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Russia: Writer Links Freud, Tsar Nicholas, Nietzsche And Trotsky

  • Charles Fenyvesi



Washington, 12 June 1998 (RFE/RL) -- The turn of the century was the last era when Europe was one -- though not free -- followed by a dark age when it was neither one nor free. As Europe is now becoming one as well as free, writers are rediscovering long-lost ties linking European centers of thought.

One such writer is Aleksandr Etkind, a 42-year-old professor of humanities from St. Petersburg. Etkind has been writing what the Russians call "cultural bestsellers" on intellectual connections between the Russian empire on one hand, and the Austrian and German empires on the other. His focus is the period from the end of the 19th century up to the 1930s.

Etkind argues that Sigmund Freud's invention of psychoanalysis created a busy trade of ideas between Vienna and St. Petersburg. And he suggests that the second most influential thinker was Friedrich Nietzsche, whose prophecy of superman spurred a generation of Russian revolutionaries.

The professor from the two-year-old European University of St. Petersburg spoke recently in Washington, a town fascinated with empires new and old, as well as with Freud, whose influence remains strong among psychiatrists on the East Coast of the United States. The Austrian embassy provided Etkind with the forum. His audience was dominated by scholars of Russian culture and practitioners of psychoanalysis -- two sizable communities that seldom get together otherwise.

In his lecture, Etkind spoke about what he called the morbid affinities between the Romanov and Hapsburg empires. Both imperial families were troubled, neurotic, dysfunctional. Both Nicholas and Franz Josef suffered from psychological problems and lived unhappy personal lives. In both empires, psychoanalysis brought to the surface deep-lying, archaic and demonic elements from the unconscious. Nevertheless, the governing elite in both empires repressed all thoughts of an imminent decline, ruling out the fall of the monarchy.

In a letter to a friend, Freud mused about what he would do if asked to treat Nicholas, but Etkind has found no evidence that Nicholas ever considered making himself comfortable on Freud's couch. As far as it is known, Freud did not muse about treating his own emperor, Franz Josef.

Freud's inventions of the id and the unconscious fascinated Russian intellectuals and revolutionaries, including early Bolsheviks, Etkind has found. Similarly, Nietzsche's call for a superman who should be beyond good and evil prompted powerful echoes among the same people yearning for freedom from czarist oppression.

Etkind said that at one point Commissar Leon Trotsky even supported the psychoanalytical movement with government funds. Combining the ideas of Freud and Nietzsche, Trotsky argued that the Soviet regime should apply psychoanalysis in "cleaning up the mess" in the unconscious of the emerging new Soviet superman. Thus purged, the Soviet superman would be better able to rebuild society.

According to Etkind's analysis, Trotsky "shed rivers of blood in order to get rid of the power of human instincts." But, Etkind notes, Russia rejected Trotsky's proposed treatment, choosing Stalin who encouraged "faith and the cult of his personality" and brought death to millions.
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