A new Russian study has found that only about 44 percent of Russians actually went to the doctor last year. But what is more interesting than that is when people from the former Soviet Union finally do seek help, they usually avail themselves of alternative medicine.
Meet Marina Belorysova, a college-educated 20-something English teacher working at a primary school here in Moscow. Her feelings on what doctors do are not exactly what an American might see as mainstream.
"They give advices, but most of them are about herbs," said Belorysova. "Most of them use these ladies who cast spells for different sicknesses. They know a lot of recipes of how to use herbs and so on. Those who grew up in the village it’s very popular there. My mom still uses this kind of medicine, like a healing cuff with herbs."
Western medicine less popular than herbs, spells and crystal balls
Herbs and spells? That may sound like something out of Harry Potter. But not here. According to the latest government statistics, about 300,000 Muscovites went to alternative healers last year. Overall, Russia has 800,000 of them - more than the number of official doctors.
Daria Minerova is a clairvoyant healer. Her Moscow office is full of crystal balls, lava lamps, white owls and candles. She says she is often called upon by “regular” doctors to either cast or clear spells for patients.
She says they ask me for a consultation when they have a difficult case - for example, when the diagnosis and treatment are correct, but they still can’t cure a patient.
School teacher Belorysova says it’s pretty common among Russians to try western medicine, then go for the alternative.
"I have a friend she has a baby, a daughter of three," she said. "When the baby was one, the baby she had some kind of disease. And of course they could treat it with medicine - with pills or something - but they said you have to go to a lady who can cast a spell on it and it will go away. And it did."
Many Russians afraid of Western medicine
Now one might think people are seeking out alternative healers because they are cheaper, but health care in Russia is basically free. It is just not very good.
Belorysova says many people are afraid of western medicine in Russia.
"Medicine is very poor in Russia," said Belorysova. "It is very bad. At least they know when they use alternative medicine nothing really bad will happen. When they go for a surgery, they don’t know whether they will live or not. If they do alternative medicine, that maybe it won’t help, but nothing bad will happen."
Dr. Malkina, who prefers not to use her first name, works at the European Medical Center, a private clinic here in Moscow. She is a certified neurologist but has integrated alternative medicine into her treatment methods at the clinic. Dr. Malkina agrees with Belorysova that many Russians do not like to take risks when it comes to their health.
"Russian people like because it is very safe and very comfortable for people," said Malkina. "The crystal is very clean and make very big and powerful energy. It heals people and gives people energy. Gives people a better feeling."
Russians are not just flocking to alternative therapies in person - some are turning to the Internet, radio and television.
Diamond Indigo is a popular healer on Women’s Club TV here in Russia. Here, he is trying to help a female patient who called in complaining of various medical problems.
He tells the woman that she has darkness, an "entity" inside her in the form of a gnome, as he puts it. He says he can get rid of it, then asks her if she feels anything. She responds that she feels a slight coldness. Another healer says that is good, that the energy is working, that the "entity" is gone and replaced with clean, cosmic energy.
In light of the interest in these healers, officials are starting to act. Russian President Dmitry Medvedev has admitted that the country’s health care system is a mess. He has pledged, among other things, to fix outdated equipment and increase supplies.
In the meantime, the government has become increasingly concerned that Russians are being taken for a ride when it comes to alternative healers.
Last year, parliament approved the first reading of a bill that would prohibit users of supernatural powers to promote their services in mass media. These “mystical advertisements,” as they are called, include solicitations from witches, magicians, psychics, fortune tellers and faith healers.