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Diagnosing Literary Genius

A Cultural History of Psychiatry in Russia, 1880-1930

Irina Sirotkina

Publication Year: 2002

The vital place of literature and the figure of the writer in Russian society and history have been extensively studied, but their role in the evolution of psychiatry is less well known. In Diagnosing Literary Genius: A Cultural History of Psychiatry in Russia, 1880-1930, Irina Sirotkina explores the transformations of Russian psychiatric practice through its relationship to literature. During this period, psychiatrists began to view literature as both an indicator of the nation's mental health and an integral part of its well-being. By aligning themselves with writers, psychiatrists argued that the aim of their science was not dissimilar to the literary project of exploring the human soul and reflecting on the psychological ailments of the age. Through the writing of pathographies (medical biographies), psychiatrists strengthened their social standing, debated political issues under the guise of literary criticism, and asserted moral as well as professional claims. By examining the psychiatric engagement with the works of Fyodor Dostoevsky, Nikolai Gogol, Leo Tolstoy, and the decadents and revolutionaries, Sirotkina provides a rich account of Russia's medical and literary history during this turbulent revolutionary period.

Published by: The Johns Hopkins University Press


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pp. v

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pp. vii-ix

This is an untraditional history of psychiatry: besides describing the key period in the formation of the new specialty in Russia, it focuses on psychiatric discussions of writers and of literature. The reason for this approach is the central role of literature in Russian culture, for doctors as well as for many other people. ...

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On Transliteration and Spelling

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pp. xi

In transliterating Russian titles,quotations,and names,I have used the Library of Congress system—except in the case of well-known persons (such as Dostoevsky) whose names are familiar in other spellings.

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pp. 1-13

“Without a medical evaluation you cannot understand anybody. It is intolerable to see men and their actions judged by linguists and other armchair pundits. They have no inkling that more is needed than moralizing and the average knowledge of people.”¹ ...

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1 Gogol, Moralists, and Nineteenth-Century Psychiatry

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pp. 14-44

Nikolai Gogol’s contemporaries were puzzled by what they saw as an extraordinary turn in his life when, at the height of his career, admired for his talent as well as for his social criticism, he stopped writing fiction and became exceedingly religious. “The enigma of Gogol” mystified his contemporaries until they explained it by illness, ...

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2 Dostoevsky: From Epilepsy to Progeneration

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pp. 45-73

When he was a young man, Fyodor Mikhailovich Dostoevsky (1821–81) was an adherent of socialist ideas. After years of suffering and reflection he became more conservative, and his later novels contained bitter and profound criticism of the extreme policies of the radicals. In return, radical literary critics emphasized the “nervousness” of Dostoevsky’s talent, ...

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3 Tolstoy and the Beginning of Psychotherapy in Russia

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pp. 74-116

In biographies and memoirs, Lev Nikolaevich Tolstoy’s (1828–1910) sound mind and robust health became almost emblematic. D. S. Merezhkovskii, in his influential essay L.Tolstoy and Dostoevsky (1902–3), juxtaposed Tolstoy’s “soundness” and Dostoevsky’s “sickness” as two spiritual poles; ...

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4 Decadents, Revolutionaries, and the Nation’s Mental Health

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pp. 117-144

“Although the degenerates multiply in periods of decadence, it is also through them that States are established,” Emile Durkheim wrote in Suicide (1897), and he illustrated this conclusion by a comparison of French and Russian literature: “The sympathy accorded to the [Russian literature] in France shows that it does not lack affinity with our own. ...

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5 The Institute of Genius: Psychiatry in the Early Soviet Years

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pp. 145-180

Historians have often described revolutionary Russia as a laboratory for utopian projects inspired by Romanticism and the Enlightenment. As Richard Stites remarks in Revolutionary Dreams: Utopian Vision and Experimental Life in the Russian Revolution, the post-revolutionary period “was one of those rare moments in history ...


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pp. 181-240


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pp. 241-260


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pp. 261-269

E-ISBN-13: 9780801876899
E-ISBN-10: 0801876893
Print-ISBN-13: 9780801867828
Print-ISBN-10: 0801867827

Page Count: 288
Publication Year: 2002