In a small town in west-central Georgia, green foliage infiltrates decaying buildings that are relics from another time. Grand columns, pillars, and arches painted in light blue and turquoise stretch out into massive Soviet-era sanatoria complexes that once served as a respite for exhausted citizens.
In the 1920s, Tskaltubo was a thriving spa town with an exclusively Soviet clientele. Citizens would flock here as part of a state-funded health program on sanctioned vacations meant to reenergize them while they contemplated socialist ideals. If the workers were healthy, as the theory went, the workforce would be healthy and thus more productive to support the regime.
Although many of the buildings are abandoned and falling apart, sections of the spa complex are still in use as a resort today. These photos may capture elements of the structure’s decay but the still-vibrant colors and structural integrity of the buildings hint at a grand, looming past.
“All these things are so big and these pillars reach so high, and you feel that it’s constructed with a lot of pride,” says Reginald Van de Velde, an urban explorer who visited the site in 2017. “You feel that Soviet pride in it.”
The state-funded program, called putevki, required citizens to take mandatory spa vacations for at least two weeks each year. Citizens would take trains to luxurious spa complexes and upon arrival, they would each get their own rooms. Doctors would prescribe them a series of rigidly scheduled treatments, including things like mandatory time for sunbathing. (Related: “Play the Forgotten Arcade Games of the Soviet Union”)
Despite how we might think about spas today, these Soviet-era institutions were strict. Guests weren’t allowed to bring their families. Drinking, dancing, and making too much noise were also discouraged, since they might take away from the guests’ ability to ponder about the socialist state. (Related: “The Soviet Military Program that Secretly Mapped the Entire World”)
Although some Communist-era health spas are still in use and the complexes Van de Velde visited appeared to be abandoned, some of the crumbling structures still have residents. (Related: “Visit a Country That Doesn’t Exist”)
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“These buildings are now occupied by the refugees,” Van de Velde says. After being expelled from their homes by conflict, Abkhazian refugees have made the sanatoria their own by building make-shift homes and vegetable gardens.
Today, Tskaltubo is still a popular spa town. Van de Velde says the main building of the town's sanatoria is in use, although when he visited, there weren’t a lot of guests. The resort has a hotel, restaurant, winery, and still offers traditional sanatorium services, including radioactive semi-radon baths and balneotherapy in the form of therapeutic baths.
Although the Soviet sentiments are long-gone, the restorative spirit of the spa remains.