in his villa in nearby Oreanda.

Theoretically, the 13,500 places in Yalta's 28 sanatoriums are reserved for people who can prove they need special treatment. But since "preventive" cures are also recognized, in practice many of the patients are perfectly healthy. A mother of two children interviewed at random at the Parus Sanitarium acknowledged that there was nothing wrong with any member of her family when they were admitted.

As if sensing that this was somehow irregular, she added hastily, "Since coming here the children have caught colds -- so now they're being treated for that."

Part of the attraction of health resorts for Russians is that they combine pleasant relaxation with the virtuous feeling of obeying orders. In addition to "climate therapy," other cures prescribed by Dr. Spartesnaya include breathing air tinted with peach oil, walking in the woods, massages and sleeping in the open air.

Perhaps the most intriguing cure, however, is "grape therapy." To improve their intake of glucose, patients start off by munching their way through a pound of succulent grapes a day. The dosage is then increased by stages to 10 pounds a day which, Dr. Spartesnaya insists, is "excellent for the heart muscles."

VACATIONING IN the Crimea reflects both the good and bad of Soviet life. Sanitariums and rest homes are heavily subsidized by the state so many working class families end up paying virtually nothing for a two- or three-week vacation by the sea. One of the government's proudest boasts is that, while only wealthy aristocrats could afford a holiday in a resort like Yalta before the 1917 revolution, now anyone can.

With holiday accommodation still relatively scarce, however, there has to be some kind of rationing system. Where previously it was money, now it is blat -- the Russian word for influence, clout, connections.

The trade unions have responsibility for allocating vacation vouchers. Inevitably, most vouchers go to workers who prove themselves politically reliable or otherwise deserving. They also go to managers or trade union activists themselves. Everybody else -- i.e., nine-tenths of the population -- has to fend for himself.

August is, of course, a terrible month for the independent vacationer since everything is full. Planes and trains are booked for weeks ahead and even privately rented rooms are scarce. Prices for food on local markets shoot up.

Needless to say, there are ways to beat the system.

An office worker from Moscow described how she had managed to get tickets on the plane down to the Crimea by bribing the girl at the travel office with promises of theater tickets. A store clerk said she had acquired a hotel voucher from one of her customers whom she plied with goods from under the counter.

The easiest method of enjoying a holiday in Yalta, however, is to pay in hard currency as a foreigner. Then everything becomes possible: plane tickets, hotel accommodations, private rooms in overcrowded restaurants, chauffeur-driven limousines, imported liquor in special bars.

The paradox is that 65 years after the revolution the most privileged vacationers here are tourists from the capitalist West.