A Russian's Twilight Zone begins with getting the flu


February 18, 1993|By Will Englund | Will Englund,Moscow Bureau

MOSCOW -- Now comes the time of fevers.

A hot, shimmering, half-dreaming mood stalks through Moscow, never a crystalline place in the best of times. Aches and sadness follow.

Bred in some distant Asiatic land, the flu has hit hard this year. In Russian they still call it the "grippe," that old-fashioned word that calls to mind grandmothers and strange concoctions on the stove.

In January, 96,514 cases of flu were reported to the Moscow Center for Sanitary and Epidemic Supervision. If February can come up with 35,186 cases more, then it can be called an epidemic.

How precise. Everywhere you look here there are precise thresholds. Exactly 131,700 cases make an epidemic. If prices rise by 50 percent in a month, that makes hyper-inflation. If unemployment rises over 3 million, that makes a crisis.

Who thinks these things up? People will lose jobs. Prices will rise. The flu will strike. It's not the definition that counts. Probably someone in the grip of the grippe feverishly determining where to draw the line.

The tiredness seems to begin in your bones and work outward. Then your eyes burn from an inner fire, and your ears start to ring. You have a thought: The mad Russian monk, a fixture across the centuries, has burning eyes, and his ears ring from the cascading peals of those big Russian church bells.

What's surprising, in this most fatalistic of countries, is how much blame gets attached to you if you have the flu. You must have gone out without a hat. You must have been near an open window. You must have had something cold to drink (a reckless thing to do even in the summertime).

If you leave your car unlocked and it gets stolen, well, that's life. If your pipes spring a leak and flood your neighbor's apartment, well, that's not your problem. But if you get the flu, there's something wrong with you.

Why is that? This is a country, after all, where even the goriest traffic accident won't unsettle passers-by, precisely because they see themselves as powerless to shape events.

"Hey, why worry?" they'll invariably say. "If you're doomed to hang, at least you won't drown."

But if you get the flu, it's your own fault. Responsibility begins and ends with a fever that reaches up toward 103.

You'll be offered curatives. Chicken soup, of course. (Yes, there are universal truths.) Vodka. (You might want to pass on that one.) Aspirin. (But all Russians know that this cheap Bulgarian stuff isn't very good, even when you can get it; only American will do.)

Two years ago, if you were a newcomer invited to someone's home, you might have brought flowers, or chocolates, as a little frill, a luxury.

Last year, when things were most bleak, you might have brought cooking oil, so hard to find, so treasured. This winter, as you track the February countdown toward 131,700, you bring that good strong American aspirin.

Indeed, Russia has far more serious health problems, everything from diphtheria to tuberculosis. But it's the grippe that has everybody right now, and it's all anyone talks about.

The fever rides up and down, and you have no choice but to go with it. This particular strain doesn't afflict your stomach. All you can do is sweat and ache and catch others looking at you and wondering if it's really that bad.

Maybe it's all in your mind. Russia does that to you. It's a place that haunts you with doubts, ghosts, suspicions -- of which there are plenty here.

The apartment house was built by prisoners -- what happened to them? Mikhail S. Gorbachev went off to the Crimea just before the coup -- what did he know? Legions of people performed internal surveillance for the KGB -- what are they doing now?

No, really, it's just the fever. You pick up a book to focus your mind. It's "The Last Tsar" by Edvard Radzinsky. The photographs show Nicholas II in half a dozen familiar Moscow locales, suddenly so real, that sad man, with his sallow skin, who hoped at one point to go off and be a monk, a Russian monk. His mad wife Alexandra haunts his side. They murdered them, of course.

Not good for the grippe. Fevers and specters love each other too well -- especially, it seems, in Moscow.

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