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The abandoned Soviet-era spas a community of refugees calls home

Published 11th January 2019
During the Soviet Union the Georgian town of Tskaltubo was a popular health destination famed for its therapeutic water and sanatoriums.
 
During the heyday of the Soviet Union from the 1960's to 1980's some 100,000+ visitors a year including Stalin and his high-ranking officials from Moscow, frequented these facilities.

Four trains arrived daily full of guests from Moscow.
 
The town was renowned for its therapeutic radon-carbonate mineral spring water believed to treat an array of ailments.

The general public of the USSR were obliged to visit sanatoriums annually to revitalize which was intended to sustain a healthy and productive workforce.

Several masterplans by architects resulted in 22 different sanatorium buildings with hundreds of hotel rooms, spas, bathhouses and in-patient facilities.

When the Soviet Union collapsed, the buildings were abandoned and fell into decay. Floors have been ripped up for firewood, the metal salvaged as scrap.
 
In 1992 a war nearby in Abkhazia broke out.
 
Displaced Georgians fled from the conflict and were given temporary shelter in Tskaltubo's unoccupied buildings.
 
Twenty-five years later, hundreds of families remain living in these architectural remains of a Soviet past.
Credit: Ryan Koopmans/Redux
The abandoned Soviet-era spas a community of refugees calls home
Written by Tom Seymour, CNN
"The kids have this whole area as their playground," photographer Ryan Koopmans said. He's referring to the now abandoned sanatoriums of Tskaltubo, a small town 30 kilometers inland from the Georgian coast, and now peopled by victims of war.
The Dutch-Canadian photographer has spent the last five years photographing the strange interiors of these ruins, capturing the relationship between man-made architectural grandiosity, the incremental forces of nature and the improvisational ingenuity of its settlers.
Ryan Koopmans has been photographing abandoned sanatoriums in Tskaltubo, Georgia, for five years.
Ryan Koopmans has been photographing abandoned sanatoriums in Tskaltubo, Georgia, for five years. Credit: Ryan Koopmans/Redux
Throughout the Soviet Era, the USSR built 186 comparable sanatoriums across the state, designed specifically for comrades in need of a rest.
The most desirable spas were along the Russian Riviera, the warm stretch of coastline off the Black Sea in the southernmost tip of Russia and the western reaches of Georgia, where it nears the Turkish border.
The USSR built sanatoriums across the state, designed specifically for comrades in need of a rest.
The USSR built sanatoriums across the state, designed specifically for comrades in need of a rest. Credit: Ryan Koopmans/Redux
Tskaltubo was one of the best. According to the European Historic Thermal Towns Association, its so-called "waters of immortality" were known as early as the seventh century. The natural springs emanate from limestone massifs deep beneath the ground, releasing radon-carbonated and mineral-enriched water that many believed to have healing properties.
In 1991, when the Soviet Union crumbled, the sanatoriums were decommissioned and nature claimed the spa complex for its own. Vines, weeds and moss climb and wind through the ornate interiors; roots and branches push through pillared hallways and arched bathing rooms.
But even as the buildings were left to decay, life remained in Tskaltubo. In 1992, a year after the fall of the Soviet Union, a bloody conflict broke out between government forces and separatists who fought for the independence of Abkhazia, a disputed autonomous republic in northwestern Georgia. Refugees from the war fled their homes in Abkhazia and discovered the deserted corridors of Tskaltubo.
Three generations of families now call the Tskaltubo sanatoriums home.
Three generations of families now call the Tskaltubo sanatoriums home. Credit: Ryan Koopmans/Redux
The refugees never moved on. Koopmans' series, therefore, mixes austere architectural studies with portraits of the people who, to this day, call the gutted sanatoriums their home. The original settlers have had children, and now grandchildren. Koopmans photographs the play of kids who have never known anywhere else.
After the fall of the Soviety Union in 1991, many of the sanatoriums were left to be reclaimed by nature.
After the fall of the Soviety Union in 1991, many of the sanatoriums were left to be reclaimed by nature. Credit: Ryan Koopmans/Redux
Without light, heating or running water, the spa's new residents "have had to adapt and create their own makeshift means of survival," Koopmans said.
They've tapped into decades-old water lines and spliced into electricity mainlines; tended animals and grown vegetables on the grounds of the spa complexes. He captures the vestiges of metal-works that have been ripped from the building's interiors and sold for scrap, or the wooden floors that have been chopped up for firewood.
"Everything about their lives is makeshift and improvised," Koopmans said.
Sanatoriums included elaborate theaters to entertain guests during their holidays.
Sanatoriums included elaborate theaters to entertain guests during their holidays. Credit: Ryan Koopmans/Redux
At its height, the Tskaltubo spa complex provided more than 5,000 bedrooms across 19 separate hotel-like buildings situated in a ring around the thermal springs.
The sanatoriums were designed as a model of progressive Soviet architecture -- a fusion of what is now known as classical Stalinist design and ethnic Georgian decor, as well as Gothic and Roman features.
It's not uncommon to find rooms stripped of their wooden floorboards, which can be used to build fires.
It's not uncommon to find rooms stripped of their wooden floorboards, which can be used to build fires. Credit: Ryan Koopmans/Redux
When he first discovered the sanitoriums, Koopmans was "struck by how beautifully designed they were."
"They were frozen in time and objects were just sitting there, as if someone had just got up and left," he said. "It was as if the buildings were still used by the Soviet citizenship. But the objects had now become artifacts."
After decades, the Georgian government is starting to re-home residents of the sanatoriums.
After decades, the Georgian government is starting to re-home residents of the sanatoriums. Credit: Ryan Koopmans/Redux
The spas are in the process of being rediscovered again. Investors have started to buy the land back and regenerate the dilapidated buildings. After years of stasis, the Georgian government has begun to re-home the refugees. Developers are making plans to relaunch the spa as a luxury tourist destination.
"There's been a huge change in the town over the last two years," Koopmans said. "The buildings are being taken apart, piece by piece. The neoclassical buildings are up for sale and are being quickly bought by private buyers. They're now gated off, with hired guards to protect them. Hopefully, certain buildings will be revitalized with the original architecture protected, but many are just being torn down."
A still-vibrant mosaic shows people harvesting grapes for wine -- fitting, as Georgia is one of the world's oldest wine regions.
A still-vibrant mosaic shows people harvesting grapes for wine -- fitting, as Georgia is one of the world's oldest wine regions. Credit: Ryan Koopmans/Redux
And in that sense, these photographs of Tskaltubo hold a greater power. The spa complex is about to enter another chapter in its existence, and this era will soon be a memory.
"There's been a huge change in the town over the last two years," Koopmans said. "The buildings are being taken apart, piece by piece.
"There's been a huge change in the town over the last two years," Koopmans said. "The buildings are being taken apart, piece by piece. Credit: Ryan Koopmans/Redux
"Time can be a difficult thing to quantify. But there's a physical manifestation of time passing in these photographs," Koopmans said. "These photographs deconstruct something that is true for all of us -- time passing so quickly by."