In Russia, left isn't quite right Handedness: The official Moscow line is that lefties are OK, but suspicion of those who are different persists from the old Soviet days.

March 27, 1998|By Will Englund | Will Englund,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

MOSCOW -- Natalia Kamynina smiled indulgently as 8-year-old Vika Vorobyova carefully and precisely wrote out her name on the blackboard at School No. 186, her left fist wrapped tightly around the chalk and her script tilting just slightly uphill as she went along.

"As they get older," the school director confided knowingly, "left-handers write in a very disgusting manner.

"You can barely read it."

In the old days, Kamynina forced children to use their right hands.

Now, as much as it pains her, she has been told that is no longer appropriate -- and, like thousands of Russian teachers and educators, when she's given an order, she carries it out and even defends it.

But that doesn't mean she approves of left-handedness. Few people here do.

Left-handers are different, and that makes them stand out, and that makes them worthy of suspicion and public comment. On the street, in someone's home, at work -- anywhere.

It's something poor little Vika can probably look forward to for the rest of her life.

"We have many lefties," Kamynina said later in her office, "and more and more every year. That's because children's health is worsening every year."

"Are you saying there is a relation between poor health and left-handedness?" she was asked by a visitor, pen poised in his left hand.

"Exactly," she pounced. "Just look at their parents -- they've all had nervous stress."

In the Russian language, doing something on the left means doing it under the table, illegally and hastily. Left-handedness is traditionally associated with witchcraft.

One group of people here, for reasons that aren't clear, includes a very large number of left-handers -- the indigenous tribes of the Taimyr Peninsula in northern Siberia, whom the Russians call Samoyeds, or cannibals.

Yet there are those who dismiss the anti-lefty feeling here as prejudice and superstitious nonsense.

Dr. Tamara Dobrokhotova, a right-handed psychiatrist who favors starched white coats and starched blue surgical head wear that towers alarmingly above her bangs, has studied left-handed patients and concluded that they're just like anyone else -- except with a sort of mirror-image orientation.

"So, if for us the rule is to remember what had been or what was, for left-handers the rule would have to be to remember what will be," Dobrokhotova says.

That came out during a recent interview at the N. I. Budrenko Neurosurgical Center. Trying furiously to remember what she was about to say next, her interlocutor finally had to give up in frustration and wait for her elaboration just as any normal right-hander would.

She was consoling. Left-handers, she explained, don't walk around constantly foreseeing the future, but at moments of great stress and psychiatric insight a vision of what will be can come to them.

Joan of Arc had a vision of a sword in a church, and afterward people found that sword. A student patient of Dobrokhotova's learned through a dream what was to be on a coming exam.

The doctor was just opening a book she has written on left-handedness, and turning to a photo of a woman able to hold spoons to her face through some sort of left-handed magnetism, when she was asked why society is so hard on southpaws.

"The social world is made for right-handers," she explained sympathetically. "Left-handers always find deprivations."

Watches, scissors, cars are all made with right-handers in mind, she pointed out. She said a study found that left-handed pilots are far more likely to be involved in crashes, because of the way cockpits are laid out.

Does that mean that left-handers should be prevented from flying planes?

"Yes, of course," she replied, as if only a fool or a left-hander would even ask such a question. "Or else a few planes should be built in reverse, just for them."

With friends like this, it's no wonder that left-handers in Russia feel tormented.

Tatyana Aparshina, who sells diet products in Volgograd, goes so far as to avoid writing anything down when she's at the post office or bank or anywhere public, so great is the stigma she feels.

"People here are careless and can't help saying something when they see me writing with my left hand, as if I'm subnormal or at least different from everybody else," she said.

"The usual remark is, 'Why haven't they taught you to write properly?' "

When she got married, she tried to hide her left-handedness from her husband. It turned out he was doing the same thing. It came into the open only when a friend spotted him peeling potatoes with his left hand and told on him.

Viktor Krovopuskov, who won four Olympic gold medals in 1976 and 1980 as a left-handed fencer, said he's never run into any discrimination. (It might be dangerous to challenge him: His last name could be translated as One Who Lets Blood Flow.)

He would be a hero to lefties, except that he writes and eats with his right hand.

"I couldn't write before I went to school," he said. "When we were all told to take up the pen in our right hands, that's what I did.

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