Massage, the Soviet Way
By DOUGLAS MARTIN
When last we saw Kenny Schaffer, he was polishing a device to snag Russian television signals for curious Americans. From Soviet aerobics classes this improbable dynamo had learned at least one truth: “They’re bozos like us.”
Mr. Schaffer’s feats include being the world’s second-fastest ham radio operator while a student at the Bronx High School of Science, promoting Jimi Hendrix and designing John Lennon’s last guitar. He called the other day and bubbled on as if three years hadn’t passed.
“How would you like to have the best massage of your life?” he asked.
“What?” we barked.
It seemed that one Galina Semyonova, formerly a top masseuse in the Kremlin – yes, that Kremlin – was in Gotham wowing locals with her manual dexterity. Mr. Schaffer seemed to suggest her velvet grip had molded the flesh of Andropov, Chernenko, perhaps Brezhnev.
A beeline to Mr. Schaffer’s midtown digs involved the subway, and every cruel lurch seemed dorsally directed. At the destination were two Russian women, one with a bandaged hand. This, distressingly, was the magic-fingered Ms. Semyonova. She mumbled something about Russian New Year’s and a shattered champagne glass, as pain shot up our spine. She hastened to hint she might give us a massage anyway. Mmmm. Wanted desperately to believe. Sat back to listen.
Since his television venture, Mr. Schaffer had pursued super-power commerce In things from rock acts to direct phone links through his company, Belka International. Belka is the name of the second or third Soviet dog in space, a fact that becomes sort of pertinent. The road to great massage began when he received a telex from the Moscow Dog Club. It expressed the hope that canines might be bipolarly exchanged. In particular, the writer, one Galina Semyonova, who said Soviets love cocker spaniels, was distressed to relate that the cheerful breed was now, uh, inbred.
Mr. Schaffer leaped to help. “We get involved in fun stuff more than money stuff much of the time,” he said. “It’s not always intentional.”
He arrived in Moscow with a sore back from the eternal flight. But he dutifully accompanied Ms. Semyonova, a new acquaintance, to one apartment after another, each crammed with 30 or 40 dogs. His back ached.
That was when he got the best massage of his life – for the first time. His standards, show business ones, are stratospheric.”!’ve spent time with Flip Wilson,” he said, nonsensically to all but Hollywooders. “I know massage.”
Soon after his return, a sweet Slavic voice called to announce, “Your dogs have arrived.” To wit, one of those unfortunate cockers and a Russian borzoi.
Mr. Schaffer said he didn’t want any dogs, and who sent them anyway? He has an imperious cat, Squeaker, who gets birthday telexes from Soviet politicians.
Too much to tell. Events must be telescoped. The caller turned out to be Irina Butkov, a singer who had immigrated to New York. She didn’t understand how anybody could reject the darling dogs sent by her chum Ms. Semyonova. They moved into her Upper East Side apartment, followed by chum.
(The world has changed. Russians travel all over. Many return for a while. Not everybody lands in Brighton Beach to become a cliche. Fewer want to.)
Ms, Butkov came to Mr. Schaffer’s apartment to interpret. How does one become a Kremlin masseuse? Ms. Semyonova said one studies for five years. Ms. Butkov said there was more to it. “It’s like being gifted.”
The work is critical. Ms. Semyonova described Central Committee types as nervous blobs of cardiovascular disease. And her rub-downs are decidedly therapeutic, far removed from the West’s tawdrier massage shops. “People who can’t move – after I’m done, they can dance,” she said.
She has become masseuse to 25 New Yorkers – from doctors to record producers to poor immigrants – more than she can handle. “1 have had no vacation in my life because somebody always asks if! can help,” she said.
This layer on of-hands talked of many things. of Russian folk remedies transcending antibiotics. Central Park’s tranquillity. How she quit the Kremlin in 1987 after seven years for a freer schedule. That she’s going back to the Soviet Union in April. And – no? no! – she never treated Brezhnev or any other No.1 Communist; that takes a quarter-century’s experience.
No matter. A right handed masseuse proceeded to give us the best massage of our life. Left-handed.