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Street Life: Moscow: Nation that will swallow anything

FOR A brief moment, it was possible to imagine the worst. A large map of the country filled the television screen as a Russian newsreader read out statistics in the kind of sombre voice well suited to disasters. He was listing victim numbers city by city as you would in a war or in the aftermath of a nuclear accident. It sounded pretty awful: 100 here, 200 there.

Clearly, the nation that chased off Napoleon and Hitler - and which has yet completely to shake off a residual fear of invasion - was suffering some kind of new onslaught. Scarier still, the map showed that the threat was moving relentlessly westwards towards Moscow.

Influenza has arrived in Russia, and its steady advance across Siberia and the Ural mountains is being charted with the solemnity that you would expect to be reserved for events of greater magnitude. Newspapers publish articles describing cures; humourless television bulletins include the details amid such weighty matters as the Kosovo crisis and Bill Clinton's impeachment.

But what is surprising is not that Russians regard flu as a serious health problem. After all, the Soviet health service has been falling apart for years and is now in a terrible state, and flu can prove deadly to the weak or elderly. And imported medicines are increasingly expensive in Russia. A packet of Coldex costs more than many earn in a day, while a flu shot costs about pounds 12 - two-thirds of the monthly wage for the 40 million people blow the poverty line.

No, what is much more mystifying is the extent to which Russians fret about flu, while appearing indifferent to most other afflictions that annually wipe hundreds of thousands off the population, now down to just over 146 million. Russians smoke in astronomical numbers, despite worsening cancer.

They drink vodka with abandon, although alcohol has played a leading part in lowering average male mortality to about 59. Taxi drivers take it as an insult to their driving skills if you so much as hint at clipping up your seatbelt, even though some 27,000 people died on the roads last year. All these issues are seen as inescapable aspects of the Russian condition, matters for which fate and not humankind is largely to blame.

Not so flu. Flu is regarded as an enemy against which almost everyone is prepared to do battle, armed with an assortment's of quacks' remedies. The slightest suggestion of a sniffle will have Russians rubbing vodka into their chests, or racing to the steam baths, or slapping on mustard wraps, while fresh treatments are embraced with the enthusiasm of a new bestseller.

A few days ago, I was chatting with Sasha Fominykh, a 40-year-old driver at a Moscow factory who is the neighbour of a friend of mine. We were talking about his recent Christmas holiday which - being unable to afford to go anywhere interesting - he spent in his tiny two-roomed apartment. Highlight of the week? His battle with the bug.

Mr Fominykh said he owed his return to health to a new cure, gleaned from an article in the popular Moskovski Komsomolets newspaper. The paper had two suggestions. The first was to hang a pair of dirty socks around your neck, but he decided that he would rather remain ill than try this. The second involved rubbing the soles of his feet with the juice of a raw onion before going to bed. "It makes the feet sweat a lot, which helps get rid of the fever," he said. The next day he was better.

Another newspaper, Komsomolskaya Pravda, offered a different remedy. "If you have a runny nose, the method is easy but cruel," it said, in a recent article, "You take a piece of garlic, cut it in two and put the two pieces inside your nose for 15 or 20 minutes three times a day.

"If you are running a temperature, put 50g of onion through a meat grinder, with one tablespoon of vinegar and 60g of honey. Mix it well. Take one teaspoon of the mixture every 30 minutes until you start to feel better." Coughers were advised to cut 20 small onions and a head of garlic into small pieces, boil together them in milk, and eat them once an hour with added honey.

You are, I suspect, raising a scornful eyebrow, But you mock at your peril. When I asked Olga, a Russian colleague, for some other examples of anti-flu remedies, she provided an account of how Marshal Georgy Zhukov, hero of Stalingrad in the Second World War, threw off a nasty bout by galloping across the Russian landscape for several miles wearing a burka - a felt coat. My sniggers drew a frosty look.