Along with vast swaths of the human race, my wife and I were on the verge of psychic breakdown after months of confinement. We were both beset by the persistent, long-term aftereffects of a COVID-19 infection. My insomnia would not allow me sleep for days at a time. Our “long COVID” symptoms were also compounded by the trauma of having lost a close relative to the virus. So we began looking around for a place to recuperate.
You will not be surprised to learn, dear reader, that finding a suitable destination amid the pandemic wasn’t easy. Georgia, where restaurants were open until around 8 in the evening, turned out to be the rare country where travel was not prohibited, and where hotels and spas were operating. So, like generations of Soviet and post-Soviet citizens before us, we decided to take the waters at a sanitarium.
We set forth from Kyiv just as the Russians had begun massively augmenting their forces on the Ukrainian border. Like the country we were leaving, the country we were traveling to was under partial Russian occupation amid a seemingly intractable political crisis. The man mostly responsible for that crisis was seated behind me on the connecting flight. Mikheil Saakashvili, the exiled former president of Georgia and international hipster extraordinaire, was dressed in skinny jeans, aviator glasses, a black hoodie, and a pair of fantastically hideous sneakers. My social media feed quickly identified these red, chunky Prada shoes as going for the cost of my monthly rent in a very appealing part of Paris.
Several years earlier, I had accused Saakashvili of behaving like a populist demagogue in the pages of Foreign Policy after he had been appointed to the governorship of Ukraine’s Odessa region. When I reintroduced myself and asked him what his plans were, Saakashvili informed me of his intention to continue fighting everyone. The look of rage that came over his face suggested, rather unambiguously, that he meant me as well. I wished him luck in the battles to come and he instructed me to enjoy “his” Georgia.
Our flight arrived in Tbilisi around midnight. A local driver named Gela who had ferried us around during previous trips to Georgia greeted us on the sidewalk outside of the terminal, and quickly produced a bottle of homemade red wine from the trunk of his taxi, which he called his “cellar.” We had a celebratory drink in the airport parking lot, toasting the 30th anniversary of Georgian independence, and I traded a bottle of the homemade vodka that my Ukrainian father-in-law had brewed in his garage for more of Gela’s homemade wine.
The Georgian capital was under a stringent COVID-era travel curfew, and the highway from the airport was totally deserted. Pulling up to our hotel on Shota Rustaveli Avenue, we arrived at the conclusion of a raucous nationalist demonstration against Vladimir Pozner, the Paris-born, Russian-American television personality and legendary Soviet apologist. Hoisting the red and white Georgian national flag and yelling lustily, the crowd was protesting outside the hotel where Pozner and dozens of his closest friends were celebrating his 87th birthday. The local patriots pelting the hotel with eggs insisted that Pozner was a “regime propagandist” who, in his numerous television appearances, has never accepted the principle of Georgian territorial sovereignty. Pozner had apparently not counted on this sort of birthday reception, and swiftly chartered a plane to leave the country.
The protest was a clear demonstration of the fact that some in the Russian political elite have yet to internalize the depth of resentment engendered by the 2008 Russo-Georgian war, which resulted in the occupation of one-fifth of Georgia’s national territory. I thought this a subject worth reporting on, but my wife flatly refused to allow me to engage in any journalistic shenanigans after midnight while she was on vacation. “We just got here, and you are politicizing everything already,” she pointed out for the first of many times over the next two weeks. The few times I had spoken to Pozner by phone, she reminded me, he had been very courteous. It would not do to join the protesters egging his window.
The next morning, as Pozner fled home to Moscow, we took the two-hour drive westward to Borjomi, a spa town nestled in the verdant pine hills of Samtskhe-Javakheti, directly east of the province of Adjara. The Romanovs and members of the Russian imperial court started making pilgrimages to the magic stream there in the latter part of the 19th century, for much the same reasons that people continue to do so.
