Constructing the Social Problem: Causes of Drug Addiction in Early Soviet Medical Texts

Essay, 2010

16 Pages, Grade: A-



(Pavel Vasilyev)

In the last two decades, there seems to be a consensus between Russian physicians, sociologists, and the general public, that drug addiction should be considered a serious and threatening social problem. The authorities, however, are unable to stop the increasing numbers of drug users. Meanwhile, as Ia. I. Gilinskii put it, social deviations are “the mirror of social realities”[1], and the power structure should not avoid looking in it. Drug addiction became a major social problem, for which no one-sided solution is acceptable. The attempts to approach the topic from the narrow viewpoint of some sociological or medical theory usually fail – as do the methods of plain administrative repression. The terms narkotik, narkoman, narkomaniia, narkotizm are applied in a somewhat simplified manner (as an unambiguous social evil), and it further complicates the understanding of an already difficult phenomenon. There is also a clear lack of attention towards social, psychological, economic and other incentives for an individual to take drugs.

Therefore, the need for a more synthetic and complex approach is obvious, and in search for it we should also look at the developments in the past and the history of drug addiction in Russia. The solution of a social problem should be based on the already accumulated experience. Meanwhile, physicians, sociologists and legal scholars who deal with drug addiction in contemporary Russia often forget about the historical dimension of the question or confine themselves to a short encyclopedia-like reference within the framework of their own discipline.[2]

From narrow scholarly point of view, the topic is also very important, since Soviet historiography largely ignored the 'dark' sides of 20th century Russian history.[3] The history after October 1917 was presented very simplified – as a “successfully developing progressive movement”, that was accompanied by a quick extermination of the “remnants of the past”.[4] At the same time the history of everyday life of the Soviet society in the 1920s and 1930s (especially its cultural and anthropological aspects) mostly escaped historians' attention.[5] Only in the late 1980s and early 1990s there appeared some studies and document publications that dealt with previously 'unpopular' topics.[6] This condition was further aggravated by the lack of methodological innovations in the historical and sociological studies of deviant behavior (as compared to the situation in the West).[7]

The focus of this paper is on the early Soviet period of Russian history (ca. 1917-1929) and on the medical texts of that period - and for some reasons. The problem of drug addiction was largely unknown in late Imperial Russia, as the use of drugs (opium, morphine, hashish) in the late 19th and early 20th centuries was practiced mostly in the elitist circles of artistic intelligentsia and was not perceived as a social problem[8] or challenge to the authorities. In fact, we have no evidence that Russian government felt that it was necessary to fight drug addiction using Penal Code as the instrument[9]. In 1914-1918, however, Russia (as many other countries) experienced radical changes – including but not limited to the World War, crash of the empire, revolutions, Civil War, socialist experiments and radical utopian projects, and increasing government regulation. Among other things, drug addiction also emerged as a specific social problem precisely in the 1910s (the First World War is widely perceived as an important trigger worldwide)[10]. Perhaps even more importantly, the scholars have noticed the trend towards “democratization” of drug addiction, i.e. the dramatic increase in the numbers of drug addicts and “contamination” of previously “clean” social groups (such as workers).[11]

It is not surprising, then, that in such situation physicians emerged as a powerful claims-makers who departed from their professional medical understanding to construct drug addiction as a social problem[12] and create moral panics through alarming declarations[13] (e.g., the resolution of the First Scientific Conference on Drug Addiction held in Moscow in December 1923, which stated that cocaine abuse was spreading over Soviet Russia like an epidemic[14] ). It is always important to remember that medicalization of drug addiction (presenting drug addiction as a social problem of medical origin – i.e., a 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.

As we mentioned earlier, the historiography on the topic was largely non-existent until the late 1980s, since when several authors expressed interest in the history of deviance (and specifically drug addiction) in early Soviet Russia.[15] These works, given their pioneering character, were mostly preoccupied with the analysis of some previously unexplored primary sources and the justification of the methodological approach. 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.[16] 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). To a certain degree, these shortcomings can be compensated by the works on the history of institutions of medical care and research.[17] These works give us the opportunity to place our specific problem into a broader professional context, but they are also often too descriptive and rich in factual errors.

In this paper my aim will be to look at early Soviet medical texts related to recreational drugs to show how physicians described the causes of drug addiction – and thus contributed to the construction of the social problem. The causes of the problem are especially important and relevant for the medical discourse, as the etiology of disease often gives physicians the clue to the solutions and treatment. Accordingly, the origins of drug addiction as described in early Soviet medical texts greatly influenced the understanding of drug addicts and practical narcotic policy among the medical community – and also beyond (as physicians tried to achieve symbolic domination). In particular, I want to consider three large groups of potential causes that were detected by early Soviet physicians: socio-political (such as war or revolution), economical (like capitalism or foreign trade), and other (it includes various causes on the macro- and micro-scale alike that range from regime of prohibition to sexual frustration to the use of drugs za kompaniiu).


