Enduring the Gifts of Soviet Dentistry by Marya Zilberberg

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various dental tools on a tray

It’s a fall afternoon in 1971, and all forty of us in grade 4-A of the Odessa School #37 are ordered to get our coats and line up at the classroom door. After a few minutes of desks creaking, feet shuffling, muffled voices, we stand ready, coats and hats on. We troop up Soviet Army Street in an orderly trail of pairs. The stench of macerated locust pods on the pavement is comforting in its sticky familiarity. Our teachers walk together next to us, immersed in a conversation, arms flying, occasional trills of laughter, paying little attention to us. When we arrive at our destination, I look around, mystified. Even once the door opens and I figure out what this place is, I think nothing of it—though I’ve already experienced plenty of brainwashing, my nine-year-old body hasn’t yet habituated to the abiding throbbing of the amorphous, but ineluctable, authoritarian threat. This visit will change that.

The dental office stands three blocks away from the school, at the corner of Soviet Army and Pasteur Streets. Inside a dim cavernous room seven dentists work atop a raised platform around the periphery, a chorus of drills whining. In the central portion of the floor two additional chairs face away from each other. The equipment surrounding them gives me the shivers: steel poles with metal instruments suspended from retractable ropes seem designed to tether the patient to the doctor in an unbreakable bond of pain. The few private rooms on the periphery are hermetically sealed to any stray sounds that try to cross their thresholds. I don’t dare question what goes on behind those doors.

My name isn’t called in the first group. I feel a gathering unease, which I swat away as we play games to pass the time. We quickly eliminate “Broken telephone,” since the echoing clang of instruments and buzz of drills ablates all hopes of hearing the whispered words. Instead, we settle on “Kol’tzo, kol’tzo” (“Ring, ring”). In this favorite the leader nests a ring between her palms folded together prayer-style. She moves along a line of her sitting co-players, sliding her hands between their identically folded palms. At some point, she furtively leaves the object with one player, but continues the action until she has covered her tracks enough to stand back and shout, Kol’tzo, kol’tzo, vy’idi na kril’tzo!” (“Ring, ring, come out onto the porch!”). At this point the bypassed players pin to the seat whomever they suspect of having received the vaunted gift. (It may seem odd that Soviet children should have been allowed to play this game, which not only required a bourgeois piece of jewelry, but was actually named for it. But it makes perfect sense, since it also cultivated deception and reflexive action against your peers on a mere suspicion of guilt.)

At this moment at the dental clinic, the boisterous game serves to distract us from the noise and the mounting anxiety, as the smells of chemicals and burning, and sounds of drills and stifled moans are beginning to unnerve me. When it’s my turn to get in the chair, I walk over and sit down, feeling mostly calm. Because I am still naïve to the need for constant vigilance against the Party’s stochastic assaults, I haven’t yet slid into the chronic state of what behavioral science calls “anticipatory anxiety.”


My dentist is a large woman. Standing with her back to me, she continues to scribble on her sheet of paper as though I am not there. I try in vain to catch her eye or a glimpse of the writing. When she finishes, she puts down the paper and, before turning toward me, grabs a metal pick and a small mirror with a handle. Only then does she face me, her eyes boring into my mouth, as though willing it to open. I shrink.

“Open,” she says, breaking her silence, when it becomes clear I will not obey her tacit order.

A sigh escapes. I worry she’ll misconstrue it as defiance. I comply. As she mines my teeth for evidence of their crimes, I have no choice but to examine her face: pores like craters, stale breath coming in hot gusts through her full, slightly parted lips unadorned by lipstick. With some exhalations her mouth widens, and I glimpse large teeth with equally large gaps between them.

After what seems like fifteen minutes, but is probably only two, she pulls away and puts the instruments back on the table behind her. Well, I muse to myself, that wasn’t so bad. When she turns back to face me, she reaches for the drill. With the now familiar “Open,” she pulls and presses the pedal with her right foot. The bit comes alive with a whirr.

