Urban space as a contested space of interpretation using the example of the former health resort Tskaltubo in Georgia

Part I: From Soviet paradise to a material symbol of the decline of the Soviet system and the crises of the new Georgia

Overview and some background

As a result of the war in Abkhazia about 10,000 of the approximately 250,000 Georgians who flew the conflict were accommodated in the sanatoria of Tskaltubo. As they had been living in Abkhazia for several generations, they lost all their property with the expulsion from their homes (cf. Zhvania 2010 for an overview on the privatisation of residential property in Georgia). This left them at an acute disadvantage when it came to rebuilding their lives; many remain living in the sanatoria to this day (cf. Mestvirishvili 2012 on structures of social exclusion in Georgia). The article series gives an overview on today’s Tskaltubo’s urban space as a space of conflict around the interpretation of its material space between the resident displaced persons, tourist industry stakeholders, NGOs active in the town, and various groups of tourists.

The dramatical reconstruction of a well-established cultural landscape

Tskaltubo is located 15 km northwest of Kutaisi, Georgia’s second-largest city. In Soviet times, it was one of the union’s largest spa towns. The state-run system of health resorts which in the 1970s encompassed ‘approximately 6000 sanatoria, preventative health institutions and boarding houses hosted 13 million people each year (Schlögel 2017, 305, with reference to Kozlov 1979). The slightly radioactive thermal springs at Tskaltubo had seen it operate as a health spa as early as the nineteenth century. Between 1939 and 1955, under state health resort policies aimed at preserving the socialist labour force, the town received a number of complexes built in the historicising style of Soviet neoclassicism. A second wave of development in the 1970s endowed the town with further facilities, examples of Soviet classical modernist architecture.

Tskaltubo was one of the largest health resorts in the Soviet Union – a train ran from Moscow directly to Tskaltubo

Just like its capitalist Western counterpart, the Soviet industrial state developed mass tourism forms in which recreation was standardized. In other words, holidaymakers spent their time off from industrial work in the same way year after year in the same places.This becomes visible, for example, in the structurally standardized offer of accommodation. This becomes visible, for example, in the structurally standardized offer of accommodation. All mass tourism activities are timed to coincide and are aimed at interchangeable groups of tourists. To this day, the Mediterranean coasts of Italy, Spain and Turkey are full of such hardly distinguishable, always the same looking holiday resorts.

The station of Tskaltubo in 2020

The Soviet system of health care and spa treatment was based on strictly scientific principles. For this purpose, separate institutes of spa and recreation science were founded, such as the one in Tskaltubo. For the health resorts served primarily to „restore the health and working capacity of the working people, to educate them to care for health and hygiene, to perform extensive and differentiated cultural and educational work“ (Kozlov 1979, 15; quoted according to Schlögel 2017, 306).

After the Second World War, there was a considerable need for this, since there was a high number of physically injured people as a result of the war years. The people were also emaciated because of the nutritional deficiencies that had existed for decades, and they could not fully utilise their working capacity unless efforts were made to maintain their performance. From an ideological point of view, the Soviet Union was about the production of the Soviet human being as a type (see remarks on homo sovieticus et al. in the work of Svetlana Alexievich, 2013). To the Soviet man belonged among other things that he could be assigned to production units. In Tskaltubo the building complexes were divided according to the affiliation of their users as, for example, „Sanatorium of miners“ and „Sanatorium of geologists“.

„Sanatorium of miners“ (left) and „Sanatorium of geologists“ (right)

„Recreation was not simply a leisure activity, but was consciously and culturally designed to serve the development of ‚all-round educated people‘, including further education, theatre, regional studies and gymnastics. […] The daily routine was oriented towards the dispatch and management of collectives […], not towards the condition of individual guests“.

(Schlögel 2017, 314)

The Soviet system was able to draw on the tsarist heritage of many health resorts in the establishment of seaside and spa resorts such as Tskaltubo. This, with all its bourgeois splendour, still forms the centre of most former Soviet health resorts today. In Georgia, one encounters it above all in Borjomi, the former tsarist spa resort of the Lesser Caucasus (cf. in detail Schlögel 2017, 306-316 on the first military and then cultural appropriation of the Black Sea coast and the Caucasus by aristocracy, entrepreneurs and middle-class middle classes as the ‚Russian South‘). The Soviet successor regime „took measure of this splendour“ (Schlögel 2017, 308). On the one hand, the aim was to make this splendour accessible to the masses and to demonstrate to the workers the standard of living of the exploiting classes. On the other hand, the ideology of the exploiting class was to be overcome in the new Soviet spa architecture (see Schlögel 2017, 312-316).

Tskaltubo – Hotel Tbilisi before the Abkhazian-Georgian conflict and about 25 years later

Tskaltubo lacked the bourgeois heritage of the tsarist spas or that of the short phase of Georgia’s First Republic (1918-1921). But it is replaced by the pompous buildings of Soviet neo-classicism, which imitated the bourgeoisie in its orientation towards the timeless classicism. This architectural style is dominant in Tskaltubo.

The other spa buildings built since the 1970s represent in their architecture the aesthetics of constructivism, the so-called „classical Soviet modernism“, which was the program for other famous spas, such as Sukhumi in Abkhazia.

The Sakartvelo Sanaorium is now ready for demolition – yet internally displaced persons still live in the ruins of the former modernist building, which was awarded one of the most important architecture prizes in the Soviet Union.

The refugees had to use of all the resources of this setting: parks once used for recreation by those taking cures became grazing pastures and gardens, trees were felled, and tables, chairs, flooring and counters from dining halls and refectories turned into firewood and cooking fuel.

