Retreats in Time

The landmark architecture and history of Moscow’s Soviet health resorts.

You can still check into the bold, Utopian-looking health resorts in the Moscow region. There ought to be nothing startling here: Muscovites’ daily life involves living, working, and relaxing in iconic buildings designed to radiate ideologies that have little to do with contemporary reality or society.

Yet stepping into these complexes today is startling. Their otherness brings home how much things have changed; their worlds, somehow frozen in time, engulf you.

It is hard to put your finger on what is so strange. For the foreign visitor, perhaps, it is the culmination of science fictions, of aesthetics half familiar from Stanley Kubrick films. It is the positive ambition and enduring power of the architecture. It is the cavernous spaces within, cool and hushed like spaceships – or museums to socialist ideals – their stated missions so much more utilitarian, or cosmic, than the concerns of the guests. It is the conspiratorial atmosphere, too. The streetlights at the Barvikha sanatorium come on early. The swans seem to know something you don’t, moving between the pines in the theatrical light as if preparing for a performance to which you aren’t invited. The other guests are in on something, too. Could there be a special ingredient in that stodgy porridge?

Life in suburban sanatoriums. Video by Alexandra Karelina

Visitors who remember the Soviet times or have inherited the collective memory are likely to have a different reaction. Health was perhaps where the paradoxes of the Soviet Union reached their most acute. The party – and the official architecture – continued to propagate the communist ideal of equal healthcare for all (the most bizarre “cosmist” extensions of that ideology proposed resurrecting everyone and putting them on the moon). Yet rigid central health planning could not deliver. There grew a system of bribes navigable to those with connections; meanwhile, the distribution of healthcare also became systematically unfair, with special facilities created for those who held important administrative positions within the Soviet government and economic and education ministries – the “nomenklatura.”

The nomenklatura associations are only part of the picture. Visitors are reminded of the Soviet cult of health and communal outdoor leisure: the pioneer camps, the prominent “physkultura” classes (PE), the image of the body as a machine that perished in Western Europe but lived on in Soviet socialist realism. The standardized housing of the 1960s was designed with minimal living space, partly to ensure that citizens would pour into the outdoor, public realm; the resorts built at that time should receive them; the architects’ visions should inspire them and make them feel part of the future.

Other zeitgeists are also preserved. Lipki, for example, remains brimming with the cheerful madness of the late Soviet period: the masseurs in the spa are exclusively black, the swimming pool is lined with portholes, free vodka and brandy is handed out at lunch in plastic cups, and the nightclub is called “Night Club.” Yet time in these resorts has stopped in a different sense. Health and sickness, youth and aging are timeless concerns. These quiet halls, corridors, and gardens remain temples for the contemplation of one’s own future.

Barvikha Health Resort

Architects: Boris Iofan, Dmitry Tsipirovich. Completed 1935, Odintsovo region

While Barvikha is today considered the center of suburban Moscow luxury – situated at the heart of the elite area popularly known as “Rublyovka” – until recently it was the main governmental health resort and, before that, a sanatorium for the Soviet nomenklatura. At the time of the Russian Revolution, the most significant building in the area was the mansion on the Podushkino estate: built in 1887, it incorporates surprising French Renaissance elements and remains in fine condition to this day. The Bolsheviks nationalized the building and it was initially used by Lenin himself, before being given over to the children of fallen Red Army soldiers. In 1930, the adjacent park was chosen as the future site of a sanatorium for people with digestive and metabolic disorders and the Soviet architect Boris Iofan was invited to work on the project. He used the most cutting-edge materials available at the time: reinforced concrete, a metal structure, and large window frames. All six buildings were designed in the avant-garde style, each with an accessible, functional roof and tall windowpanes. An indoor gym with a wooden roof was built too – presumably for patients whose bowels were on the mend. A number of well-known Soviet and (following the dissolution of the USSR) Russian celebrities stayed here, including Semyon Budyonny, Mikhail Bulgakov, and Yury Gagarin. 

