“This is where general secretary Brezhnev would greet his guests,” says Victoria Tjamolova, a staff member at the Jantarnij Bereg (Amber Coast) sanatorium in the Latvian seaside resort of Jurmala.
The private dacha, located in a secluded spot a few minutes‘ walk through pine forest from the main sanatorium is certainly fit for the leader of the Eastern Bloc.
A clock with hammer-and-sickle pendulum ticks in the corner just as it did during the Brezhnev era 40 years ago and a portrait of Lenin stares down from the wall.
Downstairs is a private cinema, upstairs is an office – complete with ‘nuclear emergency‘ telephones – and just around the corner is a lecture room with a podium ideal for practising those all-important
speeches to the Communist Party congress.
Today, parties of a different kind make use of the villa. Anyone with the necessary cash can follow in the footsteps of politburo members who stayed here and enjoy authentic Soviet cuisine and
entertainment. Guests can even have 1970s news bulletins shown on the period television sets.
In a curious hangover of the Soviet period that ended just 20 years ago, the sanatorium retains a direct link to the Kremlin.
“This sanatorium was built for the people who worked in the Soviet president‘s office and we still belong to the Russian president‘s office,” says director Oleg Baransky, whose business card bears the double-headed eagle of the Russian Federation.
The marble pillars of the entrance hall are faded but impressive and must have seemed unimaginably luxurious to guests arriving from far flung corners of the USSR in the Brezhnev years which saw Jurmala reach the peak of its popularity.
The third-largest resort in the Soviet Union after Yalta and Sochi, the Baltic resort was regarded as chic and “western”.
Fifteen large sanatoria provided accommodation and invigorating treatments to 500,000 people a year brandishing “holiday vouchers” for their service to the state.
Meanwhile, the cream of Soviet society chose to spend their vacations in private dachas or beautiful wooden villas dating from the Tsarist era.
“In Soviet times Jurmala was very special. People from Russia came here as if they were really going abroad,” says Gunta Uspele, director of Jurmala‘s tourist information centre.
“Latvia seemed more like a part of Europe and people in the USSR thought of coming to Latvia like coming to France or Italy. The architecture, the food, the fashions were all much more modern. On
the other hand people felt at home because everyone could speak Russian.”
Over at the Belorusija Sanatorium, administrator Elena Lopatko also remembers those days.
Speaking in her office beneath of a portrait of Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenka – the Belorusija is on a 99 year lease to the government of Belarus – she recalls how people had to wait a
long time to get to the top of the list entitling them to visit, but that they then enjoyed state-of-the-art medical care.
“The Belorusija has always been regarded as providing the highest standards and was one of the most privileged sanatoriums. Many of our staff started in the 1970s and have stayed with us all that time,” she says.
Three quarters of the Belorusija‘s visitors still come from Belarus, but the immaculate building with its a huge socialist realist stained-glass window in the lobby is now hoping to exploit its reputation by breaking into the medical tourism market.
Today just three sanatoria remain as modern spa hotels compete for customers with resorts in Estonia, the Czech Republic and Poland.
But despite Latvia‘s status as an independent EU member state, the Russian influence in Jurmala remains strong.
Latvia is experiencing the deepest recession in the EU. With pensions being cut and workers laid off, it‘s not surprising that some people are starting to hark back to the “good old days” when the
sun always shined.
“There is nostalgia from older people, but from some younger people too who face a tough time today. There was free medicine, free education, guaranteed jobs and pensions. Some things really were better,” says Victoria Tjamolova at Jantarnij Bereg.
Elena Lopatko at the Belorusija agrees. “Of course there is particular nostalgia among those people who left the country to go and live abroad,” she says.
Every year in early August, Jurmala gets another reminder of its continuing importance in the post-Soviet world. The glitzy Jurmala New Wave song contest is successor to the Jurmala Contest For Young Soviet Popular Music Performers but has morphed into a brash entertainment extravaganza complete with VIP parties and private jets. It makes Eurovision look shy and retiring.
Showcasing pop singers mainly from across the former Soviet Union, along with a smattering of old-time favourites such as Alla Pugacheva and Raimonds Pauls, shows are beamed live across Eastern Europe and Asia, attracting millions of viewers.
Some Latvians resent the influx of rich Russians, but New Wave is seen as a positive phenomenon in Jurmala, says Gunta Uspele.
“The inhabitants and the council understand that it brings a lot of money and is a big advertisement for the city around the world. It provides jobs and has helped to make Jurmala better known in the east than either Latvia or Riga,” she says.
So twenty years after it regained its independence, Latvia witnesses a fresh Russian invasion – only this time it‘s strictly by VIP invitation only and would probably raise even Leonid Brezhnev’s ample eyebrows.
(NOTE: This is a full version of a feature produced for Deutsche Presse-Agentur)