The refugees took everything they needed from the public areas of the buildings, as the state was not able to provide them with even firewood. The parks turned into gardens, the balconies into kitchens.

Today’s four-star hotel Tskaltubo SPA Resort is the only Soviet-era facility now in use for its original purpose, having been occupied at the outset of the 1990s by paramilitary units who kept the refugees arriving from Abkhazia in 1992/93 from moving in. All other hotels currently open in the town are new builds, and only one of the formerly two centres for medical spa treatments is in operation.

After Georgia’s independence Tskaltubo soon drew the attention of investors from abroad who were aware of its Soviet-era history and its concomitant potential as a tourist location. But initially, international notice fell on Tskaltubo through the activities of foreign NGOs, due to the ongoing inability of the Georgian state to manage the refugee crisis exacerbated in 2008 by the second Ossetian conflict.

See a recent reportage of OC-Media on the problem of providing housing for internally displaced persons: „After almost three decades since the war in Abkhazia, thousands of Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) are still waiting for the government to provide them with homes.“

In 2012, the Georgian state commissioned the Swiss consultancy Kohl & Partners to draw up a market and technical feasibility study, whose findings led to the 22 former sanatoria going on the market from 2013 at prices ranging from 800,000 to 2 million euros. After prices fell by over half, some of the sanatoria were purchased by real estate companies from outside Georgia which subsequently sold the properties on, as did these owners in turn. None of these developments, however, generated the hoped-for boost to the area.

The project was relaunched in June 2018 aiming at resurrecting Tskaltubo’s brand and turning it, in the context of the already known international partnership fund, into the ‘biggest spa destination in Eastern Europe’, indeed into a ‘Reborn Medical and Wellness Spa Capital’ (cf. Partnership Fund 2018, 5ff.). An overhaul of the town’s public gardens failed to usher in any significant developments, except for further resales of the four spa hotels already owned by foreign investors at that point. Today, fifteen sanatoria remain in state hands, and none of those sold have been refurbished.

In November 2019, the Georgian Ministry for Tourism and Sustainable Development launched a new ‘six-point plan’ for the locality (Dumbadze 2019), revealing the multi-billionaire Bidzina Ivanishvili, the former Georgian president and an influential backer of the country’s governing party, as its new driving force. Ivanishvili immediately put the plan proposed by Kohl & Partners back onto the table, promising to implement it if he were enabled to buy all the sanatoria at a symbolic price of 1 Lari (0.30 euro cents) (Sharashidze 2019). Although the outcome is still unclear as the 477 refugee families who remain living in the sanatoria are not due to move into new homes until 2021-2022, the relevant ministry has already announced that 2024 will see Tskaltubo’s ‘reopening’. The state’s claim that it will reach agreements with all stakeholders on the process is incongruent with Ivanishvili’s confidence that the decision has already been made in his favour (Sharashidze 2019).

The second part deals with Tskaltubo as a destination for communist heritage tourism – in search of a lost Soviet paradise

Go to Part II: Tskaltubo as a destination for communist heritage tourism – in search of a lost Soviet paradise

Text: © Stefan Applis (2020)

Photos: © Stefan Applis (2017, 2018, 2019, 2020)

The historical photographs were released by the Tourist Office of the Tskaltubo Municipality. I would like to thank Deputy Director Irakli Maisashvili for scanning and transmitting the pictures. It was not possible for the Tourist Office to trace any individual rights to the pictures.


Alexievich, S. (2013): Second-hand time. Life on the ruins of socialism. Berlin.

Dumbadze. A. (2019): Ministry of Economy Plans to Develop the Tskaltubo Resort According to a 6-point Plan. Georgai Today. http://georgiatoday.ge/news/18127/Ministry-of-Economy-Plans-to-Develop-the-Tskaltubo-Resort-According-to-a-6-point-Plan (Date: 26 August 2020)

Kozlov, I. I. (Ed.) (1979). Zdravnicy profsojusov SSSR. Kurorty, sanatorii, pansionaty i doma otdycha profsojusov. (Izdanije pjatoepererabotanoe i dopolnennoe). Moskva.

Schlögel, K. (2017): The Soviet century. Archaeology of a perished world. C.H. Beck: Munich.

Mestvirishvili, N. (2012): Social Exclusion in Georgia: Percieved Poverty, Perticipation and Psycho-Social Wellbeeing. InCaucasus Analytical Digest, 40, 2-5. https://www.laender-analysen.de/cad/pdf/CaucasusAnalyticalDigest40.pdf (20 August 2020)

Naumoviu, O., Otorovich, G., Otorovna, M. (1990): Health resort Caltubo i ego lchebnye istochniki. [ Курорт Цалтубо и его лчебные источники. Научно-медицинское общество курортов и и грузинскои CCP.] Nauchno-medicinskoe obshhestvo kurortov i fizioterapevtov Gruzinskoi SSR. [Научно-медицинское общество курортов и физиотерапевтов грузинскои CCP.]

Partnership Fund (2018): Medical and Wellness Spa Development. Partners: Kohl & Partners, geographic, Nola 7, Georgian State, http://imereti.gov.ge/res/docs/TskaltuboMedicalandWellnessTeaser2-Copy.pdf (20 August 2020)

Sharashidze, G. (2019): Exclusive Interview with Ivanishvili – New Opportunities for Georgian Business. http://georgiatoday.ge/news/18002/Exclusive-Interview-with-Bidzina-Ivanishvili—New-Opportunities-for-Georgian-Business (20 August 2020)

Zhvania, I. (2012): Housing in Georgia. In: Caucasus Analytical Digest, 23, 2-5. https://www.laender-analysen.de/cad/pdf/CaucasusAnalyticalDigest23.pdf (20 August 2020)

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