Shell Shock and the Russian Army
Posted on November 7th, 2016

Dr Ruwan M Jayatunge 

The British and the French military psychologists profoundly studied the impact of combat related PTSD (Shell Shock) during the World War One. Although the Russian Army fought in the Great War facing dreadful conditions sustaining a large number of battle casualties with Shell Shock such efforts were not put into practice. However without the support of the Russian Military the Great Russian Psychologists Ivan Pavlov may have studied the impact of war on human psyche.

The Russian Psychologist Vladimir   Bekhterev conducted several studies on war trauma. He saw severe emotional problems among the Russian combatants who took part in 1904 -1905 Russo Japanese War. He identified lack of motivation, cognitive problems, hallucinations, dissociative reactions (which he called hysteria) and fear induced distressing behaviors among the Russian Soldiers who participated in the World War One. Vladimir Bekhterev   served as a professor and director of the clinic for mental and nervous illnesses at the Military Medical Academy in St. Petersburg until his sudden and mysterious death in 1927. After his death, his name and works were deleted completely from the textbooks and scientific literature by Stalin’s orders (Lerner et al., 2005).

During the World War Two the Russian Psychologist Alexander Romanovich Luria intensively studied the impacts of traumatic brain injuries. Between   1939-1945, Luria was in charge of a base neurosurgical hospital in the village of Kisegach in the South Urals, which enabled him to obtain an enormous collection of data that was later used in the development of the theory and practice of Russian neuropsychology (Kostyanaya, 2013). Indisputably Alexander Luria may have seen some of the PTSD reactions (known as the Combat Fatigue during the WW2 in the Western medical literature) of the Red Army soldiers. According to the Red Army WW2 records a large number of soldiers with combat stress reactions were punished for cowardice. A significant number of Russian soldiers faced death squads or sent to Shtrafnoi (penalty) Battalion units where they had to fight without ranks under the NKVD guards. Most of the combatants of the Shtrafnoi Battalions never returned home.

Bolshevik ideology was going to affect the entire Soviet society including military psychiatry, which started to use its jargon. The words of the psychiatrist Osipov in 1934 are quoted by Wanke: “Above all, the mental faculties of the soldier of the Red Army, his political consciousness of a sustainable class will allow him to triumph over psychotic reactions”. Even though in 1941 psychiatric departments appeared in hospitals, Stalin’s purges restricted the organisational development of the psychiatric system in Russia.  It is in this context that the topic of individual trauma disappeared from public debate in the Soviet Union. Although the 1930s saw famine, purges, followed by the Great Patriotic War, during which the “panekers” or broadcasters of panic were shot, pain and emotions had no place in this new model of society; the return of the war left no room for anything else but the heroism of tales of war and patriotic songs the only authorized events. Personal weakness was banished. No opportunity whatsoever to complain about individual suffering, no victimization was possible (Kozlowski, 2013).

From the WW1 to the Soviet Afghan War (1979- 1989) the Soviet Officials never published data about traumatic combat reactions that were experienced by the Soviet soldiers. Equally the officials did not provide any data related to the psychological casualties of the Stalinist repression. As indicated by Healey (2014) in Russia, physicians specializing in medicine of the mind had to cope with rapid and radical changes of legal and institutional forms, and sometimes, of the state itself. The abuses of Soviet psychiatry under Stalin and more intensively after his death in the 1960s–80s remain under-researched and key archives are still classified (Healey, 2014).

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