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Behind the Iron Curtain: Teeth

Continuing my recent ground-breaking series “Behind the Iron Curtain” and staying on the painful subjects I would like to discuss the Soviet Dentistry.

Ugly legacy of the Soviet dentistry (or stomatology as it was called there) can still be found in the millions of toothless and disfigured mouths of its victims. A visit to a dentist was one of the scariest and painful events a person had to endure in their life. Kids as well as grown-ups tried their best to avoid these dreadful visits, sometimes tolerating toothache for days and even months at a time. Avoiding the dentist during the school years was hard because annual group dental visits were mandatory. Skipping a visit would get a person suspended from school, which actually happened to yours truly, and the only way to get back to school would be to bring a note from a dentist. Soviet kids had to have healthy teeth no matter what.
As with all medicine in the USSR, dental care was universally available for free to the people and,  as I mentioned above, sometimes even insisted upon by the Soviet Government. So why did the Soviet people avoided it like a plague? One word answer is anesthesia, or more precisely, the lack thereof. For reasons that are still mysterious to me, Soviet dentists did not use any painkillers on their trembling and screaming in pain patients, kids or adults. One of my earliest childhood memories is a tooth being extracted from my mouth live, without even a numbing ointment that dentists use here to make shots less painful. This event alone explains my life-long torturous relationship with dentistry. Many fillings and even a root canal procedure were done on me since then, when I felt every spin of the drill, every touch, and every time they sprayed some cooling solution on an overheated from drilling tooth. Still the first tooth ripped out of my mouth when I was 5 or 6 years old hurt the most. No one since then clearly explained why it was done this way. Maybe they wanted to build our characters, prepare us for torture, raise our pain tolerance so in case we ever ended up in Guantanamo Bay we would think that waterboarding was just a splash in a tub. Soviet medicine was actually very progressive and inventive and many procedures used in the modern medicine were conceived and first tested in Russia and the USSR. There is no questions that dentists in 70’s were fully aware of how it was done in the West. Even inside the USSR some dentists who were quietly operating outside of the system for cash, used anesthesia on their lucky patients. The rest of us had to go through unbearable pain and suffering. For my first several years in the USA even with dental insurance available I still stayed away from dentists, swallowing bottles of Tylenol to dull the pain. My first visit to the dentist here was almost a religious experience and now all I am afraid of is the extraction of large sums of money from my wallet.
The dentist’s office of my childhood was designed for inflicting not only physical but also mental pain on the patient. Multiple chairs were situated in the same room so everyone could enjoy everyone else’s screams and see their unfortunate neighbors in the different stages of confessing their innermost secrets. The chair did not recline so the patient was almost always sitting straight up while the dentist was operating in front or to the side of the chair. Unlike American setup, all the scary tools of the trade were laid out in front of the patient so he could clearly see the size of the pliers that would shortly end up in his mouth. I don’t recall them ever using x-rays so they operated purely on a hunch. One of the girls from my class had a wrong (healthy) tooth extracted while the unhealthy tooth stayed intact. Things happened. On one of my mandatory school visits my class was sitting in the waiting room downstairs, when I was called up for my turn to be treated. I sat in the chair and the dentist ordered me to open my mouth. Always a rebel, I refused, got up and went back downstairs happy and smiling and went home. Next day I was not allowed to attend school and had to go back and submit, to a (nicer) dentist. There was no escape. Needless to say that after mandatory annual visits were over I successfully avoided the dentist chair for the next four years.
Even more exciting was the root canal procedure. Before I was drafted into the army I heard the rumors that military dentists are even more evil than civilian ones, although it was hard to imagine that this was possible. Conventional wisdom required to get treatment before the draft, on your own terms, which I reluctantly did. I had a couple of fillings done and then the words “root canal” (in Russian of course) were uttered. Root canal was done in two stages: in stage one the tooth was drilled (did I mention no painkillers) and filled with arsenic to “kill the nerve”; in stage two the arsenic was drilled out and the nerve was extracted using a tiny file similar to the ones used here. I can’t speak for everyone but in my case the nerve wasn’t even close to being dead. I felt it being pulled out seemingly all the way from my brain. I spit on waterboarding. CIA needs to go to Brighton Beach, get one of the old Soviet dentists from way back, and after a root canal or two Osama Bin Laden wouldn’t stand a chance.
Golden SmileLastly, I would like to mention the general ugliness of the dental work from that era. Gold, silver and metal crowns were not only common but very popular. You can say that Soviet citizens had gold teeth before it became cool. Some central Asian nationalities liked it so much that they filled their entire mouths with gold, leading to a recent ban on gold teeth in one of the former republics. While I think that United States raised beautiful teeth almost to a cult level, where billions of dollars are spent to straighten and whiten perfectly normal teeth, former Soviet Union was all the way on the opposite end of the mouth spectrum, where neglect and ugly dental work were perfectly normal. The irony of the free dentistry so bad and so painful that no one wanted it is left for us to ponder. So, the next time you see a Caucasian person sporting a golden smile the chances are they are from the Eastern Europe where medieval medical technology survived into the modern times.

When you are relaxing in your dentist’s chair with TV in front of you, a dentist, a nurse and all the technology surrounding you to make your visit pleasant, thank your dental gods for your luck and maybe feel a little better about shelling out your hard-earned money for the services. It’s well worth it.