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.

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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How Thailand's Lèse-Majesté Law Is Used To Stifle All Protest

Once meant to protect the royal family, the century-old law has become a tool for the military-led government in Bangkok to stamp out all dissent. A new report outlines the abuses.

Pro-Democracy protest at The Criminal Court in Bangkok, Thailand

Laura Valentina Cortés Sierra

"We need to reform the institution of the monarchy in Thailand. It is the root of the problem." Those words, from Thai student activist Juthatip Sirikan, are a clear expression of the growing youth-led movement that is challenging the legitimacy of the government and demanding deep political changes in the Southeast Asian nation. Yet those very same words could also send Sirikan to jail.

Thailand's Criminal Code 'Lèse-Majesté' Article 112 imposes jail terms for defaming, insulting, or threatening the monarchy, with sentences of three to 15 years. This law has been present in Thai politics since 1908, though applied sparingly, only when direct verbal or written attacks against members of the royal family.

But after the May 2014 military coup d'état, Thailand experienced the first wave of lèse-majesté arrests, prosecutions, and detentions of at least 127 individuals arrested in a much wider interpretation of the law.

The recent report 'Second Wave: The Return of Lèse-Majesté in Thailand', documents how the Thai government has "used and abused Article 112 of the Criminal Code to target pro-democracy activists and protesters in relation to their online political expression and participation in peaceful pro-democracy demonstrations."

Criticism of any 'royal project'

The investigation shows 124 individuals, including at least eight minors, have been charged with lèse-majesté between November 2020 and August 2021. Nineteen of them served jail time. The new wave of charges is cited as a response to the rising pro-democracy protests across Thailand over the past year.

Juthatip Sirikan explains that the law is now being applied in such a broad way that people are not allowed to question government budgets and expenditure if they have any relationship with the royal family, which stifles criticism of the most basic government decision-making since there are an estimated 5,000 ongoing "royal" projects. "Article 112 of lèse-majesté could be the key (factor) in Thailand's political problems" the young activist argues.

In 2020 the Move Forward opposition party questioned royal spending paid by government departments, including nearly 3 billion baht (89,874,174 USD) from the Defense Ministry and Thai police for royal security, and 7 billion baht budgeted for royal development projects, as well as 38 planes and helicopters for the monarchy. Previously, on June 16, 2018, it was revealed that Thailand's Crown Property Bureau transferred its entire portfolio to the new King Maha Vajiralongkorn.

photo of graffiti of 112 crossed out on sidewalk

Protestors In Bangkok Call For Political Prisoner Release

Peerapon Boonyakiat/SOPA Images via ZUMA Wire

Freedom of speech at stake

"Article 112 shuts down all freedom of speech in this country", says Sirikan. "Even the political parties fear to touch the subject, so it blocks most things. This country cannot move anywhere if we still have this law."

The student activist herself was charged with lèse-majesté in September 2020, after simply citing a list of public documents that refer to royal family expenditure. Sirikan comes from a family that has faced the consequences of decades of political repression. Her grandfather, Tiang Sirikhan was a journalist and politician who openly protested against Thailand's involvement in World War II. He was accused of being a Communist and abducted in 1952. According to Sirikhan's family, he was killed by the state.

The new report was conducted by The International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), Thai Lawyer for Human Rights (TLHR), and Internet Law Reform Dialogue (iLaw). It accuses Thai authorities of an increasingly broad interpretation of Article 112, to the point of "absurdity," including charges against people for criticizing the government's COVID-19 vaccine management, wearing crop tops, insulting the previous monarch, or quoting a United Nations statement about Article 112.

Juthatip Sirikan speaks in front of democracy monument.

Shift to social media

While in the past the Article was only used against people who spoke about the royals, it's now being used as an alibi for more general political repression — which has also spurred more open campaigning to abolish it. Sirikan recounts recent cases of police charging people for spreading paint near the picture of the king during a protest, or even just for having a picture of the king as phone wallpaper.

The more than a century-old law is now largely playing out online, where much of today's protest takes place in Thailand. Sirikan says people are willing to go further on social media to expose information such as how the king intervenes in politics and the monarchy's accumulation of wealth, information the mainstream media rarely reports on them.

Not surprisingly, however, social media is heavily monitored and the military is involved in Intelligence operations and cyber attacks against human rights defenders and critics of any kind. In October 2020, Twitter took down 926 accounts, linked to the army and the government, which promoted themselves and attacked political opposition, and this June, Google removed two Maps with pictures, names, and addresses, of more than 400 people who were accused of insulting the Thai monarchy. "They are trying to control the internet as well," Sirikan says. "They are trying to censor every content that they find a threat".

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