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Gloom Entangled: The Circulation of Medical Knowledge and Melancholy Concepts between Europe and Russia since 1850

Frank Grüner

This project has studied the history of cultural dynamics and the exchange of knowledge in the area of melancholy between Germany and Russia from the mid-nineteenth century through the 1920s. It has taken stock of influential notions and perceptions of gloom as articulated in diverse national and cultural contexts in Europe during this period. The focal point of interest has been the origins and constructions of melancholy in Russia from a transcultural perspective.

Two fields of investigation have proven to be particularly important for understanding the emergence, appropriation and circulation of different concepts of melancholy in Russia during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries: on the one hand the dynamic transnational development of modern psychiatry in Europe, and on the other the political and philosophical discourses in Russia about its historical fate, its relationship with the West, and about the existence of a specific Russian national character. The possible overlaps and interactions between medical-scientific and political-philosophical discourses have been ignored in research on this topic so far.

The term “melancholy” or melancholia had only found its way into the Russian culture and speech under Catherine II, in the second half of the eighteenth century through translations of literary, philosophical and medical works from the French, German and English. However, during the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries melancholy as a concept was only known to a thin social class of the well-educated in Russia. The fact that melancholy in Russia was considered to be the result of a sick fantasy and, beyond that, a mental disorder originating in western culture and something which was seen to be a threat especially to the Russian educated classes, did not help to popularize the concept. 

As was the case in many places in Europe, modern psychiatry began to develop gradually in Russia during the nineteenth century. In the second half of the century, in particular from the 1880s the professionalisation of Russian psychiatry developed more dynamically. During this period, knowledge transfers from Europe, in particular from France and Germany, played a crucial role for the formation of Russian psychiatry. Epistemological and ontological transfers in the field of medicine and psychiatry between Germany and Russia shaped the understanding, redefinitions and experience of melancholy in various countries of Europe. With regard to the formation of a scientifically based, medical understanding of melancholy in Russia, melancholia was regarded as a mental disorder at least since the 1830s, as the evaluation of curricula and textbooks in the area of medicine and psychiatry has shown. During the following decades melancholy have established as a central diagnostic category clinical practice and research of many psychiatrists in Europe and Russia. In later years, starting around 1900, the adaption of Emil Kraepelin’s nosological system was fundamental for the “fragmentation” and redefinition of until then established understandings of melancholy in Europe, Russia and beyond. On the basis of Kraepelin’s system melancholy lost its importance as a diagnostic category in the course of the twentieth century and was substituted by the new category of manic-depressive illness, which remains still in use today.

At about the same time, in the course of the intellectual debates on Russia’s fate and its contributions to human civilization and world culture during the second half of the nineteenth century and the early twentieth century melancholy and a number of related concepts such as dejection or gloom became an integral element within the construction of a Russian national character. The analysis of these discourses on Russia’s fate shows that the concept of the “Russian soul” (including its melancholic component) was the result of a highly transcultural exchange process between Europe, in particular Germany, and Russia, too.


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