Riga – The Amber Coast sanitorium, located in the Latvian seaside resort of Jurmala, features a dacha where Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev would greet his guests. A clock with a hammer-and-sickle pendulum ticks in the corner, just as it did during the Breznhev era; a portrait of Lenin stares down from the wall.
Now, nearly 20 years since the fall of the Berlin Wall, parties of a different kind make use of this residence in the former Soviet republic. The dacha attracts patrons interested in re-experiencing the atmosphere of the Soviet era, tapping into a burgeoning nostalgia for what some, in these hard economic times, regard as a more stable and secure bygone age.
In the dacha’s basement is a private cinema, sauna and swimming pool, while the first floor contains bedrooms and a full office – complete with “nuclear emergency” telephones. The ground floor has a large dining hall, a library stocked with Marx and Lenin and a lecture room with a podium – ideal for speeches to the Communist Party congress.
Anyone with the necessary cash can follow in the footsteps of Politburo members and enjoy authentic Soviet cuisine and entertainment. Guests can even have 1970s news bulletins shown on the period television sets.
“We get visitors from Germany, Finland and the United Kingdom as well as locals, including private parties and companies,” says Victoria Tjamolova, who works in the main sanatorium building, a minute’s walk away. Some stay in the dacha for a single night, while others emulate Brezhnev and his friends, who would stay for weeks at a time.
In a curious hangover of the Soviet period that ended nearly 20 years ago, the sanatorium, known in Russian as Yantarny Bereg, retains a direct business 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. But if nostalgia is one of the attractions of the Amber Coast today, it was the Baltic republics’ status as the most western part of the Soviet Union that was its claim to fame during Communist rule. The third-largest resort in the Soviet Union after Yalta and Sochi, Jurmala was regarded as espcially chic.
“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 department.
“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.”
Before the collapse of the Soviet Union, some 500,000 people from all walks of life earned “holiday vouchers” to gain access to 15 large sanatoriums in Jurmala. Which one you were sent to depended upon your job and status within the state hierarchy. As the sanatorium of the Kremlin, the Amber Coast was for senior government staff.
At the other end of Jurmala’s 30-kilometre-long golden beach, the Belorusiya Sanatorium is just as impressive as the Amber Coast and, as the name suggests, catered to visitors from Belarus.
It’s a trend that continues to this day, with three-quarters of visitors traveling from Latvia’s southern neighbour.
Officials at the Belorusiya hope that a reputation for high- quality treatments will one day draw a larger share of foreign visitors in the niche market for “medical tourism.”
“The Belorusiya has always been regarded as providing the highest standards and was one of the most privileged sanatoriums,” says administrator Elena Lopatko, speaking in her office beneath a portrait of Belorussian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka. “Many of our staff started in the 1970s and have stayed with us all that time.”
Almost two decades since the collapse of the Soviet Union, just three sanatoriums remain in Jurmala, the others having closed because of competition from resorts in Estonia, the Czech Republic and Poland. But the Russian influence remains strong.
This influence is underlined every summer, during Jurmala’s glitzy New Wave song contest.
The New Wave event, successor to the Jurmala Contest for Young Soviet Popular Music Performers, is 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 given the current economic crisis, says Uspele of Jurmala’s tourist information centre. Latvia’s recession is the deepest of any EU state.
“The inhabitants and the (city) understand that (the song festival) 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 (itself) or Riga,” Uspele says.