A Siberian Method for Beating Alcoholism

Alexei says he was an irredeemable alcoholic until he met Marina. He gave up drinking after the Novosibirsk psychiatrist beat him on the buttocks with a flexible rod.

Alexei is among a handful of alcoholics and drug addicts who have received the unorthodox treatment, which literally attempts to beat their addictions out of them. The therapy was devised by Marina Chukhrova, a psychiatrist with 20 years' experience treating drug addicts and alcoholics, and Sergei Speransky, a senior researcher at a Novosibirsk medical institute.

Patients are required to undergo at least one session of 300 blows to the buttocks per week during the first three weeks of treatment. After that, they receive beatings at their own request but no less than once per month.

Chukhrova explained the treatment as such: Alcoholics and drug addicts, especially those addicted to opiate-based substances such as heroin, suffer from a lack of endorphins, otherwise known as happiness hormones. As a result, the sensitivity of the top layer of skin is reduced, making addicts "uncomfortable in their own skins." The beatings -- which Chukhrova sometimes administers but are usually carried out by male staff -- make patients "feel their own bodies" again and reduce cravings for drugs and alcohol.

Since she and Speransky began their studies in 2003, Chukhrova has admitted 10 patients for treatment. Four patients disappeared after a few beatings, but that was due to a relapse into their addictions rather than a desire to be spared the rod, Chukhrova said. The other six patients are in remission, she said.

She insisted that the beatings are not sadomasochistic. "It's not that kind of rod. You can't hit too hard," she said.

Patients bruise but do not bleed, she said. "It is cheap and effective. It is serious, and the most important thing is that it helps. They are cured."

Chukhrova and Speransky acknowledged that their scientific peers were skeptical of their work and therefore they preferred to keep a low profile.

"I don't want to publicize it," said Chukhrova, who works at Novosibirk's Institute of Hygiene.

Speransky, who asked that his institute not be identified, said he developed the treatment after testing it on himself. He said getting a beating every Sunday helped him recover from depression and two heart attacks. Speransky's previous experiments have included testing whether Orthodox icons have a healing effect on mice.

A national search for cures for drug addiction and alcoholism has created a market for treatments that range from detoxification clinics -- like those used in the West -- to hypnotism, black magic and home remedies. The use of violence is not unheard of. In Yekaterinburg, a local nongovernmental organization -- reportedly supported by the Uralmash organized crime group -- has handcuffed drug addicts to beds to wean them off drugs. In Dagestan's mountainous districts of Karamakhi and Chabanmakhi, Islamic fundamentalists in the 1990s treated drug addicts by beating them with sticks and forcing them to carry out hard labor.

When asked for his assessment of the unusual new method for curing drug addiction, the Health Ministry's chief substance abuse doctor, Nikolai Ivanets, blurted out, "Not the one with boiling water!"

Told that the treatment involved beating patients' buttocks, he started laughing.

"It would be better if they beat berries. That's my commentary," he said, making a play on the Russian words yagoda, or berry, and yagoditsy, or buttocks.

Skeptics aside, the important thing for Alexei, the patient in Novosibirsk, is that he is no longer drinking after a year in treatment. "You feel like an idiot during it. Imagine being beaten on the ass," he said. "You cry, scream, curse."

Alexei, who asked that his last name and profession not be published, said he had tried various other treatments, from hypnosis to injections to the head, but he had always returned to drink. And he said he had loved to drink. "I had done everything from spirit to eau de cologne," he said.

Alexei said that he initially dismissed the beatings as nonsense but was impressed by Chukhrova's conviction, and that he checked himself in for treatment at the start of what otherwise would have been a long drinking bout.

He said he woke up the day after the first beating with no wish for a pokhmelitsya, a drink of alcohol to cure a hangover.

He said he had lost all desire to drink but did not publicize the kind of treatment he had undergone. The result was the important thing, he said, not how he had gotten there. Or as his common-law wife told him before he underwent the treatment: "Do whatever you want, so long as we can live a normal life and you don't fall back on drink."

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