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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Healing Hands, Full-Body Relief

Even in Russia, the law's long arm sometimes has magic fingers and healing hands at the end.

"It is the law: In every polyclinic, in every hospital, there must be a masseuse," said Dr. Andrei Berukov, director of the Massage Department at the Russian Academy of Physical Education. "All national sports teams and club teams have masseuses."

Unlike many Western countries -- which traditionally view massage as relaxation for the wealthy -- Russia has long treated massage as medical treatment for the masses.

For an aching back -- a massage. For helping heal a fracture -- a massage. When something hurt, all it took was a trip to the local polyclinic where the doctors prescribed a free, 10-minute visit with the massazhist.

Not only clinics relied on the power of the healing hand: From banks to police stations to banyas, many large organizations employed a masseuse or masseur to keep their workers feeling fit, Berukov said.

However, the overwhelming changes in Russia have added a new freedom -- and nascent complications -- to the formerly regulated world of massage. On telephone poles, storefronts and apartment building entryways, masses of masseuses now advertise everything from massage at home to "thinning massages" for redistributing fat cells to "erotic massages" that aren't really massages at all.

Even so, Moscow still boasts a host of well-trained, certified masseuses. Practically any health clinic, sports center, pool or banya has a professional on hand that offers the therapeutic wonders of Russian massage.

Just what is a Russian massage? It's a question Berukov has spent decades answering in myriad articles, books, lectures delivered in countries around the world and in classes at the Russian Academy, the nation's leading institute of higher education for both athletic coaches and masseuses. Russian massage grew out of Soviet financial support for and fascination with sports and sports medicine, Berukov said. During the Soviet period, massage research and academic training were well funded.

Because of its emphasis on sports injuries and therapy, Russian massage often concentrates on individual body parts -- not a common strategy in other traditions, Berukov said. At banyas, for example, you can have just a leg or an arm massaged for a range of prices.

A trained Russian masseuse also focuses on individual muscles -- not pressure points as with Asian massage -- and works in five distinct stages: warm-up, cool-down and three stages of varying intensity, he said. Training is highly structured, with students tested on how many minutes they should take per muscle.

For full-body, relaxation massages, where the massage begins and ends is crucial; Russian masseuses always start on the back to maximize circulation benefits. Swedish massage, for example, starts with the hands, he said.

But for the layman, all the technique boils down to one thing: Does it feel good?

"If it feels good, it's good," said Tolya Kalinin, a masseur of 25 years who works at the Astrakhanskaya banya.

That was also the assessment of Vicky Rinaldi, a U.S.-licensed physical therapist working in Moscow. Rinaldi recommended that people have a massage if "they find it relaxing and comforting ... The passive type of massage primarily improves the circulation, and this benefit stops approximately 10 minutes after the massage has finished."

Rinaldi, who admires Russian massage, said these benefits are not necessarily trivial in helping some conditions, but hiring a masseuse for the long work required would cost an arm and a leg in the West. In Soviet times, the circulation benefits of long, intensive massage treatment were not outweighed by the cost of labor, she said.

As far as big promises and new techniques go, Berukov said these should be treated with a healthy dose of skepticism. For weight loss, massage can help, but only combined with a regime of diet, visits to the banya and exercise.

For locating a masseur, many Muscovites rely on word of mouth, especially since the Moscow city government doesn't require a license to practice. To find a good professional, Berukov said, "Ask a friend."

For those whose friends and colleagues are just not into the body-rubbing business, Berukov recommends asking for a masseur's qualifications, work experience and area of specialization. And Berukov stressed that those trained for fewer than 100 hours are amateurs.

Probably the most predictable place to find a legitimate masseuse without an appointment is through one of the city's banyas, where masseuses can be found every day the banya is open. Admission tickets to the banya itself don't have to be purchased if a massage is all you want. There can be a wait, however, if a masseuse already has banya clients in line, so be prepared to head for the steam room and wait for an opening or to run some errands while you're waiting your turn.

At the Astrakhanskaya banya, which prides itself on being the city's least expensive, Kalinin's massage prices are listed by the body part.

Backs and necks (these come together) are the most expensive, costing 35,000 rubles ($6.30 for 20 minutes); 25,000 rubles for both sides of the legs (10 minutes); and 20,000 for the arms (10 minutes). A full-body rub costs 70,000 (40 minutes).

"People always associate cheap massages with bad ones," grumbled Kalinin, whose clients include biathletes and senior citizens. But don't be fooled by low prices: This may be the best buy in the city's massages.

Kalinin's peaceful massage room -- for both men and women -- is a quiet, subtly lighted oasis stacked with CDs of American oldies and a collection of bottles brimming with fragrant body lotions and oils. As Nat King Cole or Frank Sinatra croon popular melodies of yesteryear, this massage experience blissfully spirits the client away from the noise and fray of nearby Prospekt Mira.

At the prestigious, upscale, downtown Sandunovskiye banyas, massage prices are a bit steeper --150,000 rubles for 40 minutes, or 80,000 rubles for the back. And the atmosphere -- the office's sterile white walls, the lack of soothing music by famous crooners -- remind the visitor more of a polyclinic.

But the Sandunovskiye offer separate accommodations for men and women, with both male and female massage therapists available.

While in many Western countries, a luxury hotel is often the right place to enjoy an occasional massage, none of the major Western hotels polled in Moscow -- including the Palace, the Olympic Penta, the Radisson-Slavjanskaya and the Metropol -- accepts walk-in clients as part of their massage services.

"A lot of people are leery of going to places [for a massage]; that's very normal," said Robert Krygsman, executive assistant manager of the Palace Hotel. Krygsman cited "exclusivity" as the reason his hotel has not opened its massage services to the public.

However, at the Moscow Beach Club, a fitness center located near Pushkin Square, non-members can buy a coupon ($120) good for four, one-hour massage sessions that can be scheduled by appointment.

For intensive training in Russian massage techniques, the Russian Academy of Physical Education offers a 140-hour massage certifying course that includes anatomy, physiology and various kinds of classical massage techniques.

Astrakhanskaya Banya, Astrakhansky Pereulok 5. Massage available daily except Mondays, 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. Tel. 280-4329.

Sandunovskiye Bani, Neglinnaya Ulitsa 14. Massage offered daily 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. except Tuesdays. Tel. 925-4631.

Moscow Beach Club, Malaya Dmitrovka 6. Tel. 299-7353.

Russian Academy of Physical Education. Tel. 166-5865.