[1] Iakov I. Gilinskii, ed. Deviantnost' i sotsial'nyi kontrol' v Rossii (XIX-XX vv.): Tendentsii i sotsiologicheskoe osmyslenie [Deviance and Social Control in Russia (XIX-XX centuries): Trends and Sociological Reflection] (St. Petersburg: Aleteiia, 2000), 7.

[2] For examples, see: Vladimir T. Lisovskii and Elina A. Kolesnikova, Narkotizm kak sotsial'naia problema [Drug Addiction as a Social Problem] (St. Petersburg: SPbGU, 2001), 24 and Maiia L. Rokhlina and Aleksandr A. Kozlov, Narkomanii: Mediko-sotsial'nye posledstviia. Lechenie [Drug Addictions: Medico-Social consequences. Treatment] (Moscow: Anakharsis, 2001), 13-16, 22, 33.

[3] For the critique of Marxist historiography with its tendencies to mythologize and conceal, 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.

[4] 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), 19.

[5] Ibid., 14. See also: Musaev, 5.

[6] Khodiakov, 11-12.

[7] Lebina, Povsednevnaia zhizn', 19.

[8] For a useful perspective on 'social problems', see: Herbert Blumer, “Social Problems as Collective Behavior,” Social Problems 18 (1971): 301-302 (in particular, “a social problem does not exist for a society unless it is recognized by that society to exist”).

[9] 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.

[10] Lisovskii and Kolesnikova, 24.

[11] Lebina, Povsednevnaia zhizn', 29; 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.

[12] 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.

[13] On claims-making and moral panics related to drugs, see: Peter Meylakhs, “Narkotiki: Ideologiia, narkopolitika i moral',” [Drugs: Ideology, Narcotic Policy, and Morality] (accessed May 13, 2010); and Idem, “Opasnosti moral'noi paniki po povodu narkotikov,” [The Dangers of the Drug Moral Panic] Credo New no. 1 (2003).

[14] Shkarovskii, Sem' imen koshki, 474.

[15] 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, “Leningradskaia prostitutsiia i bor'ba s nei v 1920-e gody,” [Prostitution in Leningrad and the Struggle Against It in the 1920s] in Nevskii arkhiv, issue 1 (Moscow, 1993), 387-411; 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); Nataliia B. Lebina, “Tenevye storony zhizni sovetskogo goroda 20-30-kh godov,” [Dark Side of the Soviet City of the 1920s and 1930s] Voprosy istorii no. 4 (1994): 30-42; Eadem, “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; 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): 64-66; Shkarovskii, Sem' imen “koshki”; Lebina, Povsednevnaia zhizn' sovetskogo goroda; Musaev; Nataliia B. Lebina and Aleksandr N. Chistikov, Obyvatel' i reformy: Kartiny povsednevnoi zhizni gorozhan v gody nepa i khrushchevskogo desiatiletiia [An Average Man and Reforms: Scenes from the Everyday Life of Urban Population During the NEP and Khrushchev Years] (St. Petersburg: Dmitrii Bulanin, 2003); 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.

[16] Lebina, Povsednevnaia zhizn', 29, 32-33; Shkarovskii, Sem' imen “koshki”, 472, 474, 476; Lebina and Chistikov, 117.

[17] Marina A. Akimenko and Avgust M. Shereshevskii, Istoriia instituta im. V. M. Bekhtereva na dokumental'nykh materialakh [Documented History of V. M. Bekhterev Institute], 3 vols (St. Petersburg: SPbNIPNI, 1999-2001); V. A. Tochilov and others, “Kafedra psikhiatrii i narkologii,” [Department of Psychiatry and Narcology] in Sankt-Peterburgskoi gosudarstvennoi meditsinskoi akademii im. I. I. Mechnikova 90 let [90th Anniversary of I. I. Mechnikov St. Petersburg State Medical Academy], (St. Petersburg: SPbGMA, 1997), 99-106; Aleksandr V. Shabrov and Valerii P. Romaniuk, Bol'nitsa Petra Velikogo – klinicheskaia baza Sankt-Peterburgskoi gosudarstvennoi meditsinskoi akademii imeni I. I. Mechnikova, vol. 1 (1903-1945) [Peter the Great Hospital – Clinical Basis of I. I. Mechnikov St. Petersburg State Medical Academy] (St. Petersburg: SPbGMA, 2001).

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Constructing the Social Problem: Causes of Drug Addiction in Early Soviet Medical Texts
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Pavel Vasilyev (Author), 2010, Constructing the Social Problem: Causes of Drug Addiction in Early Soviet Medical Texts, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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