Klyazma Pansionat

Architects: Leonid Karlik, Ashot Mndoyants, Andrei Meyerson, Yarkun Mukhamedkhanov, with the participation of Igor Vinogradsky. Completed 1963, Pushkino region

In the early 1960s, there was a dearth of proper recreational facilities in the Moscow suburbs. Those that did exist were governmental sanatoriums – assigned to ministries, institutes and factories. As disposable income levels rose and the country made the transition to a five-day workweek, the demand for weekend resorts grew. People wanted places they could simply up and visit – without the tedious process of obtaining a “putyovka” (an official holiday certificate for a specific destination) through their work. One response of the Moscow government was to build a complex of four “pansionats” (vacation resorts) on the city outskirts, all with a single architectural style. The pansionats – Berezki, Klyazma, Podmoskovya, and Dubrava – were spaced out evenly along the embankment of the Klyazminsky Reservoir. The 120-hectare site was sensitively designed: the sports and dining facilities integrated with the scenery and the woodland areas were left intact. The architecture was intended to give the impression of an affordable yet contemporary resort. Essentially, this was the first resort in the greater Moscow area to have a thoroughly conceived master plan and infrastructure. This kind of resort, or pansionat, became the symbol of a new era and a popular destination with Muscovites for decades to come. 

The Voronovo Complex

Architects: Ilya Chernyavsky, Igor Vasilevsky. Completed 1974, Podolsky region

With the advent of Soviet power, the 18th-century estate in Voronovo village fell into the hands of the State Planning Committee, or “Gosplan.” The plan was to renovate the complex, including the stately home and so-called “Dutch house,” and then provide lodgings for holidaying Gosplan employees. The buildings transpired to be below par and others were erected in their place. At the time, the architecture for this kind of building was typically very simplistic: one cuboid with a grid of balconies, a second cuboid lumped onto it with a canteen and cinema. But this was too boring for the 57-year-old architect Ilya Chernyavsky, who came up with his own, staggered design, so that the rooms wouldn’t have adjoining walls. 

Olimpiets Park Hotel

Architects: Anatoly Polyansky, Alexander Gvozdin, Oleg Shtilmark. Completed 1980, Khimki region

The Olimpiets Park Hotel was constructed ahead of the 1980 Moscow Olympics. Of all the compounds built in the greater Moscow area in the late 1970s, the park hotel is the most distinctive thanks to its three pyramid-shaped brick corpuses, which found the perfect site on the bank of the River Klyazma. The architectural concept is based on the contrast between the three red wedges and the flat white sports center at their focal point. The materials – red brick and white stone – were used for everything, including the restaurant interior (also adorned with crystal chandeliers and stained glass windows). A football field encircled by an athletics track takes pride of place at the front of the compound; spectators can watch from the viewing platform on the slope in front of the main complex or from another pavilion below. Those involved in the project received a state award. 

The Lipki Complex

Architects: Dmitry Solovodov, Yury Rozovsky, Leonid Kharitonov. Completed 1986, Odintsovo region

The Lipki pioneer camp was a daring undertaking during the late Soviet period. The Transport and Construction Ministry commissioned the project – in an unremarkable and partly swamped region near Zvenigorod – with a view to creating a continental resort. Lipki was designed to accommodate 500 children in the summer months and then to transform, with the help of its adjustable furniture, into a pansionat for 340 guests. From a bird’s eye view, Lipki looks like a cuttlefish: three residential wings unfurl like tentacles from a circular body. All the buildings have red brick veneers and rounded walls and corners. The winter garden is the most striking part of the ensemble, with its complex tented ceiling held up by wooden beams. This was a common practice in the West at the time, but rare in the Soviet Union. Unfortunately, the territory was never completed – the swamplands were drained but you will find them overgrown today.

This article has been adapted from Afisha-Daily.