Today, the town of around 10,000 souls is chiefly known for its namesake water, which is bottled in a pair of nearby factories mostly operated by robots. One can drink the authentic version of the acrid mineral water free of charge from a well located in the middle of the fetching city park. The water, which bubbles up from a deep underground stream, stinks of sulfur and is so thoroughly laced with minerals that it tastes like swallowing a handful of volcanic rock. The city’s mountain air, on the other hand, is truly fantastic, and the town contains one of the last surviving Soviet-style sanitariums.
The majority of Soviet sanitariums, many of which were located in 1960s-style architectural masterpieces, have been shuttered. Others have crumbled into disrepair. Of the few that continue to operate, some have been converted into contemporary hotels or spa centers that have little in common with the idiosyncratic institutions that once served millions of Soviet workers with regimented ozone therapies, massage douche therapies, electric lymph massage treatments, and even more gloriously odd remedies, provided as part of all-inclusive state vacations complete with orderly athletic events and quirky collective health rituals. The vouchers that could be traded for a sanitarium trip were distributed at the whims of powerful Soviet officials. Unless they were well-connected, Soviet citizens would either tolerate years in long queues or else trade for sanitarium vouchers in the barter economy.
I would not bet large sums on these sanitariums existing in any recognizable form several decades from now, so it seemed smart to enjoy these living fossils while I could—for nostalgia’s sake, and because they’re cheap.
The Borjomi Palace is housed inside of a five-story yellow and brown building erected on an elevated cliff above a bend in the Mtkvari River that bisects the town. The sanitarium had once housed the personal guard of the Romanovs. It had been repurposed into a military sanitarium in Soviet times and was only converted for civilian usage a decade ago. The aesthetic of the place combines a certain Spartan minimalism with the garish golden gilt renovation beloved throughout the post-Soviet world.
In the dining room and lobby—which were conspicuously and sadly empty during the pandemic—the most elegant piece of authentic decor was the row of inverted dome, crystal chandeliers. One of the three in the lobby had gone totally dark. The lobby itself had been refurbished in the chintzy style, and the long corridors had been painted ochre. One wing consisted of a warren of tidy examination rooms overstaffed during pandemic times by affable and courteous nurses and doctors.
After checking in, one undergoes a full physical. Upon hearing that I desired to lose some of the weight I had gained during the course of the pandemic, the head doctor reassured me that doing so would be quite impossible in this institution. “That is not going to happen! It is absolutely quite impossible! Simply not going to happen! Here?! Never! How can you lose weight while eating our delicious khachapuri and khinkali? Forget it!”
The hotel food was indeed very fine, and blessedly immune to modish health innovations still mostly unknown to the South Caucasus. Indeed, by the end of our stay, having befriended my slim wife, several staff nurses discreetly asked her for weight-loss advice. They indignantly refused her admonishments to abandon the national diet of bread stuffed with thick cheese.
Our days began at 8 in the morning with “Chinese breathing” stretch classes led by a diminutive and proudly relaxed instructor named Yakov, who wore a black Chairman Mao-style jacket embroidered with white silk clasps. The exercises took place on the veranda in front of a large pagoda, to the soundtrack of a light techno version of the theme from The Last of the Mohicans.
After breakfast we spent the next four to six hours shuttling between various treatments and procedures, some of which were entirely sensible and pleasant—massages, bouts of breathing pure oxygen through machines, as well as light-electrode therapy. The applications of “paraffin” hot wax treatment to various body parts was supposed to draw waste out of organs.
Having befriended my slim wife, several staff nurses discreetly asked her for weight-loss advice. They indignantly refused her admonishments to abandon the national diet of bread stuffed with thick cheese.
Other treatments would be considered esoteric in the West, such as when I was strapped into an inflatable spacesuit pumped full with pure ozone gas; a nurse periodically wandered into the cabinet where they kept me to inquire whether I had flown to Mars yet. I also enjoyed being strapped into a space capsule-shaped steam box—it had holes for my arms to escape in order to hold a book. The utility of spending 20 minutes in a carbonic gas bath shaped like a giant clam still escapes me. One could also get an enema of “Borjomi matter” and follow that up with a stint in the circular douche: a rectangular steel-rack shower that shoots intense geysers of hot water at every side of one’s body.
