New Issue – Ab Imperio

cover_medThe “rather obscure” (quoting the reader who called our attention to it) Russian journal, Ab Imperio published in its latest number in 2014 four articles dealing with psychiatry in the early Soviet Union. Please find below the titles and abstracts of the papers.

Forum: Sociobiological Science in the Early Soviet Union – Guest Editors: Elena Astafieva and Wladimir Berelowitch

Elena Astafieva and Wladimir Berelowitch, “Humanities and Social Sciences in the Russian Empire and the USSR: An Unwritten History,” Ab Imperio 4 (2014): 94-135. [subscription required]

This introduction to the forum places its contributions into a larger context of debates about dynamics in the fields of humanities and social sciences in imperial Russia and the Soviet Union. This research perspective informed the focus ofthe collaborative research project “The Constitution of Humanities and Social Sciences in Russia: Networks and Circulations of Models of Knowledge from the Eighteenth Century to the 1920s.” The primary impetus for the project’s organizers came from the French academic tradition, specifically, studies of”cultural transfers,” or to use the terminol­ogy preferred by some project participants, “histoire croisee” or cultural circulation that have been popular since the 1980s. Of no less importance was the desire to modify this paradigm by introducing the approaches of imperial history and the repertoire of research problems characterizing studies of Soviet modernity.

Solomon, Susan Gross. “Soviet Social Hygienists and Sexology after the Revolution: Dynamics of ‘Capture’ at Home and Abroad. Ab Imperio 2014, no. 4 (2014): 107-135. [subscription required]

In 1925, Dr. Grigorii Abramovich Batkis, the young social hygienist who was the leading figure in the kabinet of sexology (seksologiia) of the newly created State Institute of Social Hygiene in Moscow, published in Germany a twenty-four-page pamphlet on the sexual revolution in Russia. The inclusion of Batkis’s pamphlet in the prestigious series, Beitrage zum Sexualproblem, edited by Felix Theilhaber, might suggest that Soviet social hygiene research on sexual issues had struck resonance in international sexo­logical circles and that the intense efforts of Soviet scientists in the 1920s to “reclaim place” in international public health and medicine were bearing fruit. But appearances can be deceiving. While part of Batkis’s pamphlet was widely discussed in international circles, another part was studiously ignored. Moreover, Batkis’s pamphlet never appeared in Russia, nor did Batkis include the pamphlet in his list of publications. This article uses the puzzles surrounding Batkis’s pamphlet as a spring board to analyze Soviet seksologiia poised between the Russian and the international arenas for sexological research. What does the publication of this pamphlet in Germany tell us about Soviet social hygienists’ “capture” of place in international sexology? What was the relationship between social hygienists’ “capture” of place abroad and their “capture” of the sexological sciences at home?

Defaud, Gregory. “Vyzov fiziologii: sovetskaia psikhiatriia v 1930-e gody.” Ab Imperio 2014, no. 4 (2014): 136-166. [In Russian] [subscription required]

The article aspires to understand the nature of changes that had happened in psychiatry in the 1930s as a result of its competition with physiology and under the influence of Anatolii Ivanov-Smolenskii. Physiology challenged psychiatry with some old questions, such as: What role does the body play in mental illness? What place do experimental techniques occupy in psychia­try? Which clinical methods should be prioritized? Following psychiatric discussions, the author traces the shifting borders between somatic and psychiatric approaches and offers his original interpretation of the evolution of biomedical sciences. At the same time, the study of the field of psychiatry in a particular historical moment allows him to evaluate the degree of the Soviet state’s interference in science and the limits of professional autonomy of its representatives.

Zajicek, Benjamin. “Soviet Madness: Nervousness, Mild Schizophrenia, and the Professional Jurisdiction of Psychiatry in the USSR, 1918–1936.” Ab Imperio 2014, no. 4 (2014): 167-194. [subscription required]

Between 1931 and 1936, psychiatrists in the Soviet Union diagnosed large numbers of people with “mild schizophrenia,” a “neurosis-like” form of schizophrenia that was allegedly unique to the USSR. In 1936 the USSR Commissariat of Public Health intervened, dissolving the research institute most associated with “mild schizophrenia” and fundamentally reorienting the discipline of psychiatry away from “borderline illness” and problems of psychological adjustment and toward major mental illness and its biologi­cal causes. This article examines the origins of the “mild schizophrenia” concept and seeks to understand why the Soviet government saw “mild schizophrenia” as a problem. More broadly, it examines the relationship between psychiatric expertise and the state during the period of high Stalin­ism. The author finds that the concept of “mild schizophrenia” was closely associated with psychiatrists at the Institute of Neuropsychiatric Prophylaxis, particularly its director, Lev Rozenshtein. In the 1920s these psychiatrists sought to create a new discipline, psikhogigiena, which they identified as part of the international mental hygiene movement established by Ameri­can psychiatrist Adolf Meyer. The Soviet mental hygienists envisioned a countrywide network of “neuropsychiatric dispensaries” that would study environmental and social conditions in order to improve mental health and prevent mental illness. This work brought Rozenshtein and his colleagues into conflict with the Communist Party authorities. Using the category of “mild schizophrenia,” psychiatrists were attempting to define normalcy in terms of psychometric and social indices, not in terms of political or ideo­logical consciousness. Party authorities insisted that medical expertise gave jurisdiction only over specific types of illness, not over conditions of work and life in general. In response Rozenshtein and his colleagues reformulated their claims in the form of a biological disease entity, “mild schizophrenia.” By disbanding Rozenshtein’s institute and denouncing the concept of “mild schizophrenia,” authorities reestablished firm jurisdictional boundaries for psychiatrists. As a result, Soviet psychiatry was oriented firmly toward a conception of psychiatric illness as biological disease.

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