A sunbather at Metallurg Sanatorium in Sochi, Russia. (William Nickell)

Ah, the burdens borne by the Soviet worker: digging coal, mining metals, firing bricks — and all the while building communism besides. No wonder a vacation visit to a sanatorium was so desirable, and necessary. Fresh air, perhaps a session in the magnet chamber or a zap of electricity, and it was back in the traces, ready for the latest Five-Year Plan.

Sanatoriums and houses of rest were spread around the former empire for worker restoration and relaxation, but perhaps none inspired more longing than those in Sochi, a Black Sea city with Florida-like sun and palm trees. As other emblems of the Soviet past faded over the past 20 years, Sochi remained a city of the sanatorium, holding fast to a dated charm.

Until now.

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.

The history

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.

“I’m trying to capture what is happening now,” he said, “and think about it in a historical context.”

Russia subdued the region on the Black Sea nearly 150 years ago, and the first resorts opened in the early 1900s, with one called the Riviera, Nickell said. That period ended after the 1917 revolution, when Lenin ordered the resorts nationalized.

“The idea was to take the sites used for wealthy aristocrats and make them available to workers,” Nickell said.

Sochi became a favorite of Stalin, and more recently of Vladimir Putin. Construction boomed in the 1930s. As befitted a workers’ paradise, the common person’s sanatorium was built to look like a Greek temple, with grand columns, imposing statuary and lavish gardens. The rooms were modest — workers were supposed to spend their time elsewhere, in self-improvement. Eventually sanatoriums were sponsored by trade unions, which would send deserving workers there for up to 24 days of treatment. Husbands and wives, working at different enterprises, ordinarily did not travel together when they went for the cure.

Change for the future

One grand still-standing sanatorium goes by the name Metallurg. Another, belonging to the Ministry of Interior, is called Salute. A sanatorium for coal miners focused on respiratory diseases, offering hearty gulps of oxygen. The Rossiya, built for the party elite, has already been turned into the luxury Grand Hotel and Spa Rodina, where rooms start around $650 and soar to $5,500 a night. It is so opulent that its beach looks full of polished stones instead of the usual rough-hewn Sochi rocks.

Southern Beach was built in 1964 for the Ministry of Medium Machine Building, later revealed as, and renamed, the Ministry for Atomic Energy. Naturally, it specialized in warding off the effects of radiation exposure and treated thyroid problems. Today, its clientele is mostly an older generation, accompanied by journalists covering Olympic preparations.

Local residents are skeptical about the way the government is using the Olympics to give Sochi airs. Who can afford to live in the fancy high rises, asks Olga Noskovets, an environmental activist. The city’s face is being disfigured, she says, and its healthy air and water fouled by power plants and too much construction.

Much of the old Sochi — the Sochi of the free trade union trip, the right to a wholesome getaway, the comradely evenings spent dancing around the fountains — has already disappeared, Nickell said. Now, people are spending time alone on their modern balconies instead of with the masses.

“I doubt it will disappear completely, because I think there will always be some people who subscribe to the view that was so dominant for so long — going to the Black Sea and taking the treatments,” he said.

Russia may have stopped building communism, but even a capitalist needs the occasional shot in the arm.