Renovating Russia: The Human Sciences and the Fate of Liberal Modernity, 1880-1930

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Nathaniel Knight. Glorifying in their technological achievements and global dominance, Europeans were nonetheless haunted by the specter of moral and physical degeneration. Scholars of the human sciences have explored Western European theories of degeneration at length.

Daniel Beer now aims a spotlight at the comparable discourse in Russia and the early Soviet Union.

Beer extends his analysis well beyond the realm of science. Late Imperial liberalism, in particular, with its abiding faith in the power of science, its visions of social transformation and its mistrust of the masses, appears not as a victim of Bolshevism but rather as an elder sibling preparing the way for the Communist utopia. Institutions, social settings and even individuals are excluded from his narrative. In their place, Beer unfurls a discourse, a cluster of mutually reinforcing ideas laid out in a set of texts produced by a relatively small group of scholars on the intersection of the medical and social sciences — psychiatrists, physiologists, physicians, sociologists, criminologists and a few anthropologists.

Unifying the discourse is a curious blend of optimism and pessimism — on the one hand a pervasive belief in the degenerative impact of modern life, on the other, faith in the transformative power of science. Eschewing or misconstruing Darwinian natural selection, Russian theorists from the s onward embraced a neo-Lamarckian model of biological transformation.

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Damage inflicted by an unhealthy environment, it was assumed, could be passed on and amplified in subsequent generations. Thus Russia faced a double burden: the impact of urbanization and industrialization superimposed upon the enduring legacy of serfdom.

  • Daniel Beer.
  • Volume 11, Number 3 (Summer 2010).
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The result was a wave of pathologies--malformed bodies, depraved morals and stunted intellects—an alarming social epidemic obvious to clinicians but irreducible to external causes. Politically, degeneration theory placed its practitioners in an ambivalent position. But revolution to them was more a manifestation of deviance than a corrective. The turmoil of , in fact, demonstrated the dangerous tendencies prevalent among the lower classes. European science confirmed these fears.

Theories of crowd behavior underlined the fragility of individual reason and the violent impulses lurking just below the surface of social order. Deviance, moreover, had the potential to act as a social contagion contaminating all of society especially the poor and uneducated.

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Degenerate individuals posed, therefore, a threat not only to themselves and their victims but to society as whole. Thus the liberal discourse of social degeneration took a decidedly illiberal turn merging seamlessly with totalitarian impulses of the Soviet state. As a historical explanation, however, his argument is questionable. Seeking to portray a coherent and enduring discourse, Beer tends to over-synthesize, exaggerating elements of cohesion and downplaying contradictions.

Renovating Russia is addressed primarily to historians well-versed in the current heated debates regarding Russian modernity and liberalism, as well as the continuities and ruptures across the revolutionary divide of He assumes that as long as they all used the same word , they all meant the same thing. Apparently unaware of the extensive and varied literature on the cultural history of heredity for instance, the materials of the four eponymous workshops held at the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science , Beer completely ignores the profound changes in the understanding of heredity that occurred precisely during the half century from to investigated in his book.

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This period saw the elaboration of several competing theories of heredity by Charles Darwin, Herbert Spencer, Francis Galton, August Weismann, Gregor Mendel, Hugo de Vries, and T H Morgan to name but a few and the rise of the most ambitious project of biosocial transformation—eugenics—in a variety of socio-cultural contexts. These developments attracted the close attention of, and generated wide debates within, the Russian scientific and medical communities.

National Center for Biotechnology Information , U.

Imperial Russia 13: The Origins of Russian "Backwardness"

Journal List Med Hist v. Med Hist.