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Russia's Murky World Of Alternative Medicine

In a country estimated to spend billions on faith healers and fortune tellers, many Russians opt for alternative medicine over certified doctors.

Rasputin, Russia's original "faith healer"
Rasputin, Russia's original "faith healer"
Kirill Zhurenkov and Mariya Portnyagina

MOSCOW — Russia is living through a painful overhaul of the national health system, with doctors and patients protesting in the streets as hospitals close. But a recent study of Russians' medical habits shows that people already rely heavily on alternatives to the "official" medical establishment, and many of the alternative therapies they use are quite far from modern scientific norms.

The investigation was carried out in the Perm region, chosen because researchers thought that area represents the "average" Russian city, allowing researchers to broaden their findings to the rest of the country.

According to the study, Russians facing health problems often turn not to doctors, but to alternative health providers. In some cases, this can mean that people are simply asking pharmacists for health advice instead of going to their doctor. But it also refers to a surprisingly high number of people asking faith healers and herbalists.

The lore of such practices in Russia grew largely around the early 20th century figure of Grigori Rasputin, a peasant mystic, faith healer and advisor to the Czar. Though such practices today are thought to be generally limited to remote villages, the phenomenon is much more widespread. In Russia's cities, there are health care options for all tastes, and doctors can’t always compete.

Most of these alternative medical providers operate in the shadow economy. There are five officially registered "healers" with the Ministry of Health across the entire Perm Krai region, but just in Perm, the region’s largest city, there are at least 35 different healers advertising their services.

In many ways, the rise in non-conventional medicine is paradoxical: Just as these alternatives have become more popular, demand for homeopath practitioners, who usually have an official medical education, has actually dropped.

There are scenes right from the middle ages. Medical peddlers sell so-called listening devices, nutritional supplements and herbal creams, promising to give you a full check-up and a restorative session, as well as to cure various "dependencies."

There is honey sold at the local Christmas market that is marketed as a “cell accelerator.” This honey-based miracle drug promises: “In micro-doses, it increases the speed of cell division, develops the brain core, normalizes psychology, should be taken for cancer, problems with DNA, infertility and metabolic problems.”

Healing sessions

In another city, researchers photographed a long line of people waiting to buy nutritional supplements and creams. The peddlers themselves can expect to make up to $1,000 per hour (some of the supplements cost around $100 each), as they travel from city to city.

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Pharmacies are not the only game in town — Photo: Iosipenko Alexander Daniilovich

One “expert from Moscow” offered a “fully-tested” method of “segmented thermal algometry” for around $40, a large sum in Russia’s poorer small cities.

“Russia has never had a centralized way to follow the shadow health sector, which is why there aren’t any good statistics. What are the services offered, what are the prices? It’s all just determined by the market,” explained Larisa Gabueva, from the Russian Presidential Academy of National Economy and Public Administration.

Different "gurus" have different territory. One named Ramilya Shamsieva, for example, holds separate monthly “healing sessions” in six different towns in and around Perm. The popularity of these gatherings has spread through books and magazines, with clubs forming that get together to discuss the recommendations in libraries and cultural centers.

The people fighting to get a piece of the alternative medicine pie are not just UFO-chasers. Many completely respectable religious organizations are also making money by selling different herbal mixtures and creams. Recently, experts estimated that Russians spend $30 billion annually on faith healers and fortune tellers.

Now, some are asking if the current reforms to the regular health system will send more and more Russians to unconventional alternatives. Researchers say they didn’t find any correlation between access to "regular" health care and a person’s likelihood to turn to faith healers. It’s clear, though, that there is already a substantial market for alternative medicine — the real question is whether or not that is a good thing.

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