Asking questions connotes disrespect. So, doing as I’m told, I open my mouth. The drill approaches with its supersonic buzz, and poises, like a cartoon bumblebee readying to attack; turbulence from its frantic whirling chafes my cheek. When it touches down on a lower left molar, something electric shoots through me. This new sensation is shocking, even in comparison to the crack of my father’s leather belt on my skin—his punishment for telling a lie. But what did I do to warrant this? Despite my inclination to obey, I twist and writhe in the chair until the dentist tears her hands away with an angry groan.

“What a terrible girl! If you don’t sit still, we’ll both get hurt. I am calling someone to hold you down. Better yet, we can pull that tooth!” She sounds gleeful.

At the time I had no way of recognizing that, harried and rushed, she was here for her day job under the constant watch of some Party drone who would eagerly report her for ineffectiveness, bringing upon her some ridiculous humiliation in front of her colleagues. If he was having a bad day, he might even get her fired. And then what would she do? Unemployed “parasites” were shipped off to prison or a work camp, and maybe even never heard from again. As if this weren’t enough, at home she probably had a husband and a child to feed and clothe and keep clean, her other full-time job. It was also equally likely there was a mother-in-law who reminded her that any deed done to please herself was selfish, a slap in her family’s face, so she could no longer recall doing anything just for the fun of it.

Like a coveted but tooth-destroying chocolate fountain at a wedding, the nation’s entire project of cheerful collectivism was built on a cascading flow of power abuses and gaslighting that rushed from the Politburo down to the hordes of petty bureaucrats, to workplace hierarchies, to families, where, having strengthened into a collapsing tsunami, it drowned those pinned to its lowest tiers. And those not quite crushed, those trying to mount dissent, were stifled by the giant hand of the Party. So even to imagine toppling this structure required at least a faint memory of hope. Few tried, and, for a long time, no one succeeded.


At nine years old, sitting in that chair, I don’t appreciate those hidden forces. All I see is a giantess with deadly instruments in her hands drifting uncomfortably close to my mouth again, a mouth now clamped shut of its own accord. She struggles to pry it open with her stubby fingers, tugging my chin downward, but getting nowhere. I am still holding fast to my agency, even though I realize that insisting on respect for my personhood is interpreted as petulance.

The dentist is screaming at me now, her uvula undulating in the cavity of her throat in rhythm with the sounds. Then suddenly, sweat glistening on her face and strands of hair falling free of her cap, she steps back, drops the drill and, wordlessly marches away. I should have taken this opportunity to run, but I was too stunned and already indoctrinated into docility by the regime that doesn’t take kindly to even insignificant rebellion. Instead, I stay in the chair, hands damp, heart rapid firing like a Katyusha, and continue to watch the dentist. She walks over to a burly man a couple of stations away. They are whispering, heads almost touching. I clench my teeth, my entire body rigid, frozen but ready for flight.

Slowly, with heavy steps, she and the man make their way back to my chair. I am sweating, but not about to open my mouth. The man makes eye contact, then says, “Open.” I don’t budge. He shows me his empty hands as a sign he is harmless. “Open,” he repeats. I open. He bends over and peers in as if into a dark tunnel. He smells of cigarettes, sweat and vodka. After a few moments of looking, he pulls away, turns to the woman and nods.

“Come,” he walks away without looking back, as if my following him is a given. He is right; it is. I get up, throw a final look toward my disheveled dentist, and scurry after the man. He stops two-thirds of the way around the platform and opens one of the doors.

Equipment litters a corner of the room to the right of a large opaque window on the far wall. It reminds me of the piles of scrap metal we collect during Subbotniks, our Saturdays of compulsory service. On these mornings, instead of sitting at our desks and cracking the mysteries of Pythagorean theorem or spitting out world capital names, we split into groups and roam the neighboring courtyards, picking up an old radiator here, a rusted pipe there. We drag our loot back to the school, announcing our approach with church-like clanging, leaving behind long wavy scratch marks on the asphalt. We pile the waste in the schoolyard, where on a normal day during our lunch break we run around and leap across grids we’ve chalked on the pavement. The piles appear so rapidly, it seems like the earth has cleaved and vomited these heaps of scrap. They were always gone by the time we returned the following Monday, only a few scattered marks as proof of their existence. No one ever told us—and I never thought to ask—but they probably went to some massive mother-of-all scrap heaps the size of a skyscraper, where useless they may still be rotting today, a fitting monument to the Communist experiment. At least these Subbotniks molded me into someone who recycles with enthusiasm.


