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

Daniel Rancour-Laferriere
Copyright Date: 1995
Published by: NYU Press
Pages: 344
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  • Book Info
    The Slave Soul of Russia
    Book Description:

    Why, asks Daniel Rancour-Laferriere in this controversial book, has Russia been a country of suffering? Russian history, religion, folklore, and literature are rife with suffering. The plight of Anna Karenina, the submissiveness of serfs in the 16th and 17th centuries, ancient religious tracts emphasizing humility as the mother of virtues, the trauma of the Bolshevik revolution, the current economic upheavals wracking the country-- these are only a few of the symptoms of what The Slave Soul of Russia identifies as a veritable cult of suffering that has been centuries in the making. Bringing to light dozens of examples of self-defeating activities and behaviors that have become an integral component of the Russian psyche, Rancour-Laferriere convincingly illustrates how masochism has become a fact of everyday life in Russia. Until now, much attention has been paid to the psychology of Russia's leaders and their impact on the country's condition. Here, for the first time, is a compelling portrait of the Russian people's psychology.

    eISBN: 978-0-8147-6940-9
    Subjects: History

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-x)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. xi-xiv)
  4. ONE Introduction
    (pp. 1-17)

    Russian history offers numerous examples of the exploitation and debasement of human beings.

    After the Mongols invaded in the mid-thirteenth century they extracted obeisance, financial tribute, and military assistance from the princes of Rus’ lands for at least the next century and a half. As the Mongols lost their grip, the Muscovite state expanded, its tsar enforcing unrestricted despotic rule over all citizens.

    By degrees, starting roughly at the end of the fifteenth century, Russian peasants became more and more obliged to their landowning masters. From the late sixteenth century, they— that is, the vast majority of the rural Russian...

  5. TWO Some Historical Highlights
    (pp. 18-65)

    I do not wish to relate the history of Russian masochism from the beginning, because the beginning is largely unknown. I also do not wish to tell this story in great detail, because it would be too distasteful for everyone involved, and besides there would not be nearly enough space in one volume. Nonetheless it is worthwhile at least to indicate some relevant high points, in roughly chronological sequence, before going into detail about specific, selected masochistic practices.

    From the early days of Christian Rus’ (an East Slavic area occupied not by Russians properly speaking, but by “Rusians,” to use...

  6. THREE Two Key Words in the Vocabulary of Russian Masochism
    (pp. 66-77)

    It would be difficult to move any further in this psychoanalytic treatise without an explication of two items which are very difficult to translate into English. Indeed, I will not translate them, but will refer to them in transliterated form for the duration.

    The ethical notion ofsmireniefalls into the same semantic ballpark occupied by such English terms as “humility,” “meekness,” and “submission,” but the Russian term is more affectively loaded for Russians than the English terms are for most English speakers.Smirenieis primarily a religious (specifically, Russian Orthodox) feeling. Typically one submits oneself to a high dominance...

  7. FOUR Masochism in Russian Literature
    (pp. 78-92)

    Dmitrii Merezhkovskii once observed that the best Russian writers, however rebellious they may have been in their youth, repented. They ended up preachingsmirenieto their readers. Pushkin turned away from his Decembrist friends to write an ode to Nicholas I, Gogol blessed Russian serfdom, Dostoevsky declared, “Humble thyself, proud man! [Smiris’, gordyi chelovek!]” in his famous Pushkin speech, Tolstoy advocated “nonresistance to evil,” and so on. The only exception, according to Merezhkovskii, was Lermontov.¹ Perhaps that was because Lermontov died so young.

    Whether or not Russian writers themselves were advocates of moral masochism, it may truly be said that...

  8. FIVE Ontogeny and the Cultural Context
    (pp. 93-121)

    From a psychoanalytic perspective, the slave soul of Russia is best understood as an example of something Freud called moral masochism. Unlike erotogenic masochistic practices (sometimes called perversion masochism) in which an individual may need to be bound, beaten, or otherwise mistreated in order to achieve sexual orgasm, and unlike severe self-destructive and self-mutilative behavior based on a pervasive disintegration of psychic structures, moral masochism is a relatively mild disturbance in which the otherwise healthy individual searches for opportunities to suffer, to be humiliated, or to be defeated.

    It does not matter, according to Freud, who it is that satisfies...

  9. SIX The Russian Fool and His Mother
    (pp. 122-133)

    The fool (masculine “durak,” feminine “dura) is a species of masochist. He or she deliberately does things which do not seem to make good sense, at least from the viewpoint of an outside observer. In particular, the “stupid” things a fool does are harmful tothe fool.Observers laugh—sometimes even the fool laughs—because the fool’s acts are self-destructive, self-defeating, and humiliating. What the fool does thus fits the clinical definition of masochism given at the beginning of this book.

    Foolishness is a universal phenomenon. Many Russians claim, however, that Russia has more than her share of fools. Russia...

  10. SEVEN Is the Slave Soul of Russia a Gendered Object?
    (pp. 134-180)

    The “slave soul of Russia” is a metaphorical characterization of a mentality that pervades Russia on all cultural levels. But in the depths of the individual Russian psyche, this “slave soul” is a specific, personified, and gendered entity: it is a woman, most commonly the first and foremost woman in every Russian’s life, namely, the mother. At the national level, as we saw earlier, the “great [female] slave” (Grossman) is “Mother Russia” herself.

    Any responsible mother is in some sense enslaved by her children, especially by very small children who require constant attention. Vasilii Rozanov characterized a mother as a...

  11. EIGHT Born in a Bania: The Masochism of Russian Bathhouse Rituals
    (pp. 181-201)

    A favorite theater of pain in Russia is the communal bathhouse (“bania”). This idea may seem strange to the Westerner who is accustomed to the lonely pleasure of a tepid bathtub, or the bracing spray of a shower. A proper Russian bath, however, is not just relaxing, or bracing. It truly hurts. The Russian does not merely soap up and rinse off, but endures additional quotas of suffering. The water (or beer, or kvass) thrown on to the stones or bricks atop a special bathhouse stove (termed “kamenka” in the countryside) produces steam which is so hot as to bring...

  12. NINE Masochism and the Collective
    (pp. 202-244)

    In Russia, as in most other large cultures outside of the Western world (Japan, China, India, etc.), emphasis is placed on the collective. What cross-cultural social psychologists call collectivism predominates over individualism. To oversimplify somewhat: the beliefs, needs, and goals of the “in-group” are accepted as being more important than those of the private self, and to some extent are not distinguished from those of the self; mutual cooperation is expected within the collective; the interests of others come before one's own interests.¹

    Zero Masochism, as has been observed more than once in this book, is a phenomenon of the...

  13. TEN Conclusion
    (pp. 245-248)

    At the beginning of this book I stated that, over the centuries, Russians have enacted for themselves a culture of moral masochism. By this I did not so much mean to characterize Russians as to offer a characteristic of many, perhaps most Russians. Perhaps masochism is even the essence of the Russian soul, but such a claim would really have to be the topic of another book. A psychological trait, not national character, has been my focus here.

    There is much more that could be said about Russian masochism, of course. In some areas I have only scratched the surface....

  14. Notes
    (pp. 249-290)
  15. Bibliography
    (pp. 291-318)
  16. Index
    (pp. 319-330)
  17. Back Matter
    (pp. 331-331)