In 1972, my wife, our son, my mother, and I were on our way to the United States from Italy, where we had spent almost six months waiting for our American visas to be processed. All other Russian émigrés who also received their visas chose to go to the United States by plane. Because my mother was ill, we had to go by boat.
A seven-day journey by “Leonardo da Vinci,” an Italian luxury ship, was for us an unforgettable experience. Great weather all the way to New York, great food, evening dances, and a friendly captain, who paid special attention to my wife, contributed to our great expectations that lay ahead.
It looked like most of the passengers were Americans, some of whom were New Yorkers. We became especially friendly with a young couple from New York. They wanted to hear all about Russia — free education for all? Free medicine for all? Or was it just what Soviet propaganda had told them?
Well, I thought, Soviet propaganda did well. What it did not tell them was that this so-called free education always had a catch. Shortly before you graduated from college, you had to sign a contract that you agree to work a certain number of years wherever the government would send you to take a job “po raspredeleniyu,” as it was known (naturally, it wouldn’t be in Moscow, or St. Petersburg, or any such other livable city — Russia is a big country! — and, naturally, for a miserable pay). And only those who had influential friends who could help them get a job on their own could get out of this contract.
We were born into the Soviet system and spent 40 years before we had a chance to extricate ourselves from that hell. Corruption always pervaded Russia’s health system. The Soviet system of socialized medicine, which nominally guaranteed full health protection to all citizens without charge, had been installed by Stalin in the mid-1920s.
Despite the nominally equitable nature of Soviet socialized medicine, the actual system was highly stratified according to location, with far inferior care and facilities available in rural areas, and especially according to political status.
The Soviet medical system maintained a completely separate, vastly superior system of clinics, hospitals, and sanatoriums for party and government officials and other Soviet elite groups such as writers, actors, musicians, and artists.
The quality of medical care was dismal, except in facilities designated for the Soviet elite.
Russia’s hospitals and polyclinics away from Moscow lacked basic amenities, like hot water, and often no running water at all.
Although health care was free in principle, the chances of receiving health care, the chances of getting adequate treatment depended on the patient’s wealth — in particular, the ability to bribe (in the form of cash, gifts, etc.). This is how it was then, and this is how it is now.
My mother, a medical doctor (PhD in neurology), worked at one of the major Moscow hospitals. If not for the fact that we had access to her colleagues, my wife would have lost the baby when she was 6 months into pregnancy. She developed contractions at the time I was not at home and called the emergency service, which took her almost by force to the nearest clinic, where they said they needed to abort the child.
My wife managed to call our doctor who within minutes was at the hospital and took her home. That famous doctor (Dr. Tsovyanov) kept my wife in bed for 3 months and then delivered a wonderful, healthy baby.
And that was the story I told my American friends. Soviet is a class, not classless, society, as Soviet propaganda wanted them to believe.
There were (and still are) exclusive hospitals and good doctors for the privileged few (communist party members).
That was then, 40 years ago. And I am told that nothing has changed since then. Except that those nouveaux riches, that new, special class of Russian millionaires, get their medicine abroad: in Switzerland, Germany, and the United States.
Recently I had a call from a friend, a Russian wealthy businessman, for whom no money is a problem, whose seventy-year-old mother developed a lung disease and was getting confusing diagnoses from Moscow doctors. I put him in touch with one of the best doctors in New York who has private practice and who now takes care of his mother.
I dread to think about what will happen to medical care in this country. Obamacare will destroy the delicate fabric of existing free-market medical services. My only hope is that this time American people will show their muscle and will prevent President Obama, with his communist ideals and his utopian socialist policies, from getting another four years in office (he said he so desperately needs) in order to complete the destruction of this unique free nation.
This year, when we mark our 40th anniversary of our free life in this country of our dreams, we want to express our infinite gratitude to our dearest American friends, Daniel Rose and his wife Joanna, whose efforts made it possible for us to get out of that Soviet hell and who helped us settle here in New York to start our new life in freedom.
Lev Navrozov can be reached by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.