On closer inspection, the pile in this room consists of dented chairs, bent poles, buckets filled with rusted spitting basins and contorted bodies of drills, and other wares that must have outlived their usefulness. In the middle of the floor, as though presiding over the mess, sits a chair, much like the one I just abandoned. The man motions for me to take a seat. I comply, my eyes trained on him.

I hold my breath. Paying no attention to me, my new dentist gets to work on lining up his instruments on a tray. I look around for a drill, and, not seeing one, exhale. He picks up a handful of cotton balls and drops them into a jar of pungent fluid. Then out come the tools—wrenches, saws, pliers.

My throat is dry, my palms cold and clammy. The man turns toward me holding two soaked cotton balls in his hand. Their smell makes me gag.


I open my mouth wide, panting, ready to face the inevitable, just so long as there is no more drilling. His bratwurst fingers cram the bitter cotton between my cheek and jaw. He reaches away for the pliers.

When he turns back, he towers over me, his torso eclipsing everything else in the room. He is a mountain, and the only way to the other side is through. I close my eyes and hold my breath again as the cold metal slips past my lips. After a moment of pressure, I feel a brisk yank, followed by a sharp stab and a gush of warmth. There is a gasp and what sounds like my own surprised sob.

I open my eyes. He stands in front of me with an ogre’s grin, as he triumphantly examines the tooth clenched in the pliers, then drops the pliers and the tooth into a metal bowl. He stuffs a few dry cotton balls into the bleeding pocket in my jaw.

“Close.” He starts to walk away. Turning his head back slightly, he adds, “You can go.”

With that, he walks out of the room and slams the door behind him. The clanking of metal lingers suspended, like phantom ringing in my ears.

I float out of the chair toward the door, pull it open and plunge into a cloud of clattering and whirring of the main hall. I bite down on the cotton; it tastes of metal. My gum throbs, but my body is suffused with the warmth of relief.

I don’t remember our walk back to school or getting home later that afternoon. I am sure I recounted the details of this adventure to my grandmother, though I don’t remember doing that either. I only remember waking up the next morning with a kernel of dread already germinating in my gut about the next time we would be taken to the dentist. It wasn’t until the following spring that I would understand the semi-annual rhythm of these mandatory surprise visits, each of which involved the same clenching, the same medieval drilling, and the same despair. I knew as well as I knew the thump of a ruler on my knuckles that this gift was far too precious for the system not to foist upon us again and again. And so, every first day of school came with a vibrating dread of the next time. That is, until I finished seventh grade and we left for the US, where similar tortures, though prescheduled and muffled by the miracle of anesthesia, would be available to me twice a year just for the asking (plus a modest fee), preceded by only a couple of weeks of anticipatory anxiety.



My current dentist provides ample lidocaine and noise-canceling headphones, which communicate soothing messages of my choice directly into my brain. We have a system of hand signals that tells her to stop at the faintest hint of my discomfort. At times I make her go beyond the normal level of anesthesia, asking for additional shots, until my cheek feels like cotton and my tongue remains solid for hours after my appointment. I prefer it this way because even though my brain has re-trained itself over the last forty years to recognize that it’s living in the land of free will, the flesh has its own timeline, its own pachyderm memory, which continues to shove me reflexively into its earliest and deepest ruts. Despite all the signs that I am in benevolent hands—my dentist’s private rooms, smiles of compassion, lavender-infused eye pillows—when I climb into her chair, I again freeze, taste the acerbic cotton and blood, hear the quiet moaning in the distance, and feel the thrumming of terror in my gut.



Marya ZilberbergMarya Zilberberg came to the U.S. as a teen from what was then the Soviet Union. She is a physician-health services researcher who lives and works in western Massachusetts. Her work has appeared in Tablet Magazine, Longreads, and The Massachusetts Review, among others.




STORY IMAGE CREDIT: Flickr Creative Commons/Steven Downes

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