Russia, January 25, 1999
Never set and empty bottle on the table!One rainy morning, I walked into the office and was shocked to see a secretary opening her umbrella inside. I am not that superstitious of a man, but I do not open an umbrella inside, walk under a ladder, or forget to knock on wood as a matter of habit. Seeing the secretary casually open the umbrella made me open my eyes and look around for other odd non-superstitions.
Egad! Three umbrellas open inside!
So far, I've found that Friday the 13th is just another day in Russia, devoid of all the bad omens we harbor (Maybe they didn't see the movie), and I have yet to see someone throw a pinch of salt over their shoulder, or avoid stepping on a crack to save their mother's back.
Now that is not to say Russian aren't superstitious. Empty bottles are swept from the table, lest it brings only empty bottles in the future. You never shake over a threshold, and always say hi again if someone or something passes between you and your partner. Women never sit at the corner of a table and men always shake hello and goodbye.
25 January 1999, Johnson's Russia List
GIVING REALITY THE SLIP: CRISIS-HIT RUSSIANS LOOK TO THE STARS
By Irina Glushchenko
MOSCOW - Suddenly, the Russian capital has been overrun by rabbits. You can find them in the markets, on the news-stands, and in the toyshops. The reason, as readers may have guessed, is that in Chinese astrology 1999 is the year of the rabbit.
Twenty years ago in Russia, such information was almost a secret. When I was at school, someone once gave me a few type-written sheets with the signs of the zodiac and the characteristics of the people born under them. I was staggered - everything was so unfamiliar, so unlike anything I had ever read! With its typos and spelling errors, the fuzzy letters showing that it was a third carbon copy, the text was like samizdat....
Those times are long past. The signs of the zodiac gradually crept into Soviet newspapers. I even managed to buy a set of postcards with drawings of the star-signs, and the corresponding dates. This was a real find. From then on, my friends and I would know which sign we had been born under. Then I started meeting people who asked insistently, 'What are you? A Libra?', and who, once in command of this information, proceeded to map out my character in close detail.
Things were harder with the eastern calendar. There was no systematic information. Usually in late December, the popular television program International Panorama reported briefly: 'The Chinese consider the coming year to be the year of (the monkey)'... and added a few words about how one was supposed to mark such a year. Rumours grew. 'Have you heard? This is the year of the monkey!' Later, we also discovered that the monkeys and other animals were of various colours - blue, green, red and so on. That meant they had to be greeted in red (blue, green). We also learned what you had to do when celebrating the New Year. Sometimes you were required to crawl under the table. Or to moo, or to crow, depending on the animal whose year you were seeing in. Perfectly educated people carried out all these demands conscientiously.
Meanwhile, the veil of secrecy was lifting. Slender booklets were appearing, containing horoscopes, the signs of the zodiac, and the Chinese calendar. Now anyone could find out which year followed which, and what this meant. Toys and figurines symbolising the year went on sale as well. If the coming year was the year of the pig, souvenir pigs appeared everywhere. To buy such a pig became a matter of honour.
With the dawn of liberal reform, astrology went onto a mass- production basis. From being amusing pseudo-information, the occult sciences joined the category of serious, indispensable knowledge. Television appearances by astrologists took up even more time than the speechifying of politicians. We were regaled with such information as: 'In the late twenty-first century social cataclysms will occur in Britain, and as a result the British Isles themselves may sink.' Television news programs ended with an astrological forecast for the following day or week. Every self-respecting newspaper acquired a staff astrologer, the thrust of whose predictions depended on the newspaper's profile. Business astrology, political astrology, erotic astrology and so forth all made their appearance. State figures consulted with specialists in the fields that particularly concerned them.
Where, in the former USSR, did all these experts on heavenly influences suddenly spring from? The astrologers, like the other sorcerers on our television screens, maintained that their knowledge or gift had been inherited from the past. Decades of repression by the Soviet authorities, they declared, had not managed to destroy it. Meanwhile, learned academies were being established in which one could attend lectures on magic, love-potions, flying saucers, and so forth. Publications went on sale describing 'barabashka', a mysterious being said to have invaded a women's hostel, and to manifest its presence through strange nocturnal knockings. The fascination with the occult gripped people of the most diverse views. For example, I came across a book on the prophesies of Nostradamus by an author who did not hide his communist convictions....
