A physician recounts three years of service in a small Soviet village and the horrors of the communist medical system.
In exchange for tuition-free medical school, Tsesis (Why We Remain Jews, 2013) was obligated to perform three years of service as a doctor in an “underserved area”—in his case, Gradieshti, a farming village of 5,000 inhabitants in rural Moldova. The author was almost forcibly pushed into military service—he was threatened with academic failure—but saved from that fate because he was a pediatrician, a specialty dangerously underrepresented in the Soviet Union, which was plagued by terrifyingly high infant mortality rates. When he arrived in Gradieshti, he encountered remarkably primitive conditions—few homes enjoyed the unreliably delivered electricity or had indoor plumbing; poverty was crushing; alcoholism was “rampant”; and the sanitary conditions were appalling. In short, it was a woeful microcosm of the Soviet Union at large, vividly captured by the author. And the health system itself was nothing like the “grandiose global show” theatrically staged by the government—in fact, there were chronic shortages of basic medicines, including penicillin; undertrained doctors deprived of the best equipment; and ubiquitous corruption, all masked by mendaciously contrived data. In his memoir, Tsesis also chillingly describes his unfortunate encounters with an all-too-common anti-Semitism—in one recollection, he’s nearly ousted from a neighborhood tavern for being a “dirty kike.” And just as Soviet authorities disseminate false information to the outside world, they shield their own from exposure to more successful alternatives. Tsesis was denied permission to use his vacation time to take a cruise to the Mediterranean, the desire to travel considered inherently suspicious. The author’s remembrance is an edifying look at the wages of authoritarian rule, which resulted in the routine deaths of young children from easily treatable conditions like dehydration. His account is unflinching and often moving: The story a tearful wife shared with Tsesis captures the heart of this book. Her husband had to beg an official to give their sick child the proper medicine. She lamented: “I am a law-abiding citizen, but I ask you, is it fair to go through all this humiliation?”
A historically eye-opening memoir told with insight and wit.