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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

FACES & VOICES: Patients Could Get Burned by Odd Museum




In the week when doctors from across Russia protested that they were unpaid and, in some cases, reduced to donating their own blood so that operations could go ahead, I received a cry for help from a surgeon at Moscow's Sklifosovsky Hospital. Lena works shifts of 36 hours at a time for a monthly salary equivalent to $100, but she was not complaining about that. She was concerned that the hospital's burns unit was under threat from a strange museum that cannot stop expanding.


"Patients who come to the 'Sklif' are hanging between life and death," said Lena. "They are the victims of accidents and crime, even war. We treated soldiers from Chechnya here. Surely people are more important than museum exhibits. And anyway, we are not convinced that this is a genuine museum."


Lena, who withheld her surname, said doctors could not gain access to the museum.Mercedes cars were often parked outside and prostitutes have been seen coming and going at night. She thought some "shady commercial structures" held debauched parties inside the museum, where a remont had been going on for years.


"Let's go and have a look, then," I said. We took a taxi because, after finishing another 36-hour shift only a few hours previously, Lena was too tired to walk. The driver turned out to be an off-duty ambulance man trying to make a little extra money.


We walked down corridors with new parquet floors, through freshly painted but empty rooms. In the hall to the side of the chapel stood a plastic matryoshka doll that reached from floor to ceiling and lit up when plugged in. "What's that for?" I asked a passing workman. "It's a Russian beauty," he said. "Is this going to be a museum, then, when you finish the remont?" I asked. "Probably."


Another policeman came up and said we should not be wandering about without a guide. A woman called Marina showed us the chapel. I feigned interest in the faded frescos, then asked again about the matryoshka. "We use it instead of a yolka [fir tree] when we distribute humanitarian aid," she said.


Upstairs, there was indeed a museum of sorts. In one room a plaster dummy was laid out waiting for the surgeon's knife, in another a stuffed penguin presided over a display of dusty books. A few genuinely interesting exhibits included Tsar Nicholas II's personal first-aid box. But from what I saw, there were hardly enough of these to justify the space the museum already had, let alone any additional wings.


Djangir Efendi-Zade, the Azeri deputy director of the museum, charmingly explained the situation. "It takes a long time to put a good museum together. Doctors and historians are competing for limited funds. Saving lives is vital, but history is important too. We are claiming the wings around the chapel because the ensemble should have a single owner. The old complex is no good for modern medicine, anyway. The doctors should be campaigning for a new building."


"What about the matryoshka?" "That was used for advertising at a Soviet medical exhibition in Australia. We decided to display it."


I left with the distinct feeling that something odd was going on there. Luckily for the doctors, Moscow Mayor Yury Luzhkov is on their side in the property dispute, which is probably their guarantee that the burns unit will survive.