Having colleagues or friends, whose first language is Russian, some might have wondered, why is it so difficult to persuade those to visit a doctor, when they are in pain or even have an ongoing health issue.
Many Russians/Russian speakers use formal medical help only in case of absolute emergency. Otherwise, we tend to use self-help, herbal remedies and even 'prescribe' antibiotics to ourselves. This attitude seems totally irrational and makes many eyebrows raise... and I decided to write this post after being totally misunderstood by my work colleagues when I preferred to treat a bad and painful flu implication myself and succeeded at doing that.
Moreover, a brief visit of such a popular Russian social network as Odnoklassniki demonstrates just how much those with Russian mentality, no matter where in the world they physically live, are fond of taking and sharing advice on healing and curing rather than trusting a professional doctor.
Because of the high demand, dried herbs are sold in large quantities in pharmacies of Russia, Ukraine and Belarus. In the case of sickness, this is what our people try first thing. Actually, this is what I used to treat that flu.
There are some sarcastic phrases going around Russian communities, such as 'Treated someone into death' and 'Doctors are the illest people in the world'.
For the last statement there is a great explanation actually in the English literature, 'Three men in a Boat' by Jerome K.Jerome, quite popular among the better read middle-aged Russians, begins with a description of what Russians call 'the less you know, the better you sleep':
'It is a most extraordinary thing, but I never read a patent medicine advertisement without being impelled to the conclusion that I am suffering from the particular disease therein dealt with in its most virulent form. The diagnosis seems in every case to correspond exactly with all the sensations that I have ever felt... I plodded conscientiously through the twenty-six letters, and the only malady I could conclude I had not got was housemaid’s knee. I felt rather hurt about this at first; it seemed somehow to be a sort of slight'.
Knowledge of the Russian language provides with even more explicit insight into such an odd attitude to the medical profession. Here are some groups of related words:
ВРАЧ /vratch/ (Rusian) - doctor
ВРАТЬ /vrat'/ (Russian) - to lie. This an is original Slavonic word that initially meant 'to talk' and ;to chant', from which comes from ВОРОЖИТЬ /vorozhit'/(Russian) - 'tell fortunes'.
ВРАЗИТИ /vrazyty/ (Ukrainian) - 'to impress', the action which is often implemented by means of words.
However, realisation that fortune tellers lie most of the times, as well as negative attitude to them within the Christian Church, prompts the connection with the word ВРАГ = ВОРОГ /vrag/ - /vorog/ (Russian) - 'enemy', which initially meant someone going against Foundations of Vedism (Source). The word ВОР /vor/ (Russian) - 'thief' also fits into this line very well.
It is quite easy to track the negative connotation with the word. Interestingly, this very word became the synonym of the word ДОКТОР (doctor) borrowed from Western languages. Doctors were invited by Russian royalties from Western Europe. They were scientists and therefore had academic degrees and taught at universities as well as ran medical practices. They travelled to Russia attracted by excessively high pay that Russian royalties used to offer.
Doctor as an academic degree implies teaching, therefore it is a profession also based on oral skills. Besides, foreigners tend to speak foreign languages and scientists tend to use plenty of big words, which common people could not understand just like they found chanting so mysterious. Misunderstanding is likely to create negative feelings and the combination of those factors has developed into the lack of trust towards doctors, whose practice is based on science.
Interestingly, the Ukrainian word ЛIКАР /likar/ translates as 'doctor'. The two meanings merged in the language that has a lot of Polish influence, where physicians used to have much better access to European universities than Russian practitioners.
As an opposite, ЛЕЧИТЬ /lechit'/ (Russian) - 'to treat, to cure' and ЛЕКАРЬ /lekar'/(Russian) - 'healer, physician' imply doing over talking.
In addition, ИСЦЕЛЯТЬ /istselat'/(Russian)- 'to heal, to cure' and ЦЕЛИТЕЛЬ /tselitel'/(Russian) - 'healer, physician' come from the word ЦЕЛЫЙ /tsely/ (Russian) - 'whole', therefore, ЦЕЛИТЕЛЬ is someone who makes one a whole piece again. It probably used to apply to war wounds in the first instance...
In the modern Russian language, words ЛЕКАРЬ and ЦЕЛИТЕЛЬ define traditional medical practices, such as herbal remedies, manual therapy and massage etc., which, deep down, are trusted by the majority of Russians far more than official science-based medicine. The author is not an exception...
Things have changed and contemporary Russian doctors are no less qualified than European ones and they ARE very helpful most of the times. The word ВРАЧ has lost the direct connection with its etymological root a long time ago. However, the collective subconscious is enormous power and language reflects as well as influences our mindset. Therefore, if you suggest to a Russian to visit a doctor for solving a health issue, they would most likely nod - and help themselves.