The Shameless Baths of Pyatigorsk

Photographer Daniil Kolchanov visits the renegade bathers of one of Russia’s oldest spa resort towns.

The town of Pyatigorsk, nestled in the North Caucasus, is famous for its mineral springs. The southern climate coupled with the surplus of mountain waters has made the town a popular destination for Russians seeking treatment. The tradition of traveling to Pyatigorsk for health reasons dates back decades, and even the poet Mikhail Lermontov was prescribed treatment in the mineral waters. Much of the spring water is dispensed by established spas; however, a few baths hidden within the town’s cliffs operate beyond the official boundaries in a more guerrilla-like format. 

One such location is the Shameless Baths, which acquired its name during the Soviet era from the unconventional approach of its bathers. “It was quite uncustomary for men and women to just freely undress around each other during the Soviet era,” says photographer Daniil Kolchanov. People of all backgrounds – primarily those that want to enjoy the delights of a warm spring waters without having to pay a hefty sum – can be found unwinding in these waters. A native of Pyatigorsk, Kolchanov returned to his hometown to capture this idyllic phenomenon.

Since Soviet times, the sanitation risk of these baths has attracted the attention of the authorities. Despite several attempts to fence off the area, bathers continue to come on an annual basis. Many attendees travel from all corners of Russia, turning the location into a unique reunion space. The baths are maintained by a group of activists, who also regularly break the locks on fences used by the authorities. The cleanliness of the waters is however highly questionable, with one of the two streams believed to contain radioactive water. 

At night, teenagers can be found drinking at these baths – yet another reason the authorities are so eager to shut the place down. There are inherent dangers in using these pools and – either as a result of incautious partying or over-bathing – several dead bodies have been found in these baths. Nonetheless, the desire to bathe here continues to outweigh the risks. The baths are both a source of healing and infection, life and death. “Unlike authorized spas, there is a lack of human intervention,” says Kolchanov. “It’s interesting to observe the coexistence between man and nature when you’re there.”