sitting on the edge of the sandbox, biting my tongue

December 29, 2011

My Adventures in Soviet Dentistry

Filed under: politics, society, Soviet Union, whatever — Tags: , — edge of the sandbox @ 4:01 pm

Infidel de Manhattan’s comment a few posts ago reminded me of an essay I wrote a decade ago (am I that old?) for my satirical zine (old school, xerox copied).  So here it is, My Adventures in Soviet Dentistry:

Gone are the days when Americans were tough cowboys. You guys are nothing but a bunch of wimps! Something as mundane as a dental visit instills dread in your hearts. I understand, American dental chairs are a bit intimidating; they look too much like operating tables. Other than that, American dentistry is a piece of cake.
Back in the Soviet Union, a comrade had no reason to look forward to a dentist appointment. That’s why as a little girl I resented regular check-ups. By the way, since the Soviet dentists did not insist on personally cleaning and polishing Soviet teeth every half a year, a regular check-up was the visit that a comrade made when she felt that her teeth were beginning to rot. Once it happened, a Soviet dentist drilled the cavity and then filled it with something. Hopefully that something stayed in.
However, Politburo forbid, if the comrade left her teeth unattended, a root canal was indicated. Then the comrade had to make an emergency visit to a nearby dental clinic. While sitting for several hours in the reception area in an overcrowded dental facility and enduring the pain, the comrade was exposed to the shrieks of patients, young and old, male and female, who frequently emerged out of the office pale as plaster and with tears running down their cheeks. Finally, the comrade made it to an unimpressive Soviet dental chair.
Egalitarian Soviet dentists didn’t need any dental assistants or any x-ray shots these assistants could provide. Egalitarian Soviet dentists insisted that a simple mirror is enough to understand the problem. After inspecting the comrade’s teeth for a minute or two, they pronounced that they will drill. Not that this pronouncement wasn’t anticipated. I am convinced that no Soviet patients would ever voluntarily submit herself to drilling if not for the intolerable pain already present in the jaw.
You see, Soviet dentists had no use for painkillers of any kind. They just drilled and drilled and drilled. And patients just sat there in poorly equipped dental chairs and felt pain escalating to 11 on the scale of 10. That’s what comrade gets for not having regular check-ups. To redeem oneself and be rewarded with healthy teeth, the comrade had no choice but to live through this excruciating pain. Thankfully, where there is pain, there is hope; and if there is no hope, why even live?  As a little girl I was informed that if a root canal isn’t done on time, a comrade might die of an infection.  So yeah, it’s a life and death drama, love is also there, I get to it later.
Once the drilling was complete, the pain receded to a normal level and the dentist applied some arsenic to the nerve in the ill-fated tooth and patient left for the day. On account of the presence of poison in one’s mouth, eating was strictly forbidden for several hours. But few comrades wanted to eat in the first place. You see, the 2.5-3 hours following the insertion of arsenic, the comrade ran around in agony. The pain escalated and reached its high point about an hour after the appointment. Eventually though, the Soviet root canal nerve lost the battle to the Soviet arsenic, and perished. The next day, the happy comrade returned to the clinic where the arsenic and the nerve were removed and a filling was inserted. Depending on arrangements, the comrade may have presented the dentist with money and/or gifts upon the completion of the procedure. So don’t ever say that since Soviet dentistry was free, you got what you paid for.
…I remember once I had to get a baby tooth removed during a summer vacation in the countryside. I knew for months that I had a root canal, but being 6 and already familiar with the procedures, I simply refused to go to a clinic until it was too late.  Thankfully, there was no root canal and arsenic this time, only some country doctor pulling the tooth out. I think I screamed so hard that I passed out for a second. My mom says that it’s all nonsense and I couldn’t possibly pass out because I never stopped screaming. Thanks mom!
Former Soviet citizens living in the US are inspired by Western dentistry. I knew a girl who loved the dental appointments so much, she craved everything associated with them. She even contemplated getting these exotic devices called braces although she didn’t really need them. In part this desire originated because being an FOB in an American high school she didn’t quite get it yet. She saw all kinds of kids wearing braces, so she decided that it’s a cool thing to have.

P.S. My uncle met his future wife, a dentist, when he had to have a root canal done. Is that kinky or what?



  1. I cringed through this entire article. I had a root canal done on Wednesday (my 3rd). It is quite painless. The only thing is you hear everything and smell everything. You know you should be in pain but aren’t.

    All i can say is Novocaine is the greatest invention in the world.

    Of course it’s always fun when the dentist says “rinse” but since one side of your face is paralyzed and numbed up all you can do is watch as the water dribbles down your cheek.

    Comment by Infidel de Manahatta — December 30, 2011 @ 4:46 am

  2. I admit to dental wimphood after reading this. I need gas to make simple things happen. The surgical extraction of all 4 wisdom teeth in my early 20s was so bad that I stated at my parents’ home for a week. When I returned to my house, there was a trail of blood on the floor. I didn’t remember even coming into the house afterward.

    That said, I have very keen memories of visiting my grandparents the first time in “the old country” with glorious free medicine. My nanna got sick–gall stones. I vividly remember the size of the needle used to administer painkillers. It was the size a vet would use on a horse. I kid not.

    Comment by pjMom — January 1, 2012 @ 7:23 pm

    • That doesn’t sound very good. I had pretty easy time with the wisdom teeth, except that I fell asleep on my side and and my cheek swell. I looked like a hamster. It was done in the States. I don’t think the Soviet dentists knew that wisdom teeth may cause problems.
      Another procedure that was done unanesthetized was tonsillectomy. I don’t know if it’s because the government couldn’t figure out how to distribute anesthetics or simply didn’t care about children.

      Comment by edge of the sandbox — January 1, 2012 @ 11:27 pm

  3. Tonsillectomy sans anesthesia? There are no words.

    Comment by pjMom — January 2, 2012 @ 10:16 am

  4. They pulled your tooth clean out without numbing you first? Um, wow. My stepdadinlaw had to get work done whilst deep in the Vietnamese jungle when his unit was out of novacaine. When it hurts bad enough in the first place, you’ll subject yourself to anything I guess.

    This was fascinating, thanks for it. Arsenic. Wow.


    Comment by nooneofanyimport — January 2, 2012 @ 1:00 pm

    • I only agreed to it because I had no choice. I knew that I had to get my root canal done, but that would be without painkillers, so I refused. My mom even invited several aunts to talk me into going to the dentist, but it didn’t work. A few months later it got to the point where they had to remove it.

      Comment by edge of the sandbox — January 4, 2012 @ 3:11 pm

  5. […] but I remember my baby teeth drilled and pulled without anesthesia, sadistic teachers, slave labor, flashers lurking in archways, almost good children’s movies […]

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  6. […] but I remember my baby teeth drilled and pulled without anesthesia, sadistic teachers, slave labor, flashers lurking in archways, almost good children’s movies and […]

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