Soft power: How alternative medicine publications promote brand Russia in the Balkans

One method for spreading Russian influence in the Balkans is through alternative medicine magazines.

While the newspaper industry in all Balkan countries is in steep decline, numbers of magazines with titles like “Russian Doctor,” “Russian Herbalist,” “Russian Encyclopedia of Health” had been increasing since 2015. At least half dozens of them originate in Serbia and spread through the newsstands of its neighbouring countries, targeting the senior populations.

While the perceptions of Russia in the region may depend on big political trends or the direction of given state propaganda, the influence of this type of media is unobtrusive and long-lasting.


Boosting visibility of Russian symbols …and Mr. Putin

On the newsstands, these magazines increase the visibility of Russian symbols, and convey messages such as “Russian advice is essential for your health.” The graphic design of these magazines includes using the colors of the Russian flag, or a miniature version of that flag on almost every page.

Another prevalent practice of these magazines is overwhelming use of the adjective “Russian”. Every mundane advice one can get about health from any health practitioner in the world is branded as “Russian advice.” For instance: “The Russian school of longevity” concludes that one needs to take walks to be healthy. “Russian salvation for varicose veins” includes eating garlic and other veggies. There’s even a “Russian horoscope,” which is the same as the usual horoscope.

Often times, the front-pages show the image of the top politician, at the same time promoting his personality cult and using him as click-bait. For instance, one magazine runs a headline “Exclusive: Vladimir Putin’s therapy with fungi” while the article inside, also with the image of the president, in fact, explains about benefits of healing with mushrooms determined by experts from Russian laboratories. “Why Putin uses malachite” is the headline in an article about crystal healing.

Some editions include sections for promotion of cultural heritage, like the “great Russian minds” featuring the likes of cosmonaut Valentina Tereshkova (including her photo with Putin and a note that he has high esteem for her), general Georgij Zhukov, or composer Alexander Borodin.


Health contents ranging from harmless to questionable

The content of these magazines mainly originates in Russia, ranging from advice from medical doctors, recipes for dishes like borscht, to the promotion of Russian herbalists and spiritual healers, who have found “miraculous” cures to increase longevity, fight cancer, deal with cardiovascular diseases and seemingly any other ailment.

For the most part, the advice seems obvious (eating honey, or exercise is good for you) or so detached that they can’t actually do much harm due to unavailability, like drinking mare’s milk, or tea from a plant that can be found only in Eastern Siberia.

However, some of the articles promote questionable practices, from literally “drinking oil” (a refined petroleum), to superstitions such as drawing lines on one’s body with iodine during specific days of the month, wearing amulets or drinking ‘pearl water’ (stale water left for two weeks during special Moon phases with immersed pearls inside).

In countries with the under-performing public health system, these papers offer a form of escapist entertainment for the majority that can’t afford expensive quality private health services. “Every disease can be cured!” proclaims the “Russian herbalist” on a front page.

The magazines also serve as an advertising platform for local pharmaceutical and alternative medicine products. They are careful to protect themselves from liability by small print disclaimers. Such disclaimers read: “our texts are of informative character only and should not be accepted as a replacement for therapy or medicines prescribed by your doctor” or “the publisher is not responsible for the truthfulness of the advertisements and promotions… the responsibility for the quality of products related to certain illnesses lies solely with those that recommend them as medicine. The company and the newsroom are not obliged to provide any additional explanations…”


The main players

Two big publishing houses from Serbia produce this kind of magazines, which are exported to the markets in Bosnia and Herzegovina, Montenegro, Macedonia, Croatia and Slovenia.

Color Mediia, also known as Color Press Group offers the biggest variety of such magazines, from “Russian Doctor” (Руски доктор), and its special editions “Better Life” (Бољи живот) and “Elixir: Teas and Balms” (Еликсир: Чајеви и мелеми), to “Russian Encyclopedia of Health” (Руска енциклопедија здравља).

Another big Serbian media company, Novosti, has been publishing the „Russian Herbalist“ (Ruski travar), a magazine of the smaller format with a very similar design and contents.

The Serbian version of the “Russian Doctor” is based on cooperation with the Russian “Folk Physician” (Народный лекарь), while the “Russian Encyclopedia of Health” is clearly marked as a licensed publication of the monthly called simply “Encyclopedia of Health” (Энциклопедия здоровья) in Russia.

For most of the other magazines, there’s an indication of the sources, even though most articles are signed by Russian authors, and even questions from readers are signed by people located within Russia. Some articles within both Serbian and Macedonian publication are signed by health specialists with Serbian names.


Target audiences: senior citizens

The main target audience for these magazines is senior citizens and women. This is evident from the choice of images which mostly feature models with grey hair, as well as the selection of topics of the articles and the advertisements, dealing with conditions that affect old age.

The pricing of these magazines is well adjusted to the economic situation of this socioeconomic category. Their purchasing power has been in decline for decades, and many retired folks have a hard time making ends meet on their pensions. For instance, the Macedonian version of Russian Doctor costs 40 denars (about 73 US cents), which makes it an affordable monthly purchase for a pensioner receiving an average income of fewer than 250 dollars per month.


Reality versus the propaganda images


Contrary to the attempts to project an image of a country that can boast with excellence in health, Russia has one of the worst records in this area in Europe.

Russia’s life expectancy is exceptionally low compared with that in other developed countries. According to data compiled by the World Bank in 2016 it was 71.6 years. At the same time, life expectancy in France was 82.3 years, and in Japan, it was 83.9 years, which is over 12 years longer than Russia.

Medical research published in 2014 revealed that probability that a Russian man will die before their 55th birthday is 25 per cent, blaming two types of illnesses: alcoholism as the major cause and smoking as the second in line. Life expectancy increased during the Perestroika period when Gorbachev introduced prohibition but dropped again after the collapse of the USSR.

Balkan countries, including Serbia and North Macedonia, also lag behind European Union countries in the development of health. But even they have significantly higher life expectancy than Russia, which is presented as a role model through the alternative health press industry. According to World Bank data for 2016, Serbia had a life expectancy of 75.2 years, while North Macedonia fared just a bit better, with 75.7 years.

According to the World Bank, the only Balkan country with a life expectancy comparable to Russia is Kosovo, which during the 1990s endured the total collapse of the public health system and a full-scale war.

The countries from former Yugoslavia that had already joined the European Union are way better: Croatia has a life expectancy of 78 years, while infants born in Slovenia can expect to live over 80.8 years on the average, or nine years longer than their counterparts in Russia.


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This article was created within the framework of the Project to increase the accountability of the politicians and political parties Truthmeter implemented by Metamorphosis. The article is made possible by the generous support of the US non-profit foundation National Endowment for Democracy (NED). The content is the responsibility of its author and does not necessarily reflect the views of Metamorphosis, the National Endowment for Democracy or their partners.

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