Psycho-Trauma Prior to the Soviet Era
Posted on February 19th, 2017

Dr Ruwan M Jayatunge 

Like in most other countries the Russian history was written in blood. For generations the Russian people faced ample amount of traumatic events that were beyond the range of the normal human experience.

In Russia, before the 18th century, the people demonstrating psychological disorders were housed in religious communities. Under Peter the Great, the State began to regulate the lives of people with physical and mental disabilities, particularly in connection with military service. Under Catherine II, the construction of asylums for the insane started but families preferred to take care of their loved ones themselves. The structure of support constituted by the community was however eroded in the 19th century by settlement in cities. It is in this context that psychiatry emerged in the 18th and 19th centuries. Russian psychiatry’s path to legitimacy was closely linked to service to the State, while in the United States; psychiatry was oriented toward the patient as an individual and found it hard to adjust to the conditions of war. (Kozlowski, 2013).

The Czar’s Russia was full of economic and social upheavals. War, famine and internal conflicts impacted people dreadfully. The Czar Ivan the Terrible (1530-1584) ruled the country with an unstable mind. His alcohol addiction, deep suspicion, anger outbursts, emotional anesthesia and paranoia affected his rational judgment. During the reign of Ivan the Terrible people were subjected to incarceration, torture and death.

Peter the Great (Peter Alekseyevich Romanov) was one of the great leaders of Russia who ruled the Russian Empire from 1682 until 1725. Peter the Great, often known as the Tsar Reformer, initiated a program of modernization and Westernization that affected the lives of all his subjects. He founded a new capital, St. Petersburg, which became a symbol of cultural change, and a navy, which signaled Russia’s emergence as a maritime power. He also reinforced the old institutions of serfdom and autocracy (Hughes, 2000).  Peter took sturdy measures against rebels and conspirators while ruling his Empire. He was famous for his anger outbursts and sometimes executing prisoners by himself.  The Emperor tortured many prisoners at the Peter and Paul Fortress in St. Petersburg. Peter’s own son Alexei Petrovich Romanov too became a victim under his repression.

The political and diplomatic consequences of the 1877-8 Russo-Turkish War had significant effects on both the domestic politics of Russian and Ottoman Empires and on European diplomacy. Leaving its political outcomes aside, the war had a considerable impact on the civilian population of Balkan Peninsula. (Pinar Ore- Immediate Effects ofthe 1877-1878 Russo-Ottoman   War on the Muslims of Bulgaria) The Soviet Historian V. I. Buganove reports series of combat related distressing reactions (acute stress reactions as well as dissociative aphonia) among some of the Russian soldiers during the 1681 Russo- Turkish War (Jayatunge, 2014).

Napoleon Bonaparte invaded Russia in 1812. His Grand Army consisted of over 500,000 men. Napoleon’s strategy was to engage the Russian army quickly and crush it. The Russian  strategy, begun by Prince Barclay de Tolly and continued by  Field Marshall Mikhail Kutuzov, was to avoid major conflict and to retreat in advance of Napoleon’s army destroying crops and villages as the Russian army withdrew (Ahearn, 2005). The French invasion caused a significant number of human casualties. The 1812 War brought collective anxiety among the Russian people.  In the Battle of Battle of Borodino – a single day battle the Grand Army lost approximately 35, 000 soldiers: 52,000 Russian troops perished in the battlefield.

Many Russian novelists captured the collective traumas experienced by the citizens. Feodor Dostoevsky, Leo Tolstoy and Maxim Gorky extensively wrote about human suffering in their own society.

Dostoevsky was involved in the revolutionary activities and was arrested by the Czar’s Police. He was subjected to mock execution and then later exiled to Siberia. In Siberia Dostoevsky witnessed unspeakable human anguish. These traumatic experiences caused colossal personality changes in him. He became a compulsive gambler and also suffered seizures (psychogenic fits following pathological dissociation?).

In Brothers Karamazov Dostoevsky wrote: I believe like a child that suffering will be healed and made up for, that all the humiliating absurdity of human contradictions will vanish like a pitiful mirage, like the despicable fabrication of the impotent and infinitely small Euclidean mind of man, that in the world’s finale, at the moment of eternal harmony, something so precious will come to pass that it will suffice for all hearts, for the comforting of all resentments, for the atonement of all the crimes of humanity, for all the blood that they’ve shed; that it will make it not only possible to forgive but to justify all that has happened.”

Maxim Gorky witnessed immense poverty, injustice, hate and brutalization in the Czar’s Russian society. Gorky’s novel Mother” was a testimony that narrated the socio economic hardships experienced by the Russian working class.

Leo Tolstoy served as an Officer during the Crimean War in 1853. He saw the horrors of the war and became emotionally troubled. These traumatic events transformed him. In the later years he publicly preached against wars. Tolstoy believed that spiritual clarity would help the Russian people to heal emotional wounds.

In the Czar’s Russia ethnic clashes were occurring repeatedly. In addition massive violence had been conducted against the Jewish people. Anti-Jewish pogroms created collective traumas among the Russian Jewish population. In 1791, under Catherine the Great, Jews were largely restricted to the Pale of Settlement. The May Laws, enacted in 1882 under Alexander III, promoted further discrimination. Russia’s anti-Semitic pogroms, sporadic during the 1800s, were particularly bloody under Nicholas II in 1903-1906, and were apparently directed against the Jews by the imperial authorities (Brustein, 2003).  In 1905 Anti-Jewish Violence erupted in Odessa. The Jewish newspaper Voskhod reported that over 800 were killed and another several thousand were wounded following these events (Weinberg, 1992).

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