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19 September 2018

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Liquid Assets

Author: Nicky Gardner
Illustrations/Images by Susanne Kries

July/Aug 2014
Page 35   (10 pages)

Summary: Healing baths and springs have a long history in Russian literature and culture, and those traditions are being revived.


In the summer of 1887, Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky spent just over three weeks in the spa town of Borzhom in the Tiflis Province of the Russian Empire.[1] Shortly after leaving Borzhom, the Russian composer reflected on his stay at the spa in a letter to opera singer Emilia Pavlovskaya, commenting: “I do feel that Borzhom is one of the most bizarrely wonderful places in the whole world.”

For Tchaikovsky, Borzhom was a place apart, a community peculiarly detached from the real world. This was not unique to Borzhom. Tchaikovsky would have encountered much the same atmosphere in other spas around the tsarist empire, made to emulate their famous European predecessors like Carlsbad. Whether in the Caucasus, the Crimea or the Baltics, their atmosphere is still the hallmark of the traditional European spas so very popular with Russian visitors today.

Tchaikovsky used his time in Borzhom to good effect, taking the waters as prescribed by his doctor and working on the orchestration for his Suite No. 4 (Mozartiana). So he worked, to be sure, but at a different tempo. The clocks run slower in spa towns. It is that sense of time having stalled, of being in a refuge where the worries of everyday life are kept at bay, that makes such places so enduringly popular. The spa is a sanctuary, though whether it promotes more the betterment of the body or the soul is open for debate.

The spa opens up an entirely new reality, one replete with possibilities – some of which may be more sensual than medicinal. A significant percentage of those in search of the recuperative qualities of spas travel alone (although Tchaikovsky took his younger brother Anatoly with him to Borzhom). Thus, spas offer rich opportunities for flirting. Visitors to Borzhom and other spas in the Caucasus region in the nineteenth century could simultaneously explore the borderlands of Russia and the borderlands of decorum. In the theatrical world of the spa town, the stage is populated by transients – for all spa therapies do eventually run their course, and the day must come when the players return to their normal lives with healthy looks and lots of discretion.

Yet, however discreet the spa visitor might be, the wider Russian public was fully aware of what went on at spa resorts. Alexander Shakhovskoy’s 1815 stage comedy Lesson to Coquettes (???? ????????, ??? ???????? ????) was the opening salvo in a literary battle between cautious conservatives and Russian Romantics but, for the public who packed theaters to see the play, it was a chance to see the antics played out at the new spa at Lipetsk (which opened in 1805). As it happens, the spa at Lipetsk quickly declined to become a mere footnote in balneological history, but the cultural debate opened by Shakhovskoy ebbed and flowed for many years. The spa, even one reproduced in a theater, was a place for indiscretions of all types, a bounded territory where it was possible to utter sentiments that might have no place in Petersburg salons. Vasily Zhukovsky, the Romantic poet whose work was parodied in Lesson to Coquettes, used an appropriate water metaphor in describing the tide of acrimony as “the Lipetsk flood.”

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