Skip to:

The Russian Institution of Social Control and the Depiction of Madness in Russian Literature



Frederick White, Professor at Utah Valley University


Wednesday, January 17, 2018 - 4:30pm


Pigott Hall (Bldg. 260) room 216



The Russian Institution of Social Control and the Depiction of Madness in Russian Literature

Responsibility for the mentally ill in Russia originally fell to monasteries, and only in the eighteenth century became the domain of the State. It was then left to the police to deal with the mentally ill, along with criminals and other undesirables. In the nineteenth century, Russian psychiatry became a respectable medical profession and yet patients were still perceived  as menaces to society.  Just as psychiatry was emerging as an independent medical science in Russia, German romantic literary notions of madness gave way to degenerative theory, solidifying the prevalent notion of mental illness as deviance. The institutional behavior of confusing the criminal and the mentally ill in prisons and asylums, then, found legitimacy in the psychological theories of degeneration, which are associated with criminal, psychopathic, sexually deviant, and abnormal behavior. By briefly looking at how mental asylums are depicted in the literary works of Anton Chekhov, Vsevolod Garshin, and Leonid Andreev, I will argue that at the beginning of the twentieth century literary figures were cognizant of the role that these medical institutions were playing as instruments of social and political control and that the diagnosis of madness was synonymous with a prison sentence.
Frederick H. White is the Associate Vice President for Engaged Learning at Utah Valley University. He is also Professor of Russian in the Department of Languages and Cultures. Dr. White has published six books and thirty academic articles on Russian literature, film, and culture. He is one of the leading specialists on the writer Leonid Andreev and has published in the areas of Russian Modernism, psychology, and literature in the Russian fin de siècle, the economics of culture, and post-Soviet cinema. Most recently, he has published a book of memoirs, interviews, scholarly essays and biographical documents that relate to the recently deceased filmmaker Aleksei Balabanov, Brikolazh rezhissera Balabanova (2016).