MOSCOW -- Nearly every day, another grim dispatch arrives from the front. The news tells ominously of one surrender after another, from the volcano-strewn landscape of Kamchatka near the Pacific Ocean to the belching smokestacks of the Ural Mountains, 3,000 miles to the west.
The flu is marching across Russia, and newspaper readers are following its path nervously. Here in the capital, a thousand miles west of the Urals, the assault is expected sometime in the next week or so, and Muscovites are throwing up the barricades, desperately trying to protect themselves.
Everyone has a personal battle plan.
"I know that if I don't want to catch the flu, I should be eating garlic every night," Marina Dobkina, a high school principal, says regretfully. "But I can't do that with my job."
Unable to risk heavy-duty bad breath, she's doing what she can, drinking lots of tea with honey and dried raspberry and drinking cranberry juice.
Dobkina lives in an ordinary five-story apartment building, Moscow in microcosm. Knock on her neighbors' doors and nearly everyone will offer his own protection.
Sasha Fominikh, a driver at a Moscow factory, read a newspaper article the other day that suggested hanging a pair of dirty socks around the neck. He decided against that, but when he felt a cold coming on, he tried out a second method -- rubbing the soles of the feet with the juice of a raw onion every night before going to bed.
"It makes the feet sweat a lot," Fominikh says, "which helps get rid of the fever." He also drinks a little cognac and some tea with jam to prevent a cold from developing into something worse.
At the first sign of a sore throat, housewife Lena Slivkina starts to rinse her throat with cognac at least three times a day. "I don't swallow it, by the way" she says.
"If I have a bad cough, I boil oats in milk for two hours and then drink it three times a day. Three days and no cough."
Zina Basova, a street sweeper, eats garlic all year round. "If I still get the flu," she says, "I use a lot of honey with tea."
A flu shot here costs $8 to $20 -- prices far too expensive for most people. Instead, they take an over-the-counter medicine called dibasol, which they say not only builds up immunity but lowers the blood pressure, improves the spinal cord and cures ulcers as it courses through the body.
Many schools gave the tablets to children in the fall, hoping to fight off the flu.
The newspaper Segodnya lamented the other day that the pills were only a primitive measure and that once again the authorities were leaving the Russian people unprotected in the face of danger.
"The sanitary authorities hope that most of the sick people will never visit a doctor and thus won't be registered, so officially the number of the sick will not be so large, and consequently there will be no reason to announce there is an epidemic," the paper wrote.
The flu could well affect 3 out of every 10 people, the paper said, but no one will ever know for sure.
"The population of Moscow, neglected by public health authorities, have learned how to cure themselves without doctors."
The newspaper Komsomolskaya Pravda devoted a recent consumer column to cures:
"If you have a runny nose, the method is easy but cruel: You take a piece of garlic, cut it in two and put the two pieces inside your nose for 15 or 20 minutes three times a day.
"If you are running a temperature: Put 50 grams of onion through a meat-grinder, along with one tablespoon of vinegar and 60 grams of honey. Mix it well. Take one teaspoon of the mixture every 30 minutes until you start to feel better."
The paper's advice for a cough? Cut 20 small onions and a head of garlic into small pieces and boil in milk until the garlic and onion become soft. Strain it and add 2 tablespoons of honey to the liquid. Take one tablespoon every hour.
Sick family members should be confined to one room, while the healthy ones should stay in a room with the window open so fresh air can sweep the germs away.
Cold can work wonders, but everyone here knows it has its dangers, too. Few Russians risk consuming a drink with ice -- that's a sure-fire way to a severe sore throat. (Somehow, ice cream doesn't have the same effect. People eat it on the street, all winter long.)
Marshal Georgy Zhukov, who fought in the Revolution and defeated the Germans at Stalingrad in World War II, chased off the flu by jumping on horseback and galloping for miles, wearing his felt cloak.
Since few Muscovites have horses, Komsomolskaya Pravda told its readers about an Asian philosopher who cured the flu by taking 120 steps through a running stream with a rocky bottom.
Most streams are frozen at this time of year, but the ever-resourceful consumer reporter offered an alternative:
Put a bristly massage carpet into your bathtub. Let cold water run over it. Start walking.
Pub Date: 1/29/99