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By John Helmer, Moscow

Early this month a Chinese reporter asked President Vladimir Putin for an intimate detail of his life noone had requested (or been given) before. Asked how much time he spends on exercise each day, Putin replied: “Every day I spend about 2–2.5 hours doing sports. I go to the gym, I swim, sometimes I get out on the mat, if I have sparring partners, and sometimes I play hockey.”

The amount of time surprises European sources; they believe Putin, now 65 years of age, is setting something of a world record among heads of government or state. Moscow observers claim the number of Putin’s sport hours includes at least a half-hour undressing and dressing, perhaps his daily ablutions too. Even discounting that time, the sources remark it is more than twice the recommended exercise norm at Soviet sanatoriums built in Lenin’s and Stalin’s time to restore workers’ health from poisonous occupations at mines and smelters, and raise their productivity on going back to work.

A newly published book from London  is a portrait of the decline of these institutions in contemporary Russia, before they disappear entirely, their worker and pensioner clientele with them. A federal Health Ministry doctor observes that as the retirement age is stretched out by eight years for women (new target 63), five years for men (target 65, Putin’s age), state spending for the physical welfare to make the distance is being cut back. Several millions will not reach the sanatorium; they will have gone to the cemetery instead.  

This is a policy of cutting the state budget for pensioners by preserving the money in the  pension,  but culling the numbers of those living long enough to receive it. The ideology of the Soviet sanatorium has been liquidated; the real estate is being privatized; the surviving clientele redirected into fat reduction and cosmetic treatments for juvenescence.  

The pension reform, advocated by the former candidate for Vice President of Russia, Alexei Kudrin, was announced on June 14 by Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev. The implementing legislation has been fast-tracked for enactment by the State Duma in less than a month. The scheme has accelerated the decline in Putin’s public approval; this is now down 12% since his re-election in March – a sharper fall than the post-election decline of 2012.

Source: polling by the state pollster VTsIOM, charted by Bloomberg: https://www.bloomberg.com/view/ Russian labour law prohibits union strikes for non-labour issues; public rallies for the pension protest have been banned for the duration of the World Cup.

The disappearance of the sanatorium is already more visible than the disappearance of pensioners will be. “Holidays in Soviet Sanatoriums”, written by Maryam Omidi and illustrated by eight mostly Russian photographers, was published in London late last year.  

Left: At the Matsesta sanatorium, Sochi, owned by the Federation of Independent Trade Unions. Right: the Rodnik sanatorium at Pyatigorsk, also owned by the union federation.

Most of the patients photographed for the book are Putin’s age or older, and in much worse shape. Their portraits in the book communicate a sadness that what is being lost is not so much the architectural stylishness of the buildings, on which Omidi focuses, as their bodies, then their lives.

Omidi is unsympathetic to their ideology and doesn’t interview a single one of them. She makes sure noone will miss her distancing herself too:  “the 1930s – the decade in which Stalin executed millions in the Great Terror – represent a golden era of sanatorium construction.”

Omidi does interview sanatorium proprietors, managers and architects. One of them, Igor Vasilevsky, head architect for Kurortproekt for thirty years, wanted his own ideological distance to be recognized in London. “Ideologically speaking, during Soviet times we started out at pioneer camps. Aged eighteen, you entered the army and after that, everybody was made to serve the state. In that context, recreational buildings were designed with 200, 250, 500, or even 1,000 rooms. These armada-like buildings directly represented an ideology. But there was a tension from my very first project. I wanted to place  the individual first, not the collective system.”

A report of Health Ministry figures in Kommersant   in 2015  indicated that then there were about 2,000 sanatoria-type organizations in Russia, with capacity of about 500,000 beds. Annually, they were occupied by about 5 million tourists.  Less than 400,000 were treated medically, but they amounted to only half the number of applicants for treatment. The rest were turned away.

The numbers continue to decline, according to a health ministry source. The ministry’s future budget projections aim at accelerating the reduction of state payments to subsidize worker medical treatment at spas and sanatoria, transferring the cost to employers and unions.  In 1975, by contrast, 948 trade union health centres treated 8.3 million workers.

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