All this was understandable in a society that had abruptly lost its confidence in the future. People who had earlier believed explanations presented to them as 'the only true science' found themselves handed over to the whims of fate. In the space of a few months, all their conceptual landmarks were obliterated. Soviet Marxism had taught them that science was good, and superstition bad. Then the propaganda began arguing that Marxism was absolutely incorrect, and that everything it taught was a lie. It was easy enough to conclude that superstition was better than science.
The ideological vacuum that followed the downfall of 'Soviet communism' was not filled by convincing new ideas. The obvious degradation of rational knowledge, the decay of education and the general confusion encouraged people to turn to the wisdom of the middle ages.
The people who were now believing absurdities also had the excuse that in terms of their earlier experience, the events occurring around them were no less improbable than the sorcerers' fairy-tales. Matthias Rust's plane, landing on Red Square in broad daylight, was just as fantastic as a witch flying in on a broomstick. If we were supposed to believe that the recipes of the International Monetary Fund would save us by transforming the economy from the 'very bad' planned model to the 'very good' market one, why not believe in wizards and witches too?
The most widespread development in the field of the supernatural was the mass appearance of 'extrasenses'. We were told that our society contained people gifted with the power to heal sickness without medicines or surgery. These people saw a person's 'aura', and through some mysterious intuition, also recognised internal illnesses. The healing occurred when the extrasense, who was charged with the necessary energy, made a series of complicated hand movements above the patient. The extrasense flushed out kidneys, cleaned blood vessels, and sucked out tumours.
I once encountered an extrasense myself. He was a handsome engineer with kindly eyes, who lived in a little two-roomed flat that was always full of people. I went there with a woman friend who suffered from back pain. The extrasense spent a long time passing his hands over her, to no obvious effect. Then he took off his jacket and began massaging her back, just as an ordinary masseur would. The pain became less. I think we were lucky - he was not a greedy man, and believed sincerely in his powers.
The Russian police as well have begun resorting to the help of extrasenses, who have been asked to assist in the search for criminals and for people and objects that have vanished without trace. Rumours circulate of a top-secret security force unit staffed entirely with psychics and practitioners of black magic.
Meanwhile, there is no need for your firm to go bankrupt because it has been hexed by a competitor; an advertisement offers to 'protect your business from the evil eye'. Various other magical services, from the healing of impotence to the 'correction of karma', enjoy great popularity. Attempts are also made to cure alcoholics through exorcism. The success rate here, though, is said to be unimpressive.
At a certain point, Russia witnessed a rash of mass cures. Some of the best-known extrasenses filled halls with people, worked them up to near-hysteria, and finally had them fall into a trance. Next to appear was television hypnosis. Perfectly well-educated people came to believe that if they put water in a glass in front of their television sets, an extrasense could 'charge' it for them via the screen. If this water were then sprinkled on flowers, the story went, the flowers would grow better.
Here in Russia, we have grown used to being surrounded by witch- doctors, soothsayers, and astrological symbols. To a disturbing degree, we have become a society trying to give reality the slip. The charts on the economic pages point to destitution and national break- up; give us a star-chart instead.
So far, the most effective antidote has been cynicism. The more clear-headed Russians can no longer be convinced that anything very good is going to happen to them. As a result, they joke about astrology just as they joke about ideologies, the economy, and the country's leaders. In the year of the bull, cartoons appeared depicting the bull in the guise of a 'new Russian' playing the stock market. When the year of the pig was followed by the year of the rat, throughout Moscow you could buy wall calendars depicting a fat rat in a dressing-gown, smashing open a piggy-bank beneath a New Year's fir-tree.
