The Olympic website for Sochi 2014 (http://torchrelay.sochi2014.com/en/city-sochi) and media coverage occasionally detail the history of the development of Sochi, tying it in the main to the growing popularity of sea bathing in Russia in the early twentieth century. The rise of sea bathing certainly did increase the popularity of the resort, in the context of the rise of tourism on the entire Black Sea coast. But that is only part of the story. The resort was also developed, after the discovery of the presence in Sochi of sulpheric mineral waters at the source “Matsesta,” as a resort for mineral water cures. Many of the first tourists to Sochi were actually patients.
While “taking the waters” is unfamiliar to many people, it was at the time of the first and second waves of development in Sochi – in the 1910s and mid-1930s – still mainstream medical therapy throughout Europe, and continues to be in many places to this day. The mid- to late-nineteenth century saw the rise of the baths, tied to the spread of the railways and increasing accessibility of travel to an expanding bourgeoisie. The circulation of visitors to baths in Central Europe increased dramatically in the 1850s, in the wake of railway construction. The leading baths of Central Europe were Wiesbaden and Baden-Baden, which saw about 30,000 visitors a year each in the 1850s. In Imperial Russia, the railway reached from Rostov-na-Donu to the Caucasian Mineral Waters, an established military resort, in 1875, leading to a burst in the construction of hotels, dachas (summer cottages) and restaurants. That decade the railways also reached the baths of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. In 1888, the railway reached the Black Sea port of Novorossiisk, opening the Black Sea coast of the Caucasus, where Sochi is located, to a new wave of development. As the railways reached out into the flesh of the empires, circulation began to flow domestically and internationally.
As today, the development of the Black Sea coast was spurred by state intervention and investment. The region was in the early twentieth century scarcely populated, and attempts to settle peasants from other places in the empire there as farmers, through various economic and social incentives, were not a success. A particular problem was that malaria was endemic to the region. In the late nineteenth century, Tsar Nicholas II began to ponder targeting the coastline as a site for the development of tourism. But what would draw people to the region?
In 1912, the Tsar sent a large delegation of scientists, including the leading balneologists of the empire, to the region to search for mineral water sources. If mineral waters could be found, perhaps they could serve as a nucleus to draw tourists to the region (and away from rival baths in Central Europe). The delegation reported back that their greatest hopes had been answered. The region was laden with rich deposits of mineral waters, largely untapped. The scientists compared the baths of Matsesta to the baths of Aachen in Western Germany, due to their sulpheric content, a mineral water source called the Kaiserquelle.
The news of the riches of the region, and imperial approval for their development, spread quickly. The first development of the Matsesta waters rested on private capital. A joint stock company was formed to fund the development of the Matsesta mineral waters and in 1912, the first bath house there was opened. Sochi-Matsesta was an ingénue among resorts – aristocrats largely remained loyal to the more established Crimean resort of Yalta or the Caucasian Mineral Waters resort. The Black Sea Coast was particularly attractive to a middle class health resort patient, or kurortnik, as well as patients of the Jewish faith (whose presence was banned at established Imperial Russian resorts). Dachas and villas as well as modest pensions and inns began to be built and there was even some land speculation. Sochi-Matsesta boomed, very briefly, and the development of spa medicine improved when imperial resorts served the front during World War I. The resorts on the Black Sea coast grew from almost nothing at the beginning of the twentieht century through the help of speculators and developers to receive 75,000 visitors in 1912.
With the Bolshevik revolution of 1917, the fate of the resorts of the empire seemed unclear. In the nearby Weimar Republic in Germany, for example, despite revolution, the celebrated baths remained largely in the hands of the elite segments of society, beyond the reach of the state. But the Communist party and state was determined to develop health resorts “for the workers.” In 1919, Lenin signed a decree nationalizing all health resorts, which reserved them for the use of the workers, peasants and Red Army soldiers in first order, for medical treatment. Filling the old Tsarist palaces with workers and peasants had obvious propaganda value. In Sochi, sanatoria were established in pre-revolutionary villas, hotels and private clinics (see Figure 1). But the level of state investment in the network of health resorts, and of medical services there, make it clear that this was not a mere “Potemkin village.” The state, and particularly the committed physicians at the head of the new, state public health ministry, the Commissariat of Public Health, took health resort medicine seriously, not least mineral water treatments, as a way to improve the health of the entire population.
The use of the Matsesta waters increased dramatically, largely due to patients sent for a “cure” by the Commissariat of Public Health (See Figure 2). In the 1920s, a cure usually lasted from four to six weeks, and included from 15 to 30 baths with Matsesta waters. Physicians sent patients to Matsesta to cure chronic eczema and other skin conditions, gout, various nervous ailments, syphilis, chronic rheumatism, gynecological ailments and ailments of the heart, circulation and digestion, but patients also took the waters of their own accord, “off label,” for whatever ailed them. The number of patients using the Matsesta waters increased from 67 in 1920, to 3,921 patients in 1925. The most rapid expansion, however, came during the years of industrialization of the late 1920s and 1930s: from 1927 to 1932 the number of patients taking the Matsesta cure increased from 7,980 patients to 48,574 patients. The number of baths taken increased from 1921 to 1932 from 1,345 baths to 731,218 baths. A second bath house was built. But demand outpaced supply. By 1937, the Matsesta bath houses were working from 6 a.m. until 11 p.m.
The Soviet leaders were justifiably proud of their accomplishment, but rather overstated their role in developing the resort. Frequently not included in Soviet statistics were numbers from the pre-Revolutionary period: 18,604 baths were administered in 1913, 17,395 baths in 1914, 16,982 baths in 1915 and 21,586 baths in 1916. Indeed, the pre-revolutionary peak in 1916 was not reached in the Soviet Union until 1923. In the 1920s and 1930s, as now, the idea that the resort was “new” served the symbolic project of treating their development as a display of state power. Patients continue to take the cure at the Matsesta waters to this day (See Figure 3).
For Further Reading:
Diane P. Koenker, Club Red: Vacation Travel and the Soviet Dream (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2013).
Mirjam Zadoff, Next Year in Marienbad: The Lost Worlds of Jewish Spa Culture (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2012).
Douglas Peter Mackaman, Leisure Settings: Bourgeois Culture, Medicine and the Spa in Modern France (Chicago: Chicago University Press, 1998).
John K. Walton, ed., Mineral Springs Resorts in Global Perspective: Spa Histories (London: Routledge, 2013).
Eric Thomas Jennings, Curing the Colonizers: Hydrotherapy, Climatology and French Colonial Spas (Durham: Duke University Press, 2008).