Eliminating Drug Addiction: The Ways of Solving the Social Problem in Early Soviet Medical Texts

Essay, 2009

15 Pages, Grade: A



(Pavel Vasilyev)

Drug addiction[1] is universally recognized as a crucial problem of the contemporary world, and there is a heated debate about it everywhere – Eastern Europe being no exclusion. The problem, however, is often presented largely simplified and there is a tendency to perceive recreational drugs as an unequivocal social evil and overestimate the role of the state in managing the problem. For some obvious reasons, Soviet historiography largely ignored the history of drug addiction in twentieth-century Russia[2], but it is striking that even today there is a clear lack of attention towards historical roots of the problem in this region[3] and various cultural forms of drug use. This condition will appear even more surprising if we consider that interdisciplinary research on the history of drug addiction will allow the exploration of the intersection of medical theory, practical policy, social context, and cultural values.

In my paper I want to focus specifically on the early Soviet period of Russian history which witnessed the emergence of drug addiction as a social problem (ca. 1917 - 1929). It is important to mention here that the topic remains largely unexplored, though some authors briefly discussed the developments that took place throughout the period. Several articles and book chapters[4] investigated social history of drug addiction in early Soviet Russia. Some important conclusions were made about “democratization” of drug addiction during the First World War and virtual elimination of the problem by the early 1930s. However, there is no major book on the subject, and the existing works lack in-depth analysis and a critical approach towards primary sources (especially in regard to the use of medical texts). This is even more surprising if we consider that medical texts serve as the major primary source for all historians of drug addiction. More importantly, professional definitions coined by turn-of-the-century physicians often had direct social implications. The solutions for the social problem that were offered in their texts reveal us a great deal about medical understandings of drug addiction at that time, but they can also be perceived as the guidelines for the practical narcotic policy. On the contrary to existing scholarship, I will focus specifically on medical texts and present early Soviet doctors as active claims- and policymakers.

Accordingly, in my paper I will analyze early Soviet medical texts[5] related to recreational drugs in order to show how physicians argued for the elimination of drug addiction. In order to accomplish this goal, I should establish several research objectives. First, it is necessary to understand why Soviet physicians decided that it is important and indispensable to fight drug addiction. I should also look on specific measures (professional medical and non-medical alike) that the doctors proposed to solve the social problem of drug addiction.

Why fight drug addiction?

Question like this may appear naive and insignificant in the contemporary world where state-funded Wars on Drugs are fought in most countries, the markets for recreational drugs are heavily regulated, and moral panics related to drugs are launched from time to time by physicians and the media. The social and medical context of the problem in early twentieth century Russia was, however, different. The number of drug users was diminutive on the scale of the empire, and these users were mostly concentrated in exotic borderland regions (such as Central Asia). Of course, drugs were becoming more popular in certain social groups in the capitals (such as artists[6], officers, doctors[7], or prostitutes[8] ), but it was still an almost imperceptible elitist use.

Purely quantitative evaluation may, however, be misleading. More importantly, “a social problem does not exist for a society unless it is recognized by that society to exist”[9]. Lack of government regulation and legislation concerning recreational drugs testifies to the fact that the authorities did not qualify occasional drug usage by certain subjects of the empire as a social problem. Certain psychoactive substances were indeed regulated, but the rationale behind it had more to do with limiting access to poisons, than with recreational use of addictive substances.[10] Turn-of-the-century medical theory in Russia was also unlikely to label drug addiction a social problem. As we have mentioned earlier, the very list of drugs and the terms that described it were being negotiated: the problem of hashish or opium abuse was thus essentially the same as the excessive consumption of tea or coffee. Moreover, it was possible for the physicians to base their theories on the introspection and observation of their own feelings and behavior after taking drugs.[11]

However, after the Great War Russian society confronted a dramatic increase in the number of drug addicts, and, perhaps more importantly, a “democratization” of drug addiction (i.e., recreational drugs were becoming popular among the broad masses of the general public)[12]. Early Soviet physicians were part of this society, and they also possessed some relevant scientific knowledge about addiction. It is small wonder than, that they would emerge as the claims-makers who departed from their professional medical understanding to construct drug addiction as a social problem[13] and create moral panics through alarming declarations[14] (e.g., the resolution of the First Scientific Conference on Drug Addiction held in Moscow in December, 1923, which stated that cocaine abuse spreads over Soviet Russia like an epidemic[15] ). It is always important to remember that medicalization of drug addiction (presenting drug addiction as a social problem of medical origin – i.e., the problem that can only be solved by medical professionals) is advantageous for physicians. It gives them both symbolic domination and the opportunity to receive governmental funds for their projects.


[1] There is a whole set of literature on various conflicting definitions of 'drugs' and 'addiction'. The decisions to prohibit or legalize one or another psychoactive substance (be it alcohol, marijuana or tobacco) are often arbitrary, historically conditioned and not related to the actual degree of psycho-physical harm and addictiveness. Moreover, in the period under investigation there was no unanimity in regard to what constitutes 'drugs' (tea, coffee, tobacco...) and which terms should be used to describe them (cf. iady, narkotiki, durmany...) and conditions that arise (narkomaniia, narkotizm, or more specific morfinizm, kokainizm...). For the purposes of this paper, I adhere to the present-day understanding of drugs (i.e., cocaine, morphine, hashish, opium, ether etc. – but not coffee). I am aware, however, of the limitations of such approach and the implications that it has for the analysis of medical texts.

