Submission in Czarist Russia

Review of: The Slave Soul of Russia: Moral Masochism and the Cult of Suffering

In Daniel Rancour-Laferriere’s ambitious psychohistorical study, The Slave Soul of Russia: Moral Masochism and the Cult of Suffering, the author, a psychoanalytically-oriented Russian studies scholar, presents an overarching thesis: that Russian character was long grounded in masochistic tendencies. Scholars have long recognized that folktales as well as popular literature often express recurring psychological themes specific to given cultures.  Looking to Russian literature and folklore as projections of underlying personality conflicts, Laferriere offers an impressive array of illustrations. But the weakness of Laferriere’s approach, as I see it, is his overly broad conceptualization of “masochism”–subsuming here actually different kinds of behaviors, such as passive acquiescence to brutal punishment, humiliating submission to “masters,” a predilection for self-punishment, and so forth.

As the author recognizes, the pre-modern indoctrination of an illiterate peasantry into Christian religious ideology–”original sin,” passive acceptance of the “will of God” (i.e., to endure unjust suffering), Jesus’s “non-resistance to evil”–sanctified and reinforced the feudal social order. In ascetic Russian Orthodox doctrine, the morbid fascination with the “Passion” attested to the conviction that a spiritual victory over such imposed sufferings was thereby attained.

However, Laferriere understates the overwhelming impact of despotism and slavery in crushing human aspirations for freedom. In the 18th century, Catherine the Great made a fateful bargain with the landed nobility: they received legal ownership of the peasants (muhziks) in return for guaranteeing her absolutist regime.  But the immediate aftermath was hardly a passive, resigned acquiescence: over 50 peasant revolts ensued, the most widely organized being the Pugachev Revolt of the 1770s.  By 1790, the Enlightenment thinker Radischev–perhaps the first Russian writer to advocate “human rights”–wrote scathingly of the cruel injustice of a system of brutal masters over an underclass of exploited and abused slaves.  At first sentenced to death, he was sent instead to a Siberian labor-camp.

The extreme dichotomy of “flesh” vs. “spirit”–so emphasized in the Russian Orthodox tradition–was a monastic, ascetic standard which earthy, guilt-ridden Russians such as Leo Tolstoy absurdly sought to emulate. For the peasants, vodka-enabled sprees, with wanton sex and violence, might express a rebellious id’s liberation from such an overbearing superego–only to be succeeded the morning after by remorse and desire for punishment.

In short, there is much to ponder in this well-researched and provocative study. Still, one is inclined to think that rigidly authoritarian socio-political structures, whether Russian or not, inevitably manifested the interplay of (non-sexual) sadism and masochism: cruel domination from above and habituated submission from below.

William Manson is the author of The Psychodynamics of Culture (Greenwood Press). Read other articles by William.