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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

LOVE AND DEATH: Russian Dentistry Hits U.S.

Russophiles may object, but it seems safe to say that as delightful as Russia is in many ways, its command of the dental arts is not one of them. We've all heard those Novocain-free extraction stories, and this is why I save all tooth-related issues for my occasional trips to the United States. There, I know I will be scraped and flossed in a manner befitting one of the most pain-averse nations on the planet.

Americans can of course seem overly zealous about their teeth, just as they are sometimes inordinately concerned with tracking down the best fat-free muffins or deciding which brand of khaki pants to wear.

But on the dentistry front I declare myself a patriot, because I like the fact that all of my teeth are still hanging in there and that only minimal physical discomfort - paired, admittedly, with gargantuan financial sacrifice - is typically suffered in keeping them that way.

Lately, however, fate has been such that I have begun to visit Marina, a Russian dentist, during my trips to the States. She's worth the trip, but the results are a mixed bag. After over 20 years in the United States, she works with lightning speed and an artistic sensibility (i.e., generous with the bleach). But every once in a while the Leningrad student in her comes out, and God help the hapless patient who finds himself prone at just such a moment. Marina's chairside manner is not for the faint of heart.

During one recent appointment, for example, after tapping relentlessly at what felt like an open nerve with one of her tiny sickles of dental torture, Marina finally took time to notice the quivering mass of human agony beneath the paper bib. Her advice before heading back in with a drill: "Pretend you're a strong Russian peasant woman and you've walked 50 kilometers just to make this appointment." Guilt as analgesic! A brilliant maneuver.

Soon after she added a droll anecdote about a St. Petersburg friend who had recently had her lip split open by a Russian dentist who was doing some major bridge work. The cut required stitches, and the woman's husband called the dentist to see if he could renegotiate the price. "My krysha doesn't like customer complaints," the dentist allegedly said. "My krysha says you should be glad we just cut your wife's lip. Next time we'll be sure to slit her throat!" Again the message seemed to be: Don't complain. And pay your bill on time.

All this was a far cry from the dentists of my past, who had clearly spent years of training learning how to lull patients into near-meditative states using earphones, classical music, wholesome hygienists, restful wall art and gradual doses of Novocain. The American media have tried their best to cast aspersions on the dental profession of late, - dentists are apparently prime candidates for drug addiction - but it still remains for the large part a squeaky-clean group. Presumably there are very few that would threaten to slit your throat, particularly after splitting open your lip.

A young American recently told me it was his dream to go to Russia because he felt he needed, as he put it, "more difficulty and discomfort in his life." This may seem strange, but it is precisely this talent for suffering and torment that has allowed Eastern Europeans to monopolize personal-care businesses in the U.S. There is seemingly no limit to how much money Americans will spend in order to subject themselves to humiliation and physical pain at the hands of Russian dentists, Polish bikini-line waxers and Hungarian pedicurists. Let's face it - if an American dermatologist told us our skin could stand a little improvement, we'd feel utterly insulted.

But a Russian woman can go into full-blown Eduard Munch routine - "God help us! This is no joke! Somebody get the magnifying glass!" - and leave her clients positively exhilarated. Americans are simply enraptured by Russian mettle.

Hence the success of Marina the dentist, who occupies a cushy Rockefeller Center office in New York City, but whose primary decorative item is an enormous cactus, not the printed-out inspirational messages that seem to be the cornerstone of most dental designing impulses ("The past is history; the future is a mystery. But today is a gift - that's why it's called 'the present.'"). Her delivery is classic Russian - part bad news, part leave-it-to-chance. "This tooth, it could fall out, I don't know," she says. "It looks bad. You need root canal. Probably better to do everything now, but let's wait until later. Let's see what happens. Why not? It starts to hurt, you let me know. It starts to hurt and you're in Russia - well, that's very bad news."