Meanwhile, as I have been writing this article, I have just learned that the coming year is not the year of the rabbit at all, but the year of the cat, and that it is yellow. However, I have been told, in Chinese astrology the rabbit and the cat are one and the same.
Baltimore Sun 29 January 1999
Moscow's flu war means breathtaking measures. There's no holding back garlic, onions, dirty socks, cognac
By Kathy Lally Sun Foreign Staff
MOSCOW -- Nearly every day, another grim dispatch arrives from the front. The news tells ominously of one surrender after another, from the volcano-strewn landscape of Kamchatka near the Pacific Ocean to the belching smokestacks of the Ural Mountains, 3,000 miles to the west. The flu is marching across Russia, and newspaper readers are following its path nervously. Here in the capital, a thousand miles west of the Urals, the assault is expected sometime in the next week or so, and Muscovites are throwing up the barricades, desperately trying to protect themselves. Everyone has a personal battle plan.
"I know that if I don't want to catch the flu, I should be eating garlic every night," Marina Dobkina, a high school principal, says regretfully. "But I can't do that with my job." Unable to risk heavy-duty bad breath, she's doing what she can, drinking lots of tea with honey and dried raspberry and drinking cranberry juice. Dobkina lives in an ordinary five-story apartment building, Moscow in microcosm. Knock on her neighbors' doors and nearly everyone will offer his own protection.
Sasha Fominikh, a driver at a Moscow factory, read a newspaper article the other day that suggested hanging a pair of dirty socks around the neck. He decided against that, but when he felt a cold coming on, he tried out a second method -- rubbing the soles of the feet with the juice of a raw onion every night before going to bed. "It makes the feet sweat a lot," Fominikh says, "which helps get rid of the fever." He also drinks a little cognac and some tea with jam to prevent a cold from developing into something worse.
At the first sign of a sore throat, housewife Lena Slivkina starts to rinse her throat with cognac at least three times a day. "I don't swallow it, by the way" she says. "If I have a bad cough, I boil oats in milk for two hours and then drink it three times a day. Three days and no cough."
Zina Basova, a street sweeper, eats garlic all year round. "If I still get the flu," she says, "I use a lot of honey with tea."
A flu shot here costs $8 to $20 -- prices far too expensive for most people. Instead, they take an over-the-counter medicine called dibasol, which they say not only builds up immunity but lowers the blood pressure, improves the spinal cord and cures ulcers as it courses through the body. Many schools gave the tablets to children in the fall, hoping to fight off the flu.
The newspaper Segodnya lamented the other day that the pills were only a primitive measure and that once again the authorities were leaving the Russian people unprotected in the face of danger. "The sanitary authorities hope that most of the sick people will never visit a doctor and thus won't be registered, so officially the number of the sick will not be so large, and consequently there will be no reason to announce there is an epidemic," the paper wrote.
The flu could well affect 3 out of every 10 people, the paper said, but no one will ever know for sure. "The population of Moscow, neglected by public health authorities, have learned how to cure themselves without doctors."
The newspaper Komsomolskaya Pravda devoted a recent consumer column to cures: "If you have a runny nose, the method is easy but cruel: You take a piece of garlic, cut it in two and put the two pieces inside your nose for 15 or 20 minutes three times a day. "If you are running a temperature: Put 50 grams of onion through a meat-grinder, along with one tablespoon of vinegar and 60 grams of honey. Mix it well. Take one teaspoon of the mixture every 30 minutes until you start to feel better."
The paper's advice for a cough? Cut 20 small onions and a head of garlic into small pieces and boil in milk until the garlic and onion become soft. Strain it and add 2 tablespoons of honey to the liquid. Take one tablespoon every hour. Sick family members should be confined to one room, while the healthy ones should stay in a room with the window open so fresh air can sweep the germs away.
Cold can work wonders, but everyone here knows it has its dangers, too. Few Russians risk consuming a drink with ice -- that's a sure-fire way to a severe sore throat. (Somehow, ice cream doesn't have the same effect. People eat it on the street, all winter long.)
