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The geography of teeth

  • Written by  Vitali Vitaliev
  • Published in Opinions
The geography of teeth
24 Feb
With medical (and especially dental) tourism on the rise, Vitali Vitaliev looks back over a lifetime of leaving his molars across the former Soviet Union

When I still had most of my natural teeth relatively intact, I used to value them highly, for they reminded me of all those beautiful meals I had consumed throughout the years. I used to take care of my teeth in my own peculiar way – by trying to keep them as far away from dentists as possible. The reason for that was simple: I grew up in the Soviet Union, where the state of dentistry was somewhat ahead of that in ancient Egypt, but not by much. By the tender age of 17, I had accumulated so much dental suffering above and below my uncomplaining tongue that in its entirety it would have been sufficient for the whole population of a middle-size English town.

In a recent referral letter, my faithful cardiologist called me ‘a victim of Soviet dentistry’, and he was right. One feeble-spirited London dentist fainted after a quick glimpse of my mouth cavity, which used to resemble a railway junction, with gaping tunnels, cavities and iron bridges criss-crossing and merging with each other on different levels, with my unfortunate, permanently scratched tongue dashing back and forth among them like an outdated steam engine.

Indeed, the most popular, and in many cases the only, method of dental treatment in the former USSR was extraction. My brutally extracted incisors, canines, premolars and molars had been scattered all over the former Soviet Empire – from Kaliningrad in the west to Blagoveshchensk in the far east, for teeth, as we know, have a nasty way of causing us pain the moment we hit the road.

I’ve had them taken out with pliers (no anaesthetic), knocked out with a hammer and a chisel (more than once), and pulled out with bare (and not very clean) dentists’ hands.

European dentistry has come a long wayEuropean dentistry has come a long way

My most memorable dental execution took place in the Crimea, where I worked as a member of my university’s student construction team during summer in the early 1970s. We built cowsheds, weeded tobacco plants, and collected rose petals, but mostly just drank cheap local wine nicknamed mukhomor (or fly-killer). Sure enough, one fine morning my carefree existence was interrupted by excruciating toothache of the kind once aptly described by my favourite writer Valentin Kataev as:

‘a wavering, red-hot line, beginning at the spot of the exposed nerve, surrounding the jaw, rising along the temple bone and exploding somewhere in the depth of the hearing area.’

As another ‘victim of Soviet dentistry’, Kataev obviously knew what he was talking about.

Since our construction team was quartered far away from the famous Black Sea resorts of Yalta, Sudak and Alushta, the nearest dental surgery was about 50 miles away in a small ex-Tartar village of Kuibishevo. To get there, I had to take a shaky bus along some bumpy medieval roads, built by the hardworking Crimean Tartars, forcibly resettled by Stalin during World War II. The journey took forever, and by the time the antediluvian bus reached the village, my toothache could be best described by the words of my other favourite Russian writer, Anton Chekhov:

‘... as if the devil himself, with his flock of small kiddy devils, was sitting inside his tooth, tearing at it mercilessly with his claws, teeth and horns...’

The dentist was a profoundly bored buxom blonde in her early thirties. She didn’t appear very busy, and I now think I know why. I could feel she fancied me, a well-built and blue-eyed 19-year-old lad, with most of his teeth still in place. That must have affected her professional skills (if any) as well as her levels of concentration. She promptly extracted my aching tooth, having even found a bit of novocaine, a hard-to-find local anaesthetic, for the occasion.

With pain relieved and my tongue exploring a fresh gap in my teeth tentatively, I took the jaunty bus back to the camp and went to sleep. In the middle of the night, when the novocaine effect disappeared, I woke up with another bout of mind-and-body-shattering toothache, which felt like a mixture of all three kinds of Chekhov-defined dental pain: ‘rheumatic, nervous and bone-eating’.

A dentist’s office in RussiaA dentist’s office in Russia

I took the first morning bus back to Kuibishevo and confronted the dentist again. ‘Oops!’ she said after a quick peep into my mouth, which now felt like a crater of an active mini-volcano. ‘So sorry, but I must have extracted a neighbouring healthy tooth by mistake.’

She then proceeded to correct her libidinous boo-boo by taking out the right tooth (or so she – and I thought then) promptly. If I now tell you that she removed another healthy tooth, you won’t believe me. But, I swear on my life, that was the case again, and I had to take the fateful bus journey for the third time the following morning.

Third time lucky, however, and I was soon able to resume my work with three teeth fewer in my mouth – the fact that did not affect my (non-existing) cowshed-building skills but made drinking mukhomor much easier. To the sheer envy of my construction team mates, I could now do it without opening my mouth – by simply pouring the ‘wine’ through the yawning gap in my lower jaw.

As a writer very much prone to metaphors and at the peril of sounding flippant, I can’t refrain here from comparing the recent Russian annexation of the Crimea to a blatant extraction of a perfectly healthy tooth from the mouth of Ukraine. Why not? Teeth have always inspired metaphors and similes, compared by different imaginative writers to ‘headstones under a winter moon’, ’cashews’, ‘discoloured choirboys’, ‘rows of alabaster Britannicas’ and even ‘unregistered weapons’.

Budapest’s Parliament building (Image: Christine Bohling)Budapest’s Parliament building (Image: Christine Bohling)

I was relieved to discover that the famous Parliament building in Budapest, the place of my recent dental dignitas, with all its priapic neo-Gothic towers, turrets and spires, looked distinctively dental, the impression enhanced by the incisor-shaped chunks of ice floating down the Danube behind my hotel window.

I came to Budapest last January with the firm intention to leave all my remaining teeth there. There were not too many left, about 15, I guess, but on my doctor’s advice, I had to get rid of them all in order to be eligible for a major open-heart surgery, needed to save my life.

Why Budapest? Simply because for at least a hundred years Hungary has been the undisputed world leader in the area of so-called dental tourism, and its famed dentists, while being reasonably affordable, enjoyed a social status close to that of Soviet chess-players.

Budapest has now become the very last point on the map of my dental losses, which, apart from the Crimea, Kharkov and Moscow in the former USSR, includes London, Scotland, the Republic of Ireland, Australia and even Tasmania, the island that looks distinctively molar-shaped on maps.

The almost entirely painless procedure at the Smile Savers Clinic took just a couple of days and I was then able to return to the UK, with my mouth – for the first time in my life – full of sharp and blindingly white Hollywood-style teeth. This initially made my tongue rather unhappy, for it was no longer the Stalin-like totalitarian dictator of my mouth cavity, enjoying almost unlimited freedom of movement within it. Now – in full accordance with the rules of Western democracy – it had to make space for my new hard-working dental soldiers, capable of fighting such hard-to-crash objects as steaks, apples and – occasionally, particularly during the first post-dental-dignitas days – the tongue itself.

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