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Health and Hygiene


The main care any sane Russian takes with his health is never to be admitted to a Russian hospital.

This is no reflection on the skill or dedication of Russian doctors, the majority of whom are women. It is because everything is in short supply, from bandages to painkillers. Russian doctors are poorly paid and operate under conditions of severe handicap. There are well-documented accounts of medical staff actually going out into the woods themselves to cut splints for their patients.

No Russian expects an anaesthetic at the dentist.

It is no exaggeration to say that Russian healthcare standards are at best fifty years behind those of Western Europe, let alone the United States or Australia. Not only are Russian doctors short of medicines, they do not have the equipment with which to diagnose what is wrong with you - blood testing, X-ray, and so on. As a result, ordinary doctors have had to develop an extremely high level of observation and diagnostic skills, long since ditched by their Western counterparts reared in the world of medical high technology.

The main physical complaints suffered by the Russians concern their stomachs, hearts and nerves. "Everyone is having a nervous breakdown," confided the wife of a Russian playwright. "I went to my doctor the other day because I wanted something for my nerves. Before I could even start telling her my troubles, she burst into tears and started telling me how awful her life was, and how she was afraid because her son is coming up to the age of military service. Her hand was shaking so much she couldn't give me the tranquillising shot I came for, so I left."

In Soviet times, many people were obliged to be unwell. "Ah, how often we were "ill"," (Skolko raz my "boleli") remembers the soprano Galina Vishnevskaya who, with her globe-trotting cellist and conductor husband Mstislav Rostropovich, was at the beck and call of the country's political leaders. At the slightest hint of political trouble wherever they happened to be in the world, or if a local newspaper printed something deemed to be unfriendly, she and Slava were ordered to cancel their concerts on the grounds that they were "ill".

Another sort of illness, mental this time, used to afflict the country's free thinkers, who were confined wholesale to lunatic asylums and drugged up to the eyeballs. Soviet psychiatrists called it "slow-developing schizophrenia" - a useful diagnosis for someone whose politics didn't fit.

There are now strict new laws protecting people from being committed against their will to mental institutions. As a result, there have been several unfortunate incidents where psychiatric cases have run amok and killed passers-by or even their psychiatrist.

It is rumoured that business recruitment consultants in Russia, when screening applicants for jobs, slip in a test for paranoia since a higher-than-expected proportion of the country's workforce seems to suffer from the conviction that someone, somewhere is still watching them.

Another Russian foible is their sturdy belief and reliance on folk medicine and faith healing. Charlatans thrive briefly and notoriously in the damp conditions of post-Soviet despondency. Odd characters appear on the nation's television screens, claiming to be able to cure viewers by thought transference. "When people cease to believe in something, they do not believe in nothing - they believe in anything", sighs a Russian philosopher.

The activities of these faith healers are usually brought to a halt by a flood of letters complaining not that there has been no cure, but rather that individuals have actually been made ill by action at a distance.

Another current confidence trick is the so-called "bloodless operation" wherein a "surgeon" and his assistant appear to remove someone's appendix by sleight of hand, leaving no scar. Quite prominent members of Russian society are taken in by this scam, and report the wonder to foreign friends in all seriousness.

Russian newspapers are always full of stories of mysterious cures, visitors from outer space, witches, wizards and so on, which evoke a tremendous response from the reading public. This is understandable given the failure of conventional medicine - and, indeed, science itself - to make life in Russia safe and comfortable.

Most medicine cabinets contain a liver and tummy remedy called Nosh-pa, their solution to that "morning after feeling". Many people, even relatively young ones in their thirties, carry heart drops with them. These kapli have been known to cause great excitement at Western customs entry points. The same Russians who carry the heart drops may also drink enormous quantities of stimulants, causing them to reach for their drops.

Caffeine is regularly removed from processed coffee for use in medicines which is why coffee bought in Russia often lacks the desired kick.

Russians being people of the woods originally, many of their folk remedies are based on trees: oak, lime and birch berries and blossoms are converted into creams and essences and infusions to be rubbed in or sipped. Other attested natural remedies include Oblepikha (Sea Buckthorn) whose bright yellow berries are made into a cream to heal radiation burns; Chaga (a sort of mushroom) for cancer and Shipovnik (wild rose), also for healing wounds.

Women battle with a lack of virtually every commodity: depilatory creams, razors, pads, tampons, contraceptives… Abortion is the most widespread method of birth control and there are over 10 million terminations a year.

Russians have a charming, period addiction to spas and "cures". Until they lost their Caucasian empire to the south, people would regularly go to one of the numerous sanatoriums along the Black Sea coast of Georgia. They now take the waters in various mountain resorts in the northern Caucasus, which is still inside Russia, such as Pyatigorsk made famous by the romantic poet Lermontov who died there in a duel, Kislovodsk, or the eponymously-named Mineralnye Vody ("Mineral Waters") itself.

Many Russians have a bizarre desire to know their pulse rate two or three times a day, and for them a perfect present is a battery-operated digital blood-pressure taker.


Hygiene in private shared facilities is high. Each family hangs its own scrupulously clean lavatory seat on the wall of the shared W.C., but the state of public toilets, even in hotels or offices, can be indescribably filthy. Sometimes the loos are more like a hole in the ground, and very smelly. The mayor of St.Petersburg has introduced private public conveniences entered on payment of the same token used for the telephone and metro.

Despite the rough-hewn, provisional quality of the way the hardware is joined to the wall, Russian plumbing works. On a visit with foreign businessmen to a provincial hotel, their Russian host worried all the way there whether there would be hot water for the shower. In the event, there was only hot water, so nearly boiling that the showers were unusable.

The Russians themselves wash in running water. Hence the mistaken canard about them being incapable of manufacturing plugs for the bath or basin. Bath towels are quite small and rough but very absorbent. The same cannot be said of their lavatory paper: small squares of shiny-surfaced paper, or torn-up copies of Izvestiya, if anything at all.

Their word for health is zdorovye. When someone has helped you with a task and you have thanked them, they may reply: "Na zdorovye", literally, "To your health" - or, in this case, "You're welcome".

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