With its derelict interiors, graffiti-sprayed walls and young people messing around with medical equipment and smoking weed, the Botkin Infectious Diseases hospital gives off more of an impression of a dystopian Disneyland turned squat party in an abandoned warehouse than a place of health and wellness. Patients drink, play cards and make-out against jarring backdrops of idyllic woodland scenes, so at odds with the tangle of drips and clinical syringes that are in abundance.
The Botkin Infectious Diseases hospital was first opened in 1882 in order to keep infectious patients isolated. The hospital was an early advocate of women’s rights and was the first hospital in Russia to widely involve women doctors. During the 1930s, after major renovations on the buildings which had gone into decline during the revolutions, the hospital was one of the best medical institutions in Europe. In 2001, the hospital was declared an object of cultural heritage in Russia.
When Sasha Chaika was hospitalised there with a gastric infection earlier this year it was his first time staying in a hospital and he didn’t know what to expect. Initially wary of who he might encounter during his stay – he had found people to be generally aggressive and doctors indifferent during his previous experiences at clinics – Chaika used his camera to reach out and bridge the gap between himself and his fellow patients. “For me, this project was also a method of communication and socialization,” Chaika says. “I was in an infectious disease hospital and there were a lot of different people, so I was scared. But through my photography, I found a common language.”
During his ten days at the Botkin Hospital in Moscow, Sasha captured the scenes around him, shooting intimate portraits of the people who he shared his day-to-day with. Here he shares his photographs and experiences with us.
What did you want to convey in your photo series?
Sasha Chaika: I'm really in love with "low culture” which, for me, means almost anti-culture. It inspires me so much. My photo essay is an anarchic, lively and vivacious answer to high culture, which I find “perfect” and dead. I create a distorted, exaggerated and often very theatrical reality in my photos. My work is a bit camp. Saturation and abundance – that’s what knocks reality out of its usual perception. It destroys the neat systems and questions the understanding of right and wrong, fake and truth, high and low. I want no system, just perception.
What were the other patients like at the hospital?
Sasha Chaika: There was a range of really different people who would never have met in normal life if not for my disease. I had a middle age Muslim roommate who was a builder. My other roommate was a cadet. There were a lot of people from different cultural groups with different ages, mostly students and working class people. A lot of people became friends, played card games. It was a cultural exchange in a really friendly way. I think that illness connects people in a lot of ways.
What does wellness mean to you?
Sasha Chaika: Wellness is really an important part of my life now because I want to have the physical and mental abilities to make what I want. I'm always paranoid that health problems can stop me. I have big problems with my back, so every day I do special physical exercises and try to keep myself in good shape. In a future musical project, I would like to perform my “wrong body”: curved back and strongly protruding rib, with a bit hump and displacement of the chest.
What is the significance of wellness in Russia?
Sasha Chaika: In the USSR people were devoid of their own will, the government decided everything for them. The political regime was like a religion, where you delegated the responsibility for everything you do to the other person and live in a system of someone else’s rules. It's comfortable, but it deprives people of any freedom. Previous generations – my parents and especially my grandparents – in Russia thought that their wellness had to be provided not by themselves, but by the government. There were mandatory medical examinations and vaccinations, but, for example, my mother wouldn’t know what the vaccinations were for, there was no available information on health. So people didn’t take responsibility for their own health and a lot of their knowledge was based on traditional medicine or superstitious beliefs. “Offical” medicine used a lot of extreme methods, for example, angina was treated with kerosene, and incorporated parts of traditional medicine like treating herpes with raspberry jam.
In general, Soviet men were ashamed to be interested in their health or even to discuss it, so they didn’t have an understanding of their bodies. Everyone was afraid to destroy their (socially constructed) understanding of masculinity as a divine and invincible force. People played the roles of “man” and “woman,” afraid to do what they actually wanted to.
Today in Russia we are living in a post-post-Soviet time. We have some people who think the same as before. Russia is a really big country and a larger half of it is seen as an underdeveloped periphery. Last week a woman from Irkutsk was on the news for refusing to treat her four-month-old daughter with HIV, because she and her husband were sure that the disease didn’t actually exist. The child died and the mother was sentenced to a year of correctional labour. But we also have people who are very interested in their health. The new generation living at the time of "simultaneous plurality" where they really often have to make personal decisions. And I think it's a good way for self-responsibility.
What was your routine like at the hospital?
Sasha Chaika: Every morning we woke up at 8 am. Some people took pills or had injections and then it was breakfast. We had three meals a day - breakfast at 9 am, lunch at 2 pm, and the evening dinner at 7 pm. The menu consisted of porridge, stewed cabbage, boiled potatoes, steamed meat patties, boiled eggs, bread and butter.
After breakfast almost all patients were put on a drip, myself included. Then there was free time. At the beginning of my treatment, I slept or read books (the hospital provided us with books: cheap love stories for the girls and ridiculous books about brutal cops or thieves for the guys). By the end, though, I communicated with a lot of people there, especially with one guy, with whom I had a “hospital romance.” Some days we were allowed to invite personal visitors - friends or family until 7 pm.
Every department was locked after the evening meal and we started our preparation for sleep. People who smoked would go to smoke in the toilets because the exits to the street were closed. It was prohibited, and some people were reprimanded by the doctors but it was really smoky anyway. I found out later, some of the people there smoked weed. The mattresses on the beds were really hard but luckily I got two. Sometimes when all the lights were off and all the patients were in bed, my holiday romance and I would kiss on a bench in the corridor in the dark.