MOSCOW -- Natalia Kamynina smiled indulgently as 8-year-old Vika Vorobyova carefully and precisely wrote out her name on the blackboard at School No. 186, her left fist wrapped tightly around the chalk and her script tilting just slightly uphill as she went along.
"As they get older," the school director confided knowingly, "left-handers write in a very disgusting manner.
"You can barely read it."
In the old days, Kamynina forced children to use their right hands.
Now, as much as it pains her, she has been told that is no longer appropriate -- and, like thousands of Russian teachers and educators, when she's given an order, she carries it out and even defends it.
But that doesn't mean she approves of left-handedness. Few people here do.
Left-handers are different, and that makes them stand out, and that makes them worthy of suspicion and public comment. On the street, in someone's home, at work -- anywhere.
It's something poor little Vika can probably look forward to for the rest of her life.
"We have many lefties," Kamynina said later in her office, "and more and more every year. That's because children's health is worsening every year."
"Are you saying there is a relation between poor health and left-handedness?" she was asked by a visitor, pen poised in his left hand.
"Exactly," she pounced. "Just look at their parents -- they've all had nervous stress."
In the Russian language, doing something on the left means doing it under the table, illegally and hastily. Left-handedness is traditionally associated with witchcraft.
One group of people here, for reasons that aren't clear, includes a very large number of left-handers -- the indigenous tribes of the Taimyr Peninsula in northern Siberia, whom the Russians call Samoyeds, or cannibals.
Yet there are those who dismiss the anti-lefty feeling here as prejudice and superstitious nonsense.
Dr. Tamara Dobrokhotova, a right-handed psychiatrist who favors starched white coats and starched blue surgical head wear that towers alarmingly above her bangs, has studied left-handed patients and concluded that they're just like anyone else -- except with a sort of mirror-image orientation.
"So, if for us the rule is to remember what had been or what was, for left-handers the rule would have to be to remember what will be," Dobrokhotova says.
That came out during a recent interview at the N. I. Budrenko Neurosurgical Center. Trying furiously to remember what she was about to say next, her interlocutor finally had to give up in frustration and wait for her elaboration just as any normal right-hander would.
She was consoling. Left-handers, she explained, don't walk around constantly foreseeing the future, but at moments of great stress and psychiatric insight a vision of what will be can come to them.
Joan of Arc had a vision of a sword in a church, and afterward people found that sword. A student patient of Dobrokhotova's learned through a dream what was to be on a coming exam.
The doctor was just opening a book she has written on left-handedness, and turning to a photo of a woman able to hold spoons to her face through some sort of left-handed magnetism, when she was asked why society is so hard on southpaws.
"The social world is made for right-handers," she explained sympathetically. "Left-handers always find deprivations."
Watches, scissors, cars are all made with right-handers in mind, she pointed out. She said a study found that left-handed pilots are far more likely to be involved in crashes, because of the way cockpits are laid out.
Does that mean that left-handers should be prevented from flying planes?
"Yes, of course," she replied, as if only a fool or a left-hander would even ask such a question. "Or else a few planes should be built in reverse, just for them."
With friends like this, it's no wonder that left-handers in Russia feel tormented.
Tatyana Aparshina, who sells diet products in Volgograd, goes so far as to avoid writing anything down when she's at the post office or bank or anywhere public, so great is the stigma she feels.
"People here are careless and can't help saying something when they see me writing with my left hand, as if I'm subnormal or at least different from everybody else," she said.
"The usual remark is, 'Why haven't they taught you to write properly?' "
When she got married, she tried to hide her left-handedness from her husband. It turned out he was doing the same thing. It came into the open only when a friend spotted him peeling potatoes with his left hand and told on him.
Viktor Krovopuskov, who won four Olympic gold medals in 1976 and 1980 as a left-handed fencer, said he's never run into any discrimination. (It might be dangerous to challenge him: His last name could be translated as One Who Lets Blood Flow.)
He would be a hero to lefties, except that he writes and eats with his right hand.
"I couldn't write before I went to school," he said. "When we were all told to take up the pen in our right hands, that's what I did.
"You know, it looks strange to me to see someone eating or writing left-handed."
In principle, as the Russians are fond of saying, there doesn't have to be anything wrong with left-handedness. A favorite short story here, about a craftsman in the old city of Tula who was left-handed and known as Lefty, describes how the czar received an ingenious mechanical flea from the king of England, and how Lefty then one-upped English craftsmanship by making golden horseshoes for the flea.
Russians love that story, written a century ago by N. S. Leskov, who was himself left-handed. In context today, a Lefty, or Levsha, means a fine craftsman, of any handedness.
But readers seem to gloss over the end of the tale: In putting the shoes on the flea, Lefty wrecks the mechanism and it never jumps again.
For generations, Russian schools forced children to write with their right hands (as did many schools around the world). But Russian educators held on to the idea well into the 1970s.
"The strict and rigid system of authoritarian upbringing demanded that all left-handers were forced to become right-handers," said Vladimir N. Druzhinin, 42, a professor of psychology who was forced to switch as a child.
It didn't have so much to do with left-handedness itself, he says, as with trying to stamp out individuality.
There is an immediate personal legacy -- he describes himself as anxious, an awkward speaker and a failure as an athlete. But there is also a social one -- every adult Russian was raised in a society that distrusted those who stand out.
Today the Ministry of Education recognizes that left-handers have to be accepted as they are. In fact, handwriting workbooks especially written for young left-handers have been produced under the direction of Vladimir Shadrikov, the first deputy minister.
"Teachers," he said, "should be directed by the nature of the child."
Back at School 186, the director, Kamynina, has never seen such workbooks, but she understands the drift coming from the ministry.
"If the child picks up a pencil in his left hand, well, let him," she said with a sigh. "But left-handers learn differently.
"Everything is slower with them. After the rest of the class has grasped everything, they're still behind. They read worse. They're always trying to read from right to left."
Yes, of course, she admitted, there are a few lefties who stand out. "But I think even then they are less inclined to the exact sciences -- mathematics or the Russian language -- than to the applied sciences."
Parents often try to convert their children.
Druzhinin said he consulted with a man who wanted to turn his flourishing business empire over to his left-handed son, but felt he had to convert the boy because he had read that left-handers don't make good leaders.
Little Vika Vorobyova's mother was worried about the same sort of thing.
"Mama wanted to teach me a little bit to use my right hand," she said in an interview after class in Kamynina's office. "I tried for a little, but then somehow I forgot."
At least she isn't a redhead as well -- but that's another story.
Pub Date: 3/27/98