Marshal Georgy Zhukov, who fought in the Revolution and defeated the Germans at Stalingrad in World War II, chased off the flu by jumping on horseback and galloping for miles, wearing his felt cloak. Since few Muscovites have horses, Komsomolskaya Pravda told its readers about an Asian philosopher who cured the flu by taking 120 steps through a running stream with a rocky bottom.
Most streams are frozen at this time of year, but the ever-resourceful consumer reporter offered an alternative: Put a bristly massage carpet into your bathtub. Let cold water run over it. Start walking.
01 February 1999 Johnson's Russia List
Kathy Lally, Moscow's flu war means breathtaking measures
By: Mark Ames
If I didn't live here in Moscow, I'd come away from Kathy Lally's article "Moscow's Flu War Means Breathtaking Measures" believing that all Russians avoid the kinds of medicines and remedies we white folk might use, and instead revert to medieval, savage, voodoo-like remedies like smearing onions on your feet or snorting dirty socks. You almost wonder, after reading Lally's article, whether Russians have yet developed a complex set of language skills or the ability to create fire. I for one decided to check.
So I went down to the closest Apteka, or pharmacy, on my street corner. I asked one of the pharmacists there, Lyubov Luskutova, if drinking cognac or smelling old socks or rubbing onions on your feet is the best way to overcome the flu epidemic that threatens all of us here. Surprisingly, the native spoke in an intelligible language, expressing a dazzling variety of emotions--such as bewilderment and confused laughter. She said she'd never in her life heard of rubbing onions on feet or snorting dirty socks in order to ward off the flu. She works in a pharmacy--yes, that's right, Russians actually have pharmacies. And at pharmacies, they sell medicines.
So just to set Lally's Baltimore-area readers straight, I'd like to note that the most common medicines to fight flus and colds sold here at my local apteka (and at the zillions of apteky in Moscow, including in nearly every metro station and every street block) are Tylenol flu medicine, Coldrex, Coldrex Nite, TheraFlu Tylenol for kids, and Lorane. For sore throats, most buy either Strepsils or Hall's mints. The prices are high in ruble terms--Lorane costs 74 rubles a bottle, or about 3 dollars. But Luskutova assured me that sales aren't noticeably down from last year's flu season period. "People have to live," she said just this morning. I'd personally doubt that sales are as stable as she thinks, but I will definitely take her word over Lally's.
Other popular remedies for the flu are staying home from work and sleeping, drinking tea with honey, and drinking juice. Maybe these things weren't wacky enough to fit into Lally's "see how savage the Russians are" piece. Imagine the honest lead: "Russians are preparing for the onslaught of flu by buying Tylenol and Theraflu medicines from their local pharmacies." Naw, it wouldn't sell, as they say in Hollywood. Doesn't make them seem savage enough.
Russians thankfully don't stoop to mocking stories about how we Americans drop billions a year on totally useless vitamin supplements just because some quack named Linus Pauling told us to do so, and won a big ol' award for it. Which gets to the point: THERE IS NO CURE FOR THE FLU! Duh!
I wrote this response because it seems that the old colonialist attitude is seeping back into the Western journalist narrative as never before. Up to August 17th, at least you had two narratives: good reformers versus savage old commies; or, see how much better we are than the Russians. Now journalists have done the Vichy/resistance flip-flop and have become harsh critics of the government here, leaving readers back home with only one narrative to wash their brains with: how many ways can you paint a Russian as a savage.
You could say that Galina Starovoitova was the last "good guy" pushed on the home readers, even though she was an irrelevant has-been whose death had almost no influence on local elections. No matter--she counted to progressive-minded journalists, who saw in her one of their own. Now, with Starovoitova gone, Russia's image better watch out. As Jean MacKenzie wrote in a November 24th, 1998 installment of her Moscow Times column, "Confessions of a Russophile," "the last vestiges of the light that [Starovoitova] was instrumental in bringing to this dark, savage country are slowly dying out."
That's right: even Moscow's self-proclaimed Russophile openly refers to Russia as "this dark, savage country."
