Ruza, Russia -- While Americans are happily dashing off to the beach or mountains this vacation season, Russians are embarking on their own traditional holiday pleasures -- lining up for a shot in the arm, a nice X-ray or, best of all, a few jolts of electricity for the odd ache and pain.
Russians talk about their health incessantly. They talk about it as they down large amounts of sour cream, which is generally viewed as an exceptionally healthy substance. They talk about it as they consume mass quantities of vodka, which they say cures colds and neutralizes the effects of exposure to radiation. They talk about it as they bite off large hunks of sala -- a treat consisting of cured pork fat.
They are so concerned about their health that when vacation time comes around, it's no wonder the favored destination is a couple ofweeks at a sanitarium.
The Rus, here in the countryside about a hundred miles west of Moscow, is one of the most desirable. You could describe it as a Club Med with a rectal exam.
The Rus has everything the vacationer could crave: tennis, a huge indoor pool, boating on a large lake -- and a medical staff of 106 for its 350 guests.
A glossy brochure advertises its charms, a huge marble lobby glittering with enormous chandeliers, a game room with Ping-Pong and billiards -- and a vacationer reclining in what could be mistaken for an electric chair while a dentist advances on him, drill in hand.
"Of course we have only the best here," says Boris A. Yakovlev, the head doctor. "This used to belong to the Central Committee of the Communist Party."
The Rus has its priorities firmly set. Tennis courts cost $8 an hour.An electroencephalogram is $4. An exam by a cancer specialist is $4, an injection is 70 cents. In the morning, children splash in the pool under the watchful eye of a lifeguard. She wears high heels that tap in echoing admonition as she patrols the side of the pool in her white lab coat.
Guests checking in at the registration desk are greeted by a clerk, also wearing a white lab coat. A sign posted near her desk cheerily advises: Ask about our endoscopy and radiology.
The perfect climate
"The climate is absolutely perfect here," Dr. Yakovlev says, "and is the main form of treatment."
Dr. Yakovlev, a cancer specialist and acupuncturist, was referring mostly to the lack of factories in the vicinity, which leaves the air far more breathable than in Moscow. The sanitarium is surrounded by lovely fields of wildflowers at this time of year, which are guarded by menacing ranks of mosquitoes. Summer is short and sporadic, and in early July children play outside in knit wool caps and heavy jackets.
"We have 120 acres here," Dr. Yakovlev says, "and you can even pick your own mushrooms."
Guests can choose as much or as little medical treatment as they wish. They pay for their room and three meals, and can order numerous extras, such as an electrocardiogram.
After breakfast of stewed meat in gravy and pasty mashed potatoes swimming in butter, many guests have vitamin shots or electro-therapy. After lunch of soup, fried meat in gravy and more pasty mashed potatoes swimming in butter, there's time for badminton or a little tennis. After supper of chopped meat in gravy and pasty mashed potatoes swimming in butter, guests stroll or row on the lake.
"Of course health is the most important part of any vacation," says Lena Murnova, 29. "If you don't have your health you don't have anything."
Though it's summer, the only fresh foods found on the table were the green pepper rings garnishing the breakfast plates.
hTC Dr. Yakovlev proudly shows off the medical services: A doctor clothed in white from head to foot and wearing sunglasses directs a laser beam at a man's foot.
Down the hall, a woman is lying on her stomach with two giant electrified suction cups attached to her lower back to relieve pain.
Children line up to inhale puffs of atomized mineral water laced with daisy oil to prevent pneumonia and other lung diseases.
Improving body's atoms
A woman has electrodes attached to her arms, which deliver a small series of shocks. The Russians say this therapy is needed when the body's atoms get out of sorts and need a small charge to improve their structure.
In the basement exercise room, Dr. Yakovlev warmly greets Sergei Murnov, 32, who is working out on big, blocky steel equipment that looks as if it were made for the Inquisition.
"The first goal of any vacation is to improve your health," says Mr. Murnov, a vibrant, muscular man. "If I can improve it a little bit I'll be happy."
The administrator of the Rus is Roberto Rueda-Maestro, whose parents came to Russia from Spain during that country's civil war. His parents have since returned to their homeland, but Mr. Rueda-Maestro, retired from Russian army intelligence, has remained.
Mr. Rueda-Maestro is fighting a battle over the sanitarium's future. After the demise of the Communist Party, Boris N. Yeltsin handed the Rus over to an organization of Afghan veterans so it could be used as a rehabilitation center for those wounded in the war.
About 70 of the 350 spaces are still reserved for the veterans, who stay without charge while other guests pay up to $40 a night -- an astronomical sum here.
Now, Mr. Rueda-Maestro says, the old party bosses are trying to get the sanitarium back. "They want to turn it into a golf club," he says, "which is absolutely foolish in a country with winter 10 months a year."
Sanitariums, the pinnacle of the Soviet health-vacation system, were once operated by nearly every trade union or factory. Now, because of rising costs, only about 500 are still running.
In a society working feverishly to build the workers' paradise, fun seemed a faintly frivolous idea. But time off to regenerate for the struggle to build communism was a worthy goal indeed.
'Did you rest well?'
Even today Russians never ask each other if they had fun on vacation or even if they had a good vacation. "Did you rest well?" they ask.
Olga Parkhomenko, wife of a prosperous new businessman in the city of Yekaterinburg, came to Rus for a month with her two children, Irina, 8, and Dmitri, 12.
Each of the three carried a small card outlining their daily program of injections, baths and medical tests.
"We went to a sanitarium before," says Mrs. Parkhomenko, 34, "and the children weren't ill for a whole year."
She says the children required a reprieve from the onslaught of filthy air, dirt and mud in their home in the industrially ravaged Urals.
"The environment is so bad in Yekaterinburg that many of the children look gray and even blue," Mrs. Parkhomenko says. "The health care is awful. If something serious happened to the children I don't know what I'd do. That's why I have to come here to prevent health problems."
Ludmilla Yefimova, 46, emerged, regenerated, from an hour-long session in the hypnotherium. "Here, she says, "you can escape the daily routine of work, shopping and cooking and attend to your needs."