Another Sikorsky: inconvenient pages of the history of psychiatry

Yakov Rabkin

Published in Isis, 96, 2005,  pp. 667–668.

Вадим Менжулин (Vadim Menzhulin), Другой Сикорский; неудобные страницы истории психиатрии (Another Sikorsky: inconvenient pages of the history of psychiatry), Kiev, Sfera, 2004, 490 pages, bibliography, name index.

Most people, including historians of science, would associate the name of Sikorsky with helicopters. Indeed, they would not be quite wrong. The famed helicopter designer was a son of the distinguished psychiatrist, Darwinist and public intellectual who is at the centre of the book under review. They stem from the Russian Empire, more precisely, from what is today the independent state of Ukraine.

The father was a controversial figure. Among his other actions, he served as an expert witness at the Beilis trial in Kiev in 1912. The case is part of the long and sad history of the blood libel, i.e. the calumny accusing Jews of performing ritual murders of Christian children for the purpose of using their blood in the manufacturing of matzo, the unleavened bread used during the holiday of Passover. The corpse of a 12-year-old boy that had been found in a cave on the territory of a factory belonging to a Jew and it had with 47 wounds, mostly in those parts of the body that would cause profuse bleeding. The boy had apparently been bled while alive. Menahem Mendel Beilis, who worked at that factory was arrested and accused of the ritual murder. Sikorsky also took part in a trial of members of a Christian sect, again a witness of the prosecution. His approach in both cases was to rely on social and cultural traits of the group in question in order to determine the psychological predisposition of the defendants to commit the crime they were accused of. The pro-government expertise of the aging psychiatrist was roundly condemned by several professional associations both in Russia and in several other countries.

The book – a biography of Ivan Alexeyevich Sikorsky (1842-1919) – is an interesting glimpse into the world of Russian psychiatry, presented in a broad social and political context. Psychiatry has been one of the fields that is closely related to societal values and to the Raison d’État in many countries. In Russia, these links were particularly pronounced, reaching into the late Soviet period when psychiatric hospitals were used to imprison political dissidents.  The book, that deserves to be translated into a Western language, is also a valiant effort to present a complex picture of a life story, to move away from the bipolar tradition of Soviet historiography of oscillating between denunciations and hagiography. The author commands an impressive knowledge of the works related to Sikorsky and Russian psychiatry in general and makes convincing points about the uses of his protagonist’s life story for the ever changing purposes of Soviet propaganda.

Sikorsky was roundly denounced in the early Soviet period. N.A. Semashko, the Soviet Health Commissar, called Sikorsky “a professor of police”.  A Soviet book about the Beilis trial was prefaced by A.V. Lunacharsky, “the Commissar of the Enlightenment”.  Authored by A. S. Tager, it devotes an entire chapter to Sikorsky. It was published in 1933, and reprinted a year later, when the Soviet authorities presented themselves as uncompromising opponents of anti-Semitism. A few years later Tager vanishes in the GULAG, and it is still unclear when he died there. After the Second World War, when anti-Semitism was harnessed by Stalin for own his political purposes, Sikorsky was presented as a precursor of Soviet psychiatry and a perfectly respectable scientist and medical practitioner.

In the late 1990s, Tager’s book was reprinted again by the Zionist Russian-Israeli publisher Gesharim since the book serves as an important argument against hopes of a peaceful Jewish life in Russia – and in other Diasporas – which, according to the current Zionist doctrine, can be assured only in the independent state of Israel. Menzhulin’s analysis shows how political demand can affect the writings in the history of science and medicine. In fact, he devotes most of the first part of his book to this important issue.

The second, and by far more extensive, part of the book deals with what the author calls “the intellectual biography” of Sikorsky. His is hardly a history of ideas but, rather, a picture of intricate links among religion, politics, and science, which all contribute to the complexity of the biography. Menzhulin approvingly quotes a Western scholar who argues for a balanced and dispassionate approach to the study of anti-Semitism and of the anti-Semites.

Menzhulin’s Sikorsky is not one-dimensional. He is a devoted doctor who organizes and runs – at his won home – a programme that caters to the needs of intellectually challenged children. He was also an unabashed patriot of Russia who sided with the tsarist regime and defended what the author calls “tribal nationalism.” In this sense, he was part and parcel of his times when blossomed most of the murderous racist ideas of social psychology and physical anthropology that resulted in the industrialized massacres of the 20th century. Menzhulin, in a rare recourse to iffy history, affirms that “Herbert Spencer, an idol of Sikorsky, could have spoken against Beilis, a ‘representative of a lower race’ just as resolutely simply because it was self-evident to him that ‘one could not apply just criminal law to barbarian and semi-barbarian peoples.” (pp. 458-9) Sikorsky believed in the eternity of science. Happily, the science he so much believed in turned out to be short-lived.

Yakov M Rabkin

Département d’histoire

Université de Montréal

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Another Sikorsky: inconvenient pages of the history of psychiatry