The daily regimen also included a half hour in the salt room, a literal cavern whose floor was covered with large grained salt and which featured stalactites of artificial salt protruding from the ceiling. The temperature in the salt room was brisk, and I lounged on a foldout chair under thick blankets while drinking a frothy milkshake made out of whipped up “pure oxygen.” I have no idea what the point of the salt room was either, but it was certainly not a bad place to get some reading done.
Social relations among the guests of the sanitarium resembled an ossified replica of life in the Soviet Union. Along with a smattering of Georgians, most of our fellow patients were Russians and Central Asians, and the lingua franca of the place was most definitely Russian. The cosmopolitan fraternization of vastly dissimilar people from 15 different countries was astoundingly open, generous, and gracious.
Conversely, in typical collectivist fashion, the concept of social boundaries was entirely absent. The result was that we were continually dragooned into taking part in social activities and gatherings with people we did not particularly care to spend time with. This mostly amused and charmed me but horrified my Ukrainian wife, who spent more of her life living in the Soviet Union than I did. The very worst exemplar of this phenomenon was an unrelenting and obnoxious Kazakh farmer named Bulat, the paunchy and jocular patriarchal chief of a village collective farm which he apparently ran with an iron fist.
One morning while lounging in the salt room, the overeager farmer engaged me in a conversation that would not cease despite my many polite protestations. Listening to Bulat explain the economics of tenant farming on the Kazakh-Russian border was legitimately fascinating. But taking in his endless stream of antisemitic jokes and crude Jew-related stories was far less amusing. Bulat continued to up the ante with his jovial provocations at every meal, and even during idle moments in the corridor between treatments. He would pass by me when I was in baths or in the circular douche, and casually deploy every antisemitic trope that has ever existed, until I began to marvel at how he topped himself with every performance.
At first, I was stunned. Later, I graduated to annoyance, and finally to rage, but my wise wife counseled me to do nothing. “Do not politicize everything,” she reminded me. “You will not rid Central Asia of racist stereotypes, but you will certainly ruin my vacation.” Maybe Bulat would have been simply amusing, if Sacha Baron Cohen had not existed.
Bulat’s energetic antisemitic performances finally culminated on the last day of our stay, as I sat under a blanket with electrodes strapped to my back and a sheath of hot wax attached to my torso (do not ask me why, comrades, I have no answers), and endured Bulat’s explanation to the Georgian nurses that Jewish bankers killed Jesus in order to steal the names of Muslim prophets for the sake of their mind control matzo-making operations.
That night at dinner, Oleg—a Russian man in his late 40s with a particularly buff upper body—asked me politely for my views on the latest war of words between Russian President Vladimir Putin and U.S. President Joe Biden. Is it not a bad thing, he asked, that Biden has not responded in a friendlier manner to Putin’s invitations to speak?
I reflexively launched into a disquisition on the state of the Russian-American relationship, but paused when I caught a glimpse of the tattoo peeking out from underneath my interlocutor’s shirt sleeve. “You were a paratrooper?” I inquired gingerly. Oleg’s tense scowl immediately morphed into a pleased grin. “MVD, Interior Ministry, 98th Airborne … No one but us,” he responded proudly. It was obvious that the question of Biden’s Russian policy should be dropped immediately.
At this point my wife jabbed me in the knee with her dinner fork and whispered in French that she was here to relax, that there would be no politicization of dinner, and that if the situation concluded with arguments about whom Crimea belongs to, she would kill us both. I reluctantly obeyed her counsel, and over the course of the next few days, the paratrooper and I confined our conversations at the outdoor sulfur baths to the universal and apolitical question of women.
Vladislav Davidzon is Tablet’s European culture correspondent and a Russian-American writer, translator, and critic. He is the Chief Editor of The Odessa Review and a Non-Resident Fellow at the Atlantic Council. He was born in Tashkent, Uzbekistan, and lives in Paris.