Sochi, once home to Soviet sanitoriums, has remade itself for the Olympics. (Photo courtesy William Nickell)

Vision of health

Once a favored Soviet leisure spot, Sochi tries to transform ­itself for the Olympics.

In September, just a little over four months before the 2014 Winter Olympians would descend, the Russian resort city of Sochi was a mess.

William Nickell, assistant professor in Slavic languages and literatures, visits Sochi annually to research a city that once represented, he says, the highest ideals of Soviet health. During his fall visit, construction was “ubiquitous,” with an Olympic village, a new train system, and luxury high-rises for visitors being built. He felt surrounded by the jackhammers’ pounding, and dodged treacherous holes in the sidewalks.

The disarray stood in stark contrast to the “new Russia” the country’s leaders insist the world will see during the Olympics—and to the Sochi of the Soviet era. The new Sochi is being built on top of a city that Stalin conceived in the 1930s. Created as a public works project, it was one of many towns in the Caucasus region along the Black Sea where Soviet workers would go for three to four weeks every year to vacation, improve their health, and learn to be better citizens.

With sanitoriums inspired by Western European spas, Sochi was the country’s most famous resort city, and Stalin’s favorite. Top architects designed ornate neoclassical buildings with an air of luxury. “That was the idea: ‘We’re building palaces of rest for our workers,’” says Nickell, who is writing a book about Sochi’s role in the Soviet health care system.

A lot of money, he says, was invested to make the city resemble one big park, “with fountains, statues, and flower-lined paths and roads,” Nickell wrote in a 2010 virtual exhibit. Its subtropical climate meant that people could vacation there year-round. Plants with medicinal properties were chosen for Sochi’s gardens, and its many mineral springs were thought to have healing powers.

Sochi’s sanitoriums were large resort campuses where workers received holistic care. To keep the workforce strong and maximize the productivity of each individual, Stalin wrote into the USSR’s 1936 constitution that every worker had the right to “rest and leisure,” including an annual vacation. But vacation wasn’t just meant for sightseeing or bronzing on the beach: “rest,” Nickell says, was a complicated term in the Soviet Union. A certain amount “was supposed to be relaxing yet edifying.” The constitution called for sanitoriums and rest homes to serve that purpose.

Each sanitorium was affiliated with a trade union or political organization, and its visitors would receive services according to the stresses of their jobs. Mine workers, for example, were treated for lung ailments and respiratory issues with oxygen therapy. In addition to medical treatments, prescribed diets and exercise, and a concentrated focus on hygiene, visitors would take in cultural programming, for instance attending lectures or the theater or visiting Sochi’s art museum.

The Soviets were attempting to build an ideal society, and Sochi was a very deliberate piece of that. “It was supposed to be kind of a model city.”

Nickell’s book in progress examines what the health care system revealed about the country’s political and cultural values. It’s a simple story, he says: “The Soviets care for their workers and guarantee them the right to rest every year. ... The holistic health treatment gives workers the opportunity to become a new Soviet man or woman, a new Soviet person, with all of the social and political and philosophical values that that includes.”

He also looks at how citizens understood this story, touring sanitoriums and talking to city residents. “I always ask them what they think of the ‘new Sochi,’” he says. This year, people expressed disgust: “They kept saying, ‘They’ve ruined the city’”—“the city,” he noticed, instead of “our city.” In the past, Sochi “was a city for the workers that had been built by workers,” he says. “There was this tradition of having residents of the city go out and work in the parks, planting trees and flowers and laying out the gardens.” Many residents no longer feel that sense of ownership.

Not long before Nickell first traveled there in 1989 as part of a student group, Sochi was a thriving city with about 50 sanitoriums. When he returned 20 years later, he found a very different place. The Soviet government had budgeted significant resources to support the sanitorium system, but without investment from the weakened trade unions, much of the city was deteriorating. Nickell estimates that almost half the sanitoriums are now in decline. The government-owned buildings—those owned by the army, for example, or the security department—tend to be well maintained, but many others are just skeletons. Inside one Nickell saw chandeliers hanging above beautiful wood floors, but signs on the walls announced periodic electricity and hot water shutdowns.

Nickell, who earned his PhD at Berkeley and taught at the University of California, Santa Cruz, before joining UChicago in 2011, wants to share his research not only with academics but also with the public. It could be useful, he says, for Americans to understand Sochi’s socialist health care system and its emphasis on holistic treatments and preventive care, ideas that are gaining currency here. Americans, he says, “are really at a critical point, thinking about health care in this country.” The Sochi Olympics offered Nickell an opportunity to bring his work to a wider audience. In late January, an exhibit on Soviet-era Sochi and its parallels to Michigan’s Battle Creek Sanitarium, which thrived in the first decades of the 20th century, opens at the Loop’s National Museum of Health and Medicine Chicago, just in time for the opening ceremonies.

The Olympics construction made the “new Sochi” feel more harmful than healthy to Nickell. Walking around, he’d pass cars sitting in traffic, pumping out smoke, and was conscious of breathing dirty air. “It’s just making you run-down,” he says. But he’s certain the future will be better—at least better than in September. “Sochi used to be a place where people went to have fun and relax,” Nickell says. “I suppose it will one day kind of be that place again.”