Irina Sirotkina. Diagnosing Literary Genius: A Cultural History of Psychiatry in Russia, 1880-1930. Baltimore and London: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2002. Bibliography. Index. ix + 269 pp., $45.00 (cloth).


Sirotkina’s monograph, Diagnosing Literary Genius, is an interdisciplinary study engaging such important dimensions of Russian culture and civilization as psychiatry, sociology, literary history and criticism. It is the first English language book-length scholarship to explore the developmental history of Russian psychiatry through its interaction with and impact on Russian belles lettres. Throughout the study Sirotkina considers psychiatrists’ involvement in literary criticism against the backdrop of the developmental history of psychiatry and in the context of Russia’s socio-political and cultural debates. The book covers one of the most dramatic and eventful periods in Russian socio-political, cultural and literary history, adding an important dimension to its understanding and broadening perspective on its socio-cultural framework.

The book’s five chapters are devoted to five phases in the development of Russian psychiatry, which are also representative of distinct epochs in literary and cultural history of the country. The titles, reflecting focus of these chapters, are: (1) Gogol, Moralists, and Nineteenth-Century Psychiatry, (2) Dostoevsky: From Epilepsy to Progeneration, (3) Tolstoy and the Beginning of Psychotherapy in Russia, (4) Decadents, Revolutionaries, and the Nation’s Mental Health, (5) The Institute of Genius: Psychiatry in the Early Soviet Years. These are preceded by a succinct Introduction, which features a summary of the history of Russian psychiatry, offers an overview of the scant scholarship in the area—or rather asserts the uniqueness and pioneering status of the author’s research—and introduces the reader to the genre of pathography (or medical biography) which figures prominently in the book. The developmental history of this genre—traced from its origins in the nineteenth-century psychiatry to its rejection in the early Soviet period and eventual reemergence after the collapse of the communist regime—provides a framework for Sirotkina’s study.

The first chapter discusses pathographies that comprised “Gogol’s case” and played an important part in the polemics around the writer’s life and creative path. Sirotkina’s outline of this polemics spans half a century from Belinsky’s “moral judgment” to Gogol’s “rehabilitation” by Shestov et al. In the course of her discussion the scholar reviews dominant medical approaches to the issue of his stigmatized genius, and contextualizes history of his diagnosis within the history of Russian and Western psychiatry. Among the remarkable representatives of the psychiatric profession and active agents of the “scientific” approach to Gogol’s oeuvre, figure Chizh, Bazhenov, Troshin, Sikorskii, Chelpanov, Merzheenevskii. As Sirotkina discusses their contribution to literary criticism, she offers an insightful commentary on the intricate interaction between the psychiatry and literary process in the nineteenth-century Russia.

            The second and third chapters—focusing on Dostoevsky and Tolstoy respectively—expand on the examination of this period. The discussions of these writers’ pathographies are intertwined with the overviews of biographies and careers of the founders of Russian psychiatry, including Bazhenov, Chizh and Osipov. The interaction between these two focal groups is presented as a history of diagnosing and rediagnosing by the latter of the former and their fictional worlds. Similar to Gogol, both these writers were stigmatized as insane, attracted the psychiatrists’ enormous and tenacious interest, and incited research of the connection between their presumed abnormalities and works.

            The fourth chapter offers a survey of the aesthetic, medical and political biases characteristic of the pre-revolutionary period. Sirotkina begins her analysis with an appraisal of the thematic and aesthetic commonalities between Russian and Western decadent writers. She also reviews reactions to their art by medical and literary critics. The theme and concept of madness is explored through several vantage points, including the decadent cult of insanity and posited parallels between modern art and works of insane. The criticism of modernist art as depraved is also explored in the light of psychiatric diagnosis. This discussion includes examination of medical profiling (e.g. the weak-willed as socially inferior individuals; revolutionaries as “pathological altruists”) and a diagnosis of the Russian nation as a degenerate one. Sirotkina’s stimulating discussion of the literary process in the turn of the century Russia provides an additional commentary on the practice of merging social roles of the literary critics and psychiatrists.

            Finally, Sirotkina turns to the socio-cultural developments that followed the Revolution of 1917. The last chapter provides a thorough overview of the state of psychiatry in the first two decades of the Soviet regime, including relevant jurisdiction (e.g. the decree about free medical care), numerous psychiatric institutions (their structures and functions), approaches to mental and neurological conditions and their proposed medical treatments. It also addresses what one might call a fantastic aspect in the realm of psychiatry approaching revolutionary and post-revolutionary Russia as “a laboratory for utopian projects” (144). Indeed, the new developments in the psychiatry under the Soviet regime had a bizarre streak. As is evident from the previous chapters, the subject of genius never ceased to attract psychiatrists’ attention. Yet it was in the Soviet era that psychiatry—very early on monopolized by the state—undertook some daring steps in pursuit of solving the enigma and appropriating the powers of creative genius. Soviet psychiatrists’ most eccentric projects include aspirations to increase the artistic output of geniuses and to protect them from the continually hostile social environment (Rozenshtein’s “aesthetic medicine”), state-sponsored maintenance of “mental hygiene,” social engineering of geniuses, and control of artistic production. An idea of “special dispensaries for creative people” was entertained and there was an actual institute with the eloquent name, “The Institute of Genius.”

            The scholarly importance of this meticulously researched, well-documented and well-written study is manifold. It is a significant addition to the academic literature on the turn of the century Russia, an excellent introduction to the socio-cultural dimensions of Russian psychiatry, and an inspired piece of scholarship that has adumbrated new venues of research in a number of areas bridging humanities and Slavic studies. It will provide stimulating materials for Russian studies classrooms and will offer a rewarding and fascinating reading for all interested in Russian culture and civilization.



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