Out of Russia: Communist secret of youth stays unsold on capitalist market

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MOSCOW - At a time when spies can sell the CIA's secrets for dollars 1.5m ( pounds 1m), I stumbled on a bargain this week. The biggest secret of all was on sale for a pittance - in roubles, too - only a stone's throw from the Independent's Moscow office.

The item in question is a small metal capsule about the size of a quail's egg. It comes in a bag with a printed label: 'Autonomous Electro-stimulator, Type 01'. This, if you believe the sales pitch, is the elixir of youth, the finest - and once carefully guarded - medical flower of the Soviet military-industrial complex. It is made by an outfit called EkoMed NPO and used to be dispensed, under tight supervision, by the Fourth Main Department of the USSR Ministry of Public Health, the same people who ran the Politburo's Crimean sanitoriums and Kremlin clinic.

A poorly printed instruction sheet has the scruffy feel of an underground samizdat. But the names on it are all very official. It lists the bureaucrats who have given the device their seal of approval: the Department for the Introduction of New Medicine and Medical Equipment, the Commission on Medical Equipment, the State Committee of Public Health.

Old party bosses loved it. Moscow News claims they took the secret pill 2 million times. Satisfied customers are said to have included Leonid Brezhnev - although a dead man best remembered for a sickly shuffle and slurred speech is perhaps not the best advertisement for a product promising eternal youth. This may explain why Pharmimex, a big medical supplier originally keen to market the capsule, seems to have lost interest. 'We advertised on TV and in newspapers but there was not much demand,' admits Antonia Mirkina. 'We doubt it will sell.'

The price varies. When the 'top secret' label was first removed in 1991 each capsule cost only 50 roubles. The price has gone up a thousand times. But this is still no more than a month's course of Herbalife, American-made 'thermojetics' diet pills now helping to bankrupt many a Russian household.

What the 'Electro-Stimulator' pill does exactly is something of a mystery. It seems to work something like this: you swallow it; it drops into your stomach and, powered by a miniature battery, emits finely calibrated impulses; you feel better and look younger. Some 24 hours later, you go to the toilet. Treatment over. Repeat as required.

Does it work? The cheery freelance salesman I met, Nikolai Chebotarev, certainly looks younger than his 48 years. A better advertisement than Brezhnev. But he is too honest for Russian biznes: 'I never tried it myself. I hate all pills and capsules. I refuse to take them even if I get sick.' He says he knows someone who did swallow the miracle cure. 'It certainly cleaned him out. It is better to stay at home during treatment.' Business has been slow. Mr Chebotarev has sold not one. He is moving into lumber instead.

And so, it would seems, has the free market once again frustrated the fruits of Soviet science. Add the 'Autonomous Electro-stimulator' to the titanium ice-pick, jet-engined washing-machine and other proud but useless products of the Russian military-industrial complex's half- hearted 'conversion' to the needs of ordinary consumers. It would much rather be making the 'Elipton', a weapon so secret that no one is sure it exists except for Vladimir Zhirinovsky, who threatens to blow up the world with it.

Mr Chebotarev, the would-be salesman, lives in a district of Moscow choc-a-bloc with quirky, dedicated scientists, struggling to get by. He had hoped that the 'Brezhnev bolus' might support his family. His wife, a doctor, is recovering from a brutal mugging. His daughter is a pianist looking for work as a composer; his son is a student at Moscow University.

Sadly, such talents count for little in Moscow today. Aldrich Ames drove a Jaguar and lived in a fancy suburban house thanks to Moscow Central. If he had fled in time he might well now be a neighbour. George Blake, the last of the famous British spies, works down the road at an Institute of World Economy and International Relations. He keeps to himself but does sell the occasional interview. Everyone sells what they can.

Somehow, I doubt anyone is ever going to get rich selling the secrets of the 'Autonomous Electro-Stimulator, Type 01'. A pity.