>Medical Care in the Soviet Union


When I tell people I was born in the Soviet Union, more often than not I hear them ask, “The medical care there was amazing, wasn’t it?” Well, let me tell you about just how fantastic it was. God, those fond memories are just rushing in.
Medical care in the USSR was completely free. Of course, if you didn’t offer any gifts or bribes to the doctors and nurses, you could count on nobody paying any attention to you and making you wait forever even for the urgent medical procedures. To give an example, my mother couldn’t convince the nurses she was in labor. They kept telling her to wait in a very rude manner. It wasn’t my mother’s first time giving birth, so she was pretty sure of what was going on. Still, nobody wanted to pay attention to her. It was night-time, and she was being extremely inconsiderate going into labor at that inconvenient time.
When I was five, I had a tonsillectomy. It is a fairly minor procedure that many people undergo with no complications. So it would have been in my case had it not been for the fact that the doctors confused me with some other little girl who was allergic to anaesthetics. So they didn’t anesthetize me. (Something tells me that the other girl was a lot worse off because they must have pumped her full of drugs she was allergic to and that I was supposed to get instead.)
Before the operation, my parents told me that I would be given a medication to make the procedure painless. So when the doctor started tearing my tonsils out with no anaesthetic, I started crying. Not surprising, given that I was five years old. So he hit me in the face with his fist to shut me up. When I walked out of the operation room (which you were supposed to leave the moment the operation ended), my face was covered in blood. Then I was put in a ward with many other little kids. It was December, and the room was freezing cold. It was so cold that I got pneumonia. At least, my mother was there with me, which was very unusual in Soviet hospitals. Normally, little sick kids were denied any contact with their parents during hospitalization. So I was really lucky. The nice, kind doctors wouldn’t let me leave because apparently they weren’t done with me just yet. When matters started looking really grim, my grandfather came and removed me from the hospital. So at least I’m alive.
When my sister was about the same age, she got sick. Kids get sick, it happens. A doctor came to see her. She looked at my sister indifferently and said to my mother, stifling a yawn: “The kid’s gonna die, lady. She’s in a bad way.” Of course, my mother started crying and saying that it wasn’t possible. It didn’t even seem like my sister was feeling all that bad. “I said she’ll die,” said the doctor irritably. “Can’t you hear me?” But at least that nice doctor came to visit us absolutely for free. (My sister grew up to be a beautiful, healthy adult, thanks be to Allah.)
These are just a few of my stories about the beauty of the Soviet healthcare. One day I’ll tell you about the wonders of the Soviet gynecological services which will turn your stomach. So don’t be too surprised if I don’t take all that kindly to any pontifications on how amazing the medical care in the USSR was.

14 thoughts on “>Medical Care in the Soviet Union

  1. >Your account of medical are in the U.S.S.R. is in many ways similar to that in China back in the 70s and 80s. One major difference is that hospitals made it perfectly clear to parents that there was zero nursing care/watching the patients overnight. This meant that every time I had to stay overnight in the hospital (pretty much once a month for bronchitis), one of my parents would have to stay overnight with me to make sure I didn't fall of the bed, I had water if I was thirsty, I didn't die in the middle of the night. Also, I'd never heard of a child being punched in the face during a tonsillectomy. On the other hand, I don't believe anesthesia was routinely used for tonsillectomies. But it was at least "free," right? Now the medical situation in China is about the same, only people have to pay money for it.


  2. >In Poland in 1976 I got really good care for a severe sinus infection. The physician spent far more time with me than would have been the case in the U. S. But I did give her a gift. If I recall correctly, it weas a bottle of French Cognac.I know Poland was not part of the U. S. S. R. I don't know how different they were in this regard.


  3. >I get a lot of conflicting views about the USSR when I consult authoritative sources. Some say life was great in that women were freer to seek employment. The downside was that women were not allowed in the high level industry jobs, which men occupied. I also read that unemployment was virtually nonexistent for most men because of high demand for workers, and due to this fact, men were given a lot of leeway in terms of misbehaving at work. This went on until the 80s and 90s, when the state went bust and the only jobs left were the less prestigious "sales" and service jobs, which women took, but men were less willing to take. My thinking is the wages must have been pretty bad if unemployment was low during the Soviet regime. However, my readings on healthcare in the Soviet Union completely match your description. A lack of evidenced-based practice in many cases. Like giving injections of vitamins when oral supplements would do. Giving archaic drugs like actovegin (cow serum extract, WTH?), and giving strange concoctions through IV that I personally have NEVER encountered in any textbook I've read so far or in hospitals I've had clinicals at. A lot of this stuff continues to today, in parts of Russia at least. I don't know about the rest of the USSR.


  4. >The problem is that you cannot judge Soviet reality using American concepts. Unempoyment, female freedom to seek jobs – such concepts had no place in the Soviet reality.YYes, all women worked. Everybody worked. Because not working was punished by a jail sentence.There was no offical unemployment. People were given jobs. Of course, nobody consulted them where and what those jobs would be. The government says you go to work in Siberia on graduation from college? So you do.Salaries people got for those "jobs" were less than any unemployment benefit anywhere in the world. My father who has a PhD in Linguistics got less in a month than a pair of jeans cost. Less than a pair of boots. That's what Soviet lack of unemployment translated into: most people had to make do on a miserable amount of money with no prospects of improvement until the day theu retired. Then, things would get a lot worse.


  5. >Wow, I'm so sorry that that happened to you (and your family). "The nice, kind doctors wouldn't let me leave because apparently they weren't done with me just yet." Very afraid to what that might have meant for you. : (


  6. >Everything I've seen and read validates what you say, Clarissa. I lived in Russia in 92-93 and 95-96. I got there six months after the Soviet Union collapsed, and everything still ran pretty much the same way during those years, including the health care system. I also lived for a shorter period in Armenia, and I lived in Albania and Yugoslavia (neither part of the USSR, but with similar health care systems). I had a number of exposures to the system, and it was truly terrible. In one case, one of the local people who worked for me was hospitalized. When we visited him, we found, in addition to all the other rotten conditions, that the hypodermic needles used on him were never replaced. After he got injections, they were simply placed on the window ledge and re-used the next time. We managed to get a small supply of new ones for him, but it was hard to do.I've also heard horror stories, directly from the victims (not "patients") about dental work of all kinds being done on children with no anesthesia at all because it wasn't available (unless you had money and knew someone).Anyone who holds up the former Soviet Union or other communist countries of that era as examples of how socialized medicine (or anything else) is superior is just ignorant.


  7. I had my tonsils taken out out in ’83-’84 as well and they didn’t use anesthesia, either. Simply got tied up to a chair that was bolted down to the floor and had them taken out while fully conscious. Looks like that was thet standard procedure in the USSR. If, by some luck, they were supposed to use anesthesiaat your hospital, then perhaps they told you that they “confused me with some other little girl who was allergic to anaesthetics,” in order not to use it and sell it on the black market.


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