Old Glory: The Soviet Spa Town Being ‘Bought Up’ By A Georgian Billionaire

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Tskaltubo (pictured in January 2020), a short drive from Georgia’s second city of Kutaisi, was once famous for its “curative” spring water and elegant Soviet spas and sanatoriums.

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Bathers in Tskaltubo during its Soviet heyday

Spring water in the town fizzles with radon, a radioactive gas which American environmental agencies call a health risk, but has long been used in Europe to “treat” a variety of health conditions.

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A frieze of Soviet dictator Josef Stalin on a bathhouse in Tskaltubo

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A private bath with a mosaic of horseshoe crabs where Stalin soaked himself in 1951.

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Tskaltubo’s railway station, where trains used to arrive directly from Moscow.

After the U.S.S.R.’s collapse, the Soviet workers, exercising their “right to rest,” stopped crowding through these doors — leaving Tskaltubo’s 22 sanatoriums and bubbling baths to lay empty.

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A boarded-up theater in one of Tskaltubo’s Stalin-era sanatoriums.

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Ivy creeping over the perimeter fence to a ruined spa.

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After the 1992-1993 war in Abkhazia (pictured), thousands of ethnic Georgians who were driven out of their homes in the Georgian region were given apartments in Tskaltubo’s state-owned sanatoriums.

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A resident of the Stalin-era “Metallurgy” sanatorium, once reserved for the Soviet Union’s metal workers, that now houses families from Abkhazia.

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Hotel Sakartvelo, which is partly occupied by refugee families.

In 2012, as Tskaltubo’s elegant buildings were beginning to literally fall apart, Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili vowed to turn the town into the “best place in Europe” within four years. The town has since been granted millions of dollars in funding from the World Bank for public projects and attracted some investment.

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A Georgian couple relax between treatments in the Tskaltubo Balneological Resort, which operates the only two Soviet-era spas still working in the town.

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Dancing communist “pioneer” children are the centerpiece of a communal bath in the resort.

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A Stalin-era theater in the Tskaltubo Spa Resort, which was once reserved for the Soviet Defense Ministry.

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The Tskaltubo Spa Resort was refurbished, then reopened in 2011, and now operates as a privately owned four-star hotel and convention center.

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But most of Tskaltubo’s sanatoriums and spas, like this one in the center of town, look like sets from a postapocalyptic film.

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In October 2019, Bidzina Ivanishvili, a businessman and highly influential political figure in Georgia whose wealth is estimated at $4.9

billion, declared his intention to buy and refurbish all of Tskaltubo’s state-owned spas and sanatoriums and build new housing for the refugees still living inside.

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In a statement, Ivanishvili described the condition of the once grand buildings of Tskaltubo as “depressing” and predicted his purchase would serve as an “icebreaker” that would attract other investors to the town.

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An abandoned swimming pool facility in a Tskaltubo sanatorium

In a recent interview, Ivanishvili vowed to transfer ownership of Tskaltubo’s sanatoriums to “any investor, at any stage” of their reconstruction if they can match the money he spends on restoration.

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But many in Georgia have reacted with alarm to the proposed purchase, with some reports suggesting the portfolio of properties, like this sanatorium in the town center, could be sold to Ivanishvili for the symbolic sum of 1 lari ($0.35). Critics say the purchase is effectively a land grab.

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Creepers overtaking an abandoned Tskaltubo spa.

Of the 15 state-owned properties Ivanishvili plans to purchase, four will probably be demolished due to their advanced state of decay. The remaining portfolio has been valued at many millions of dollars. ​

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A griffin at the entrance to a Tskaltubo sanatorium where several dozen refugee families live.

Saakashvili, a longtime political rival of Ivanishvili, reacted to the planned purchase by declaring “there has never been such a large-scale robbery in the history of Georgia by any of its invaders.”

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Madonna Mushkudiani (pictured with her granddaughter), who has lived in a Tskaltubo sanatorium since fleeing Abkhazia in the 1990s, says she and her neighbors are “overwhelmingly positive” about the Ivanishvili purchase. Mushkudiani says the billionaire “is not just making promises, he’s already constructed buildings for us” and she plans to move into her new housing in 2021.

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Vintage ornaments in the Tskaltubo Balneological Resort

The timeline for the purchase is unclear but in November Ivanishvili said he will “buy and renovate [the spas and sanatoriums] within three years.” He has also gone on record as saying he “will not own a single hotel” once the project is complete.

With reporting by RFE/RL’s Georgian Service

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