[2] For the critique of Marxist historiography, see: Mikhail V. Khodiakov, ed., “Goriacheshnyi i triumfal'nyi gorod”: Petrograd: ot voennogo kommunizma k NEPu: Dokumenty i materialy [“Feverish and Triumphant City”: Petrograd from War Communism to the NEP: Documents and Materials] (St. Petersburg: SPbGU, 2000), 11-12; Nataliia B. Lebina, ''O pol'ze igry v biser: (Mikroistoriia kak metod izucheniia norm i anomalii sovetskoi povsednevnosti 20-30-kh godov),'' [On the Utility of Casting Pearls: (Microhistory as the Method to Examine Norms and Anomalies of Soviet Everyday Life in the 1920s - 1930s)] in Normy i tsennosti povsednevnoi zhizni : Stanovenie sotsialisticheskogo obraza zhizni v Rossii, 1920-30e gody [Norms and Values of Everyday Life: The Establishment of the Socialist Life-Style in Russia, 1920s - 1930s], ed. Timo Vihavainen (St. Petersburg: Neva, 2000), 7; and Vadim I. Musaev, Prestupnost' v Petrograde v 1917-1921 gg. i bor'ba s nei [Crime in Petrograd in 1917-1921 and the Struggle Against It] (St. Petersburg: Dmitrii Bulanin, 2001), 5.

[3] Nataliia B. Lebina, ''Narkoman iz narkomata i klub morfinistov revoliutsionnogo Baltflota.'' [Narcomaniac from the Narkomat and the Morphinist Club of the Revolutionary Baltic Fleet] Vechernii Peterburg, 12 April 1996; and Eadem, ''Belaia feia, ili Kak ''navodili marafet'' v Sovetskoi Rossii,'' [The White Fairy, Or How They Powdered Their Noses in Soviet Russia] Rodina no. 9 (1996): 66.

[4] Viktor A. Popov, ''Bor'ba s narkomaniei i toksikomaniei detei i podrostkov v 20-30-e gody,'' [The Struggle Against Drug Addiction Among Children and Teenagers in the 1920s and 1930s] Sovetskoe zdravookhranenie no. 5 (1989): 67-70; Mary Schaeffer Conroy, ''Abuse of Drugs other than Alcohol and Tobacco in the Soviet Union.'' Soviet Studies 42 (1990): 447-480; Mikhail V. Shkarovskii, ''Sem' imen “koshki”: Rastsvet narkomanii v 1917-1920-e gody,'' [Seven Names of the “Cat”: Heyday of Drug Addiction from 1917 to the 1920s] in Nevskii arkhiv: istoriko-kraevedchskii sb. [Neva Archive: Regional History Collection], issue 3 (St. Petersburg, 1997), 467-477; Nataliia B. Lebina, Povsednevnaia zhizn' sovetskogo goroda: Normy i anomalii: 1920-1930 gody [Everyday Life of a Soviet City: Norms and Anomalies: 1920s – 1930s] (St. Petersburg: Neva: Letnii Sad, 1999), 28-33, 46; Stanislav E. Panin, ''Potreblenie narkotikov v Sovetskoi Rossii (1917-1920-e gody),'' [Drug Addiction in Soviet Russia (from 1917 to the 1920s)] Voprosy istorii no. 8 (2003): 129-134.

[5] Such texts include monographs, articles in professional journals and newspapers, popular medical literature, medical-legal texts, and also documentation of medical, administrative, and research institutions.

[6] William B. Lincoln, In War's Dark Shadow: The Russians before the Great War ( New York: The Dial Press, 1983), 351; Lebina, Povsednevnaia zhizn', 28.

[7] Lebina, Povsednevnaia zhizn', 28.

[8] Nataliia B. Lebina and Mikhail V. Shkarovskii, Prostitutsiia v Peterburge: (40-e gg. XIX v. - 40-e gg. XX v.) [Prostitution in St. Petersburg: (1840s - 1940s)] (Moscow: Progress-Akademiia, 1994), 89.

[9] Herbert Blumer, ''Social Problems as Collective Behavior.'' Social Problems 18 (1971): 301-302.

[10] Rossiiskaia Farmakopeia [Russian Pharmacopoeia], 6th edn. (St. Petersburg: K. L. Rikker, 1910), 541-546; Ulozhenie o nakazaniiakh ugolovnykh i ispravitel'nykh. Ugolovnoe ulozhenie (stat'i, vvedennye v deistvie) [Code of Criminal and Disciplinary Punishments. Penal Code (Already Implemented Articles)] (Petrograd, 1916), 178-179.

[11] The most famous European case is, of course, Sigmund Freud and his “On Coca”. Cf. also Sharl' Riche [Charles Richet]. Iady, deistvuiushchie na soznanie: (Alkogol', khloroform, gashish, opium i kofe) [Poisons Influencing Consciousness: (Alcohol, Chloroform, Hashish, Opium, and Coffee)] (Kremenchug: M. I. Apatov, 1900).

[12] Shkarovskii, 467; Lebina, Povsednevnaia zhizn', 29; Panin, 129.

[13] Physicians were by no means the only group to start constructing the social problem of drug addiction. Other relevant groups would be legal experts and criminologists.

[14] On claims-making and moral panics related to drugs, see: Peter Meylakhs, ''Narkotiki: Ideologiia, narkopolitika i moral','' [Drugs: Ideology, Narcotic Policy, and Morality] http://www.regioncentre.ru/generation/publications/publication41 (accessed December, 18, 2009); and Idem. ''Opasnosti moral'noi paniki po povodu narkotikov,'' [The Dangers of the Drug Moral Panic] Credo New no. 1 (2003).

[15] Shkarovskii, 474.

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Eliminating Drug Addiction: The Ways of Solving the Social Problem in Early Soviet Medical Texts
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Pavel Vasilyev (Author), 2009, Eliminating Drug Addiction: The Ways of Solving the Social Problem in Early Soviet Medical Texts, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/163779


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