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Curative Powers

Curative Powers: Medicine and Empire in Stalin's Central Asia

Paula A. Michaels
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    Curative Powers
    Book Description:

    Finalist, PEN Center USA Literary Awards, Research NonfictionRich in oil and strategically located between Russia and China, Kazakhstan is one of the most economically and geopolitically important of the so-called Newly Independent States that emerged after the USSR's collapse. Yet little is known in the West about the region's turbulent history under Soviet rule, particularly how the regime asserted colonial dominion over the Kazakhs and other ethnic minorities.Grappling directly with the issue of Soviet colonialism,Curative Powersoffers an in-depth exploration of this dramatic, bloody, and transformative era in Kazakhstan's history. Paula Michaels reconstructs the Soviet government's use of medical and public health policies to change the society, politics, and culture of its outlying regions. At first glance the Soviets' drive to modernize medicine in Kazakhstan seems an altruistic effort to improve quality of life. Yet, as Michaels reveals, beneath the surface lies a story of power, legitimacy, and control. The Communist regime used biomedicine to reshape the function, self-perception, and practices of both doctors and patients, just as it did through education, the arts, the military, the family, and other institutions.Paying particular attention to the Kazakhs' ethnomedical customs, Soviet authorities designed public health initiatives to teach the local populace that their traditional medical practices were backward, even dangerous, and that they themselves were dirty and diseased. Through poster art, newsreels, public speeches, and other forms of propaganda, Communist authorities used the power of language to demonstrate Soviet might and undermine the power of local ethnomedical practitioners, while moving the region toward what the Soviet state defined as civilization and political enlightenment.As Michaels demonstrates, Kazakhs responded in unexpected ways to the institutionalization of this new pan-Soviet culture. Ethnomedical customs surreptitiously lived on, despite direct, sometimes violent, attacks by state authorities. While Communist officials hoped to exterminate all remnants of traditional healing practices, Michaels points to evidence that suggests the Kazakhs continued to rely on ethnomedicine even as they were utilizing the services of biomedical doctors, nurses, and midwives. The picture that ultimately emerges is much different from what the Soviets must have imagined. The disparate medical systems were not in open conflict, but instead both indigenous and alien practices worked side by side, becoming integrated into daily life.Combining colonial and postcolonial theory with intensive archival and ethnographic research,Curative Powersoffers a detailed view of Soviet medical initiatives and their underlying political and social implications and impact on Kazakh society. Michaels also endeavors to link biomedical policies and practices to broader questions of pan-Soviet identity formation and colonial control in the non-Russian periphery.

    eISBN: 978-0-8229-7074-3
    Subjects: History, Health Sciences

Table of Contents

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  1. List of Acronyms and Abbreviations
    (pp. ix-x)
    (pp. 1-18)

    Damesh Ermekova’s parents had hoped their first child would be male, but her father did not let fate deter him when his daughter was born in 1905. He raised her like one of the boys in their Kazakh, nomadic encampment on the Central Asian steppe. She came to ride horses like the best of them, and her father encouraged her natural inquisitiveness by teaching her to read and write. When he died from tuberculosis at age thirty-five, her paternal uncle Alikhan took over her education. Schooled in the Siberian city of Tomsk, her uncle exposed the young Damesh to the...


    • 1 Kazakh Medicine and Russian Colonialism, 1861–1928
      (pp. 21-45)

      The Soviet government’s use of biomedical knowledge and biomedical personnel to embed its rule in Central Asia began on a foundation laid by the Russian Imperial government. This chapter examines the roots of this policy from the conclusion of Russia’s subjugation of Kazakh territory to the start of the Stalin Revolution. Here I offer a brief summary of Kazakh history and the region’s encounter with the Russian Empire in order to provide context for understanding biomedical practices and policies. The remainder of the chapter discusses imperial Russian ethnography of Kazakh medicine and the relationship between this body of literature and...

    • 2 Medical Propaganda and Cultural Revolution
      (pp. 46-70)

      In 1928, the Soviet Union launched a modernization drive of unprecedented scope and pace. Under the leadership of Joseph Stalin, the USSR sought to “build socialism in one country” through rapid industrialization and forced collectivization of agriculture. Stalin attempted to extend Lenin’s political revolution to the Soviet economy, society, and culture through the expansion of heavy industry and the reorganization of the rural sector along socialist lines. From this new economic order would spring a uniquely Soviet culture, with modern, secular, socialist, urban values at its core. Embodying these traits, the New Soviet Man (and Woman) would emerge from this...


    • 3 Medical Education and the Formation of a New Elite
      (pp. 73-102)

      The ethnographic literature, pamphlets, posters, and other mechanisms for transmitting the state’s notions of Russian/Soviet domination and Central Asian inferiority were only part of the equation to achieve Kazakhstan’s integration into the USSR through the use of biomedicine. To spread biomedical practices, as well as the cultural ideas that lay at their foundation, the state had to expand dramatically the number of doctors, nurses, and other biomedical practitioners in Kazakhstan. Never did officials see this need more clearly than when the state embarked on the First Five-Year Plan of industrialization and collectivization. Moscow needed healthy workers on the job and...

    • 4 Building Socialism: Medical Cadres in the Field
      (pp. 103-126)

      By the time students graduated, educational administrators hoped they had assimilated both the medical and political knowledge necessary to make an effective contribution to building socialism. Party and state officials believed that doctors had a role to play in socialist construction that transcended narrow professional responsibilities. The RSFSR’s People’s Commissar of Public Health Kaminskii articulated this view in 1935 when he stated that

      our doctor should be not only of good conscience, diligent, and humanitarian; he should possess enormous cultural and social knowledge, be an organizer, a caretaker for children and the infirmed. If he comes to a family on...


    • 5 The Politics of Women’s Health Care
      (pp. 129-152)

      During the 1928 to 1953 period, despite various setbacks and problems that ranged from the petty to the catastrophic, the Soviet Union successfully expanded the population’s access to and use of biomedicine. The first two chapters of this book examined the ways in which first the Russian Imperial government and then the Soviet state used medical discourse to reinforce the political and cultural subjugation of the region within a colonial framework. Chapters 3 and 4 looked at the role of the educational system and professional cadres in deepening the state’s grip on Central Asia. Through the nativization campaign, the politicization...

    • 6 Medical and Public Health Policy toward the Kazakh Nomads
      (pp. 153-176)

      Moscow saw Central Asian women as ready targets for its agenda. The state believed that through medical institutions, as well as education and work outside the home, it could transform these unenlightened women into what it defined as loyal, modern, productive citizens. For Kazakhstan’s nomads there was no such hope of redemption. The transition to modernity could only be accomplished through the annihilation of their way of life. Their very existence attested to everything Bolshevik activists despised as primitive, antimodern, and backward. From the communist perspective, the Stalin Revolution in Kazakhstan would be incomplete without the end of nomadism and...

    (pp. 177-182)

    The collapse of the USSR has given scholars an unprecedented opportunity to ask new questions about Soviet history and to answer old questions in new ways. Far-flung corners of this country are now accessible, as is much of the vast quantity of documentation generated by its infamous bureaucracy. The languages and cultures of these places are available for study and can add a new dimension to our understanding of how history unfolded in these varied regions. This book takes advantage of these new possibilities to explore one question: how did the Soviet regime use biomedical cadres, technologies, and discourse to...