Like Ann Blundy's recent piece in the Times about how all Russian women are doomed to a life of prostitution or arm decoration-ness merely because they aren't physically bland (as we presume the highly-evolved Blundy is), the going theme for '99 seems to be to dig up as many ways as possible to prove that Russia is an African backwater whose only hope--albeit a futile hope--is to remake itself into a Western nation.
Which is where the eXile comes in. We've decided to up the ante a little on this whole Russia-bashing thing to offer you, at no extra shame, your very own ugly colonialist article that will hopefully put this whole matter to rest. It can be accessed at: http://www.exile.ru
Enjoy. And make sure you eat plenty of hot chicken soup!
05 February 1999, Johnson's Russia List
Lally/Ames: Russian folk remedies
By Claire Hunt
Voodoo is more widespread than most Americans think, but it's safe to assume the Caribbean practice hasn't reached as far as Moscow. Most Russians don't have chicken claw fetishes or routinely stick pins in cottonwool effigies of their enemies. But, like most Easterners, they are privy to a rich lore of natural remedies for any number of common ailments, much like the ones outlined in Kathy Lally's "Moscow's Flu War Means Breath-taking Measures."
Anyone who's spent a significant amount of time in a Russian household, with its cupboards stocked full of medicinal herbs, hand-picked at the dacha, knows to what extent Russians, especially Russian women, still rely on time-honored, natural treatments for anything from flu to fertility.
This is not always dictated by economic necessity. The recent interest in alternative medicine in the West has proven that many folk remedies, derived from natural, easily accessible ingredients found in every home, do the trick. They have nothing to do with superstition. Rather, they are rooted in scientific fact.
Hot liquid - such as tea - does soothe the throat. It also flushes toxins out of the system. Garlic (like its cousin, onion) is universally touted as a miracle cure, both for its pungent properties and the potent antibiotic it contains. And yes - even the sweat and bacteria in a worn pair of socks can produce vapors strong enough to clear nasal passages.
What most unfortunate dependants on limited Western medicine don't realize is that so many of the relatively new, chemical drugs manufactured by a billion-dollar pharmaceutical industry were originally derived from simple remedies that had already been in use - in cultures around the globe - for centuries. Russians love honey, and for good reason: Not only is it an excellent salve for wounds, when ingested, the sugar in it coats the throat and stifles coughs - the exact same soothing relief provided by sugary "Hall's mints," for example.
Drugs like Tylenol, Coldrex and Theraflu contain pretty much the same beneficial ingredients found in a lot of traditional folk remedies that boost the immune system and help a person get through the flu. They are also larded with harsh, abrasive chemicals that can potentially rip up your stomach lining, disrupt your sleep rhythms, and even kill you.
Mark Ames asserts that Russians don't dare point out Westerners' over-reliance on orthodox medicine, such as ineffective vitamin supplements. As a matter of fact, they certainly do, and often, when faced with a choice between a well-marketed Western drug and the cure they grew up with, Russians will invariably opt for the natural way.
Their wealth of babushka folklore is to be envied. The explosion in alternative medicine studies, institutes, and literature observed in recent years in the West points towards a serious deficiency in modern, orthodox medicine. Americans in particular - as practitioners of the single most unhealthy lifestyle in the industrialized world - are slowly catching on that treatments such as homeopathy, herbal supplements, aryuveda, and Chinese medicines not only work well, they work better. I'd be willing to bet Lally's "Baltimore-area readers" were more intrigued by her recent piece than by Primakov, and that many were grateful for the insight. Folk remedies, and a more holistic approach to health in general, are at last gaining recognition in the West as neither primitive nor regressive, but as more enlightened - even advanced.
Surely Mark Ames, of all people, would not argue with the assumption that Russians are more responsive to their bodies' needs than Westerners. This is not to say that Russians are any healtheir. Recent reports exposing their country's environmental devastation shows they are not. But all the over-priced, imported chemical drugs in Europe and America can not combat grotesque levels of pollution - not to mention debilitating emotional stress - any better than can honey and garlic.
