Prescriptions vs. traditions

Despite having access to modern medical care, many Russians turn to folk remedies first, much to the chagrin of doctors


MOSCOW -- The treatment may seem like alchemy to most, but Elvira Beisebayeva swears by the salves and cure-alls she whipped up on a recent afternoon in the living room of her tiny apartment on the outskirts of Russia's capital.

The compress she made from a cabbage leaf, fermented milk and chalk makes breast cysts vanish, she said. A pungent, gray-green goo made from an herb called bur marigold, rubbing alcohol, lanolin and Vaseline subdued the severe psoriasis that had caused her 12-year-old daughter's scalp to bleed.

"I haven't relied on conventional medicine for 25 years," said Beisebayeva, 68. "All the drugs that they give you build up in your body, and you end up on the operating table. I'll never go to a doctor again."

Most Russians aren't as leery of the medical community as Beisebayeva is, but many of them put a surprising amount of faith into what is known in Russia as narodnaya meditsina, or people's medicine, a disturbing reliance on folk remedies and healers that is worrying some Russian doctors.

At Moscow's Gertsen Cancer Institute, doctors informally surveyed patients and found that nine out of every 10 had turned to folk remedies to help treat their cancer. Natalya Bogdanova, a director at the institute, said several women with advanced breast cancer who have sought treatment at the institute delayed coming because they preferred nontraditional remedies.

"Conventional medicine often entails long examinations that can include biopsies and scans that cost time, money and some pain," Bogdanova said. "People don't want this, so they go to specialists in nontraditional medicine, who simply say, `Pay me money, and I will cure you.'"

As in China and other Eastern societies, folk medicine is deeply embedded in Russian culture -- the product of centuries-old remedies as sacrosanct as a babushka's borscht recipe. The Soviet government banned most forms of nonconventional medicine, but perestroika lifted those restrictions and caused a surge in healers, psychics, homeopathic clinics and herbal therapists.

Today, folk medicine's sweeping popularity is reflected in Russia's newsstands and on its airwaves. One of Russia's most popular national newspapers is ZOZH, the Russian acronym for "Healthy Way of Life," which devotes its pages exclusively to recipes for folk remedies submitted by average Russians.

The morning show produced by one of Russia's national television networks, First Channel, sets aside a few minutes every day for a "Narodnaya Meditsina" segment, in which Muscovites demonstrate their favorite folk remedies for curing everything from arthritis to heart disease.

The Russian who first produced those segments, Pyotr Popov, now operates a folk medicine clinic in Moscow that charges $150 a visit and offers a cascade of remedies from calisthenics and massage to ancient Eastern ointments made from rare bugs.

Seated inside a drab, bare-walled examination room illuminated only by a shaft of sunlight through a small window, Popov describes one of his cures for cancer.

"There are a set of motions that a fetus makes that are unique and unstudied," said Popov, a wiry, middle-age Russian who speaks softly and measures every word. "If you apply these methods, all of your organs will work in harmony. The body becomes stronger, and able to compete with the cancer cells and eventually defeat them."

A promotional video playing in a waiting room illustrates another of Popov's techniques. An instructor tells a roomful of patients, "We'll start today with the most successful exercise to get rid of lung disease and joint disorders." Moments later, the patients follow the instructor's lead and begin vigorously shuffling their feet. "Your shoulders, knees -- all of your organs are moving in harmony," the instructor tells the group. "You feel better."

The Russian government has been slow to regulate nonconventional forms of medicine. Lawsuits against clinics practicing dubious methods are rare, in part because much of the country still doubts the fairness of Russian courts. Many folk medicine practitioners shield themselves by securing licenses to administer treatment focused on "health improvement."

In much of rural Russia, villagers turn to folk remedies because they live far from clinics and hospitals, or are too poor to afford conventional medicine. "It's not just a question of ignorance, it's a matter of money," Bogdanova said.

Others pin their hopes on folk cures and nonconventional techniques because of a deep mistrust of doctors. A year ago, Svetlana Musatova's doctor told her she had cancer in her right breast and recommended chemotherapy and a mastectomy. Musatova ignored the advice and embarked on a gantlet of folk remedies.

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