The Soviet Union is a land of 200 million doctors. Live here a while and you find that every man, woman and child over the age of 12 is a walking compendium of cures.
Denizens of new high-rise apartments from Moscow to Novosibirsk may have left behind them Babushka's rural izba and woodburning stove, but not her time-tested remedies for runny noses and rheumatism.
There are outpatient clinics within walking distance of most apartment blocks in Soviet cities. Doctors regularly make house calls for the patient who is running a temperature. But most everyone dips into Grandma's medicine bag before seeking professional advice. Russians devoutly prefer to avoid "chemistry" in medication if at all possible, and they promptly offer counsel to each other and to the foreigner who is looking peaked.
Soviets watch for the slightest symptom of ill health with the vigilance of the party activist sniffing out unorthodoxy. One can obtain five-day medical leave for a fever of 99.6, or lesser indications of the onset of disease.
Few are reluctant to stay home, but all dread the hospital. Wards are crowded, nursing care minimal and grudging, the food lousy. Sophisticated medicines are difficult to get, and of uncertain quality. These problems bolster the national attraction to the home medic and his domestic remedies.
Preventive care and cures for the common cold, of course, come first in these chilly climes. As soon as fall arrives, Moscow home physicians think and shop vitamins -- not pills, but fruits and vegetables. In addition to the staple nutrient-providers -- apples, turnips and cabbage -- September fills the peasant markets with Vitamin C-rich cranberries, pomegranates from Central Asia and -- most valuable of all -- black currants.
Chopped raw and conserved with sugar, these nuggets of good health are popped "just in case," with all Linus Pauling's enthusiasm for massive doses of Vitamin C pills. But if you can't find or afford berries, garlic and onion in large chunks also keep germs away -- not to mention your neighbor on the Metro.
When the inevitable cold strikes, the Russian icebox and cupboard shelf hold just about everything believed needed to fight back. First comes a good strong cup of tea with raspberry jam, or a brew of linden leaves with honey. This is supposed to bring the fever pouring out, while your Soviet home practitioner prepares a mustard plaster (3 cents for 10 small sandpaper-like sheets) for your chest and sprinkles mustard powder in thick wool socks for your feet.
To soothe the scratchy throat, nothing, the Soviet homemaker believes, beats warm milk with butter, Borzhomi mineral water or honey. One-fourth cup honey heated in 1/4 cup vodka is taken a tablespoon at a time before meals to conquer the cough. Vodka compresses are applied to relieve sore glands and throat.
But the piece de resistance is onion juice for the acutely stuffed-up nose. Two drops per nostril from an onion freshly grated over cotton can clear the head with explosive force.
Honey serves a predominantly medicinal purpose in the Soviet Union. A Russian friend was scandalized to see our two boys slather it on their toast. "It will make them sweat, weaken their bodies and subject them to chills," she cautioned. At 8 rubles a kilo (about $6 a pound) at the market -- there's almost none at state stores this bad harvest year -- little wonder honey is carefully husbanded.
Muscle aches, lumbago, rheumatism and arthritis frequently trouble those toters of heavy bags who travel the sidewalks and subways of the Soviet Union. For them, Babushka recommends lengthy sessions with heating packs of clean sand heated in oven or on radiator. Compresses of olive oil or rubbing alcohol at the back of the head or small of the back are believed to relieve blood-pressure headaches or pinched nerves.Wrapping leaves of the young nettle or burdock around sprained muscles, rheumatic joints or painful bunions is said to work miracles. Soaked for seven days in vodka in a cool, dark place, they compose the basis for a popular remedy for sciatica; soaked in oil they are reputed to heal cuts and rashes.
Nice to know the nasty nettle may serve a soothing purpose.
Such homeopathic medicine, or the use of curative herbs, has ancient roots in Russia. Peasants in pre-revolutionary times seldom had access to a doctor. Knowledge of the curative properties of local plants and herbs could mean the difference between life and death. Every household had its own store of dried flowers, seeds, roots and bark collected in the summer and fall to take the family through the winter's illnesses.
Through war, cold, famine and rebuilding, the hoary archive of folk medicine never lost its value. In fact, in the USSR as in the United States, the era of science and technology has actually ushered in a comeback of homeopathic medicine.
In February 1977, the USSR Council of Ministers adopted a resolution "on measures to improve the production, procurement and delivery in 1977-80 of materials derived from medicinal plants for health-care needs and the medical industry." The State Forestry Committee, the Council of Trade Unions and the ministries of public health and the medical industry were assigned to increase production of all sorts of wild medicinal plants, from birch buds to whortleberries.
As a direct result, the All-Union Medicinal Herbs Research Insititute has now studied and recognized as beneficial more then 220 species of plants. Twenty-six specialized state farms cultivate 40 rare varieties, including valerian, nightshade and foxglove.
Thorns have cropped up among the rose hips, however, and the press complains regularly about drugstore shortages of the most basic medicinal herbs.
"Has the Ukraine run out of dandelions? Does Siberia have no more pine buds?" asked V. Sisnev, deputy director of the People's Control Committee, in Pravda not long ago, bemoaning the large number of letters ministries and newspapers receive from unhappy consumers. Enumerating sloppy practices in purchasing, procuring and processing, he urged the Union of Consumers' Cooperatives to better educte and organize the public to collect valuable grasses and plants and exhorted the health ministries to make greater efforts to exploit this natural resource.
Books on curative plants are also a deficit item. The current favorite is a translation from Bulgarian which friends pass around from hand to hand.
In Moscow there are seven homeopathic drugstores, according to the telephone directory, and several homeopathic polyclinics. Every ordinary apteka carries some medicinal herbs, the supply being greater in the fall after the summer's harvesting.
Available recently at our neighborhood apteke were cardboard packets of Lithuanian sennae seeds (61 cents) and buckthorn bark (38 cents) for constipation; absinthe and mellefollii as an appetite enhancer (38 cents); flax seeds for croup and cough and as an antiseptic for minor cuts and burns (14 cents); Ukranian fructus alni for colitus (38 cents); and another type of absinthe for roundworms (25 cents). Each product was to be brewed like tea or soaked in water before use.
Among homeopathic afficionados the most popular herb is zveraboy or St. John's wort, reputed to be the killer of 100 diseases. In his 1959 classic, "Curative Plants," the grandfather of Soviet herbal medicine, M. A. Nosall, declared, "As you cannot bake bread without flour, so too you cannot cure man or beast of many diseases without zveraboy." This plant (40 cents) is brewed for canker sores, gall stones, pneumonia, boils, gynecological and urological problems and rheumatism, among other ills.
In case a piece of overripe meat or unwashed fruit takes its toll on your intestines, Peter Rabbit's camomile tea brewed with mint and daisies is always offered. But best of all to purge and settle the stomach, it is believed, is a mouth-puckering concoction of dried pomegranate skins in hot water.
Other remedies: shelled pumpkin seeds mashed with garlic or honey to drive out intestinal parasites; watermelon or jumiper berries to flush out the kidneys; the rare black turnip to fight virus diseases; and garlic to help the liver and -- when soaked in medicinal spirit -- the heart. The list of natural Soviet medicaments goes on and on.
Of all these cures, home and homeopathic, we can personally vouch for the onion juice nosedrops and the camomile tea -- they're terrific.
And not one requires a prescription.