The symptoms of an everyday nuisance like the flu, however, ARE easily treatable, and you don't need a thick bankroll to do it. Russians know this, and when they exhibit a conscious preference for tried-and-true methods over harsh chemicals, they are not backwards, unlearned, or savage - they're right.
The Times (UK) April 5 1999
If you buy anything of value, you drink to it.
By Anna Blundy
This applies to cars, fur coats . . . anything the purchaser feels he can't afford, if the truth be known
Buy it and you have to obmyt it. Russians are very superstitious people and any purchase that has not been satisfactorily obmyted is liable to find itself lost, stolen, vandalised or otherwise rendered useless to the owner.
This superstitious attitude to life is highly infectious, and it takes only a month or two of residence to find oneself forbidding people from whistling indoors (you will be penniless for ever), refusing to sit at the corner of a table (you will never marry), avoiding shaking hands across the threshold (a bad omen for friendship) and always putting empty bottles on the floor (not sure about this one, but it is probably something to do with avoiding confusion in your drunken stupor over which bottles are still of use and which are not).
The obmytiye, however, is a different issue entirely. As much a tradition as a mere superstition. A part of national heritage and a process considered to be a cheap alternative to expensive, and anyway hugely unreliable, insurance.
To the Westerner it can be the cause of great confusion. The first time I ever came across it (I realised in retrospect) was ten years ago when I was forced to participate in a vile, drunken evening at a Korean restaurant that served only mushrooms in soy sauce, and sliced cucumber (there were shortages in Moscow back then). The entertainment was a strip show that began at 6pm and involved some bored teenagers in yellow leotards writhing round the largely empty tables.
Sasha, a terrifying thug, spent the whole evening toasting his new car, which seemed to me the height of vulgarity and bad taste. It brought out the worst in me, and, as a kind of anti-materialistic backlash, had me up on my feet every few minutes making toasts to world peace, the love of my neighbour and the spirituality in all of us.
It seemed depressing that people who only a year or so earlier had amazed me with their apparent absence of consumer psychosis and their heightened appreciation for the finer things in life had so quickly transformed into the worst kind of suburban American property enthusiasts. Not only was property suddenly not theft, it seemed to be a human right. Little did I know.
Years later I got off a boat in the Volga town of Togliatti and bought a ceramic blue and gold fish-shaped decanter with some charming little shot glasses to match. As I re-embarked, a trumpeter told me I should obmyt the set later. Since obmyt comes from the words "to wash", I thought: "He's right. I must give it a rinse," and I wandered off back to my cabin. I had no idea that he was in fact inviting me for a drink.
It all became clear when a friend recounted a fur-coat-buying trip to Greece. Olga and her husband had taken a cruise around the Mediterranean with the object of buying this coat (they are apparently cheaper there than in Russia and are obligatory winter wear for women here). Safely back en route for Russia, Olga's husband spent three days obmyting the coat with some friends he had made at the bar. I imagined him hanging over the side of this ship washing it in the sea for three days. When she explained what he was actually doing, it was even stupider.
Basically, if you buy anything of value you have to drink to it. This is similar in concept to wetting the baby's head, but in Russia it applies to cars, fur coats, televisions and anything else that the purchaser feels he cannot really afford, if the truth be known.
Obmytiye is taken very seriously indeed here. Another friend of mine recently had her car stolen and called the police to report the crime. "Did you obmyt the vehicle, madam?" they asked, as though asking whether or not it was legally insured. "Actually, no," she replied. "We had to go away the day after we bought it and we never got round to it."
The policemen rolled their eyes, tutted and shrugged their shoulders. They seemed to be saying: "Why should we investigate the theft of this car when its very owners cannot be bothered to look after it properly?" Everybody has proof of the obmytiye - stories about the appalling disasters that befell items they stupidly neglected.
Now your Western cynic might think that this is just another Russian excuse for drinking as much as possible, but I attended a fur-coat obmytiye last week, and sitting around it, drinking champagne and discussing its virtues, one did feel that even if it did get stolen or lost in the near future, at least it had been fully appreciated first.