Thursday, 9 May 2013

Early Soviet Nursing by Susan Grant

In this month's post, Dr Susan Grant, Irish Research Council CARA Mobility Postdoctoral Fellow, University College Dublin and University of Toronto, outlines her research project which examines nursing in Russia and the Soviet Union, 1914-1941.

In 2005 the Nurses Association of Russia joined the International Council of Nurses; this was the first time that any Russian or Soviet nursing association or organisation had cemented official links with an international nursing organisation. Until this point, Soviet nursing and nurses had remained isolated behind an iron curtain. In an effort to explain the deeper, underlying reasons for the lack of a strong professional organisation of Russian and Soviet nurses, it is necessary to examine the origins of Russian nursing. Consequently, this project explores the early development of Russian and Soviet nursing, beginning with its original philanthropic roots in the late Imperial era to the impact of the First World War and Bolshevik Revolution in 1917. This was a critical period for Russian nursing with events and decisions arising from war and revolution largely determining the future course of Russian nursing.

2nd sister detachment of workers from the textile factory in Kostroma. 

Departure to the front in 1919.

Source: Rabotnitsa 4 (1933): 7.
Source: Za sanitarnuiu oboronu, 10 (1939): 13.

With the Bolsheviks securely in power, the project then moves on to assess Soviet attitudes to nursing and examines the type of system that was established for the training and education of nurses under the new regime in the 1920s and 1930s, and the various changes that occurred in this system over a twenty year period. In the immediate wake of the October 1917 revolution and ensuing civil war (1918-1921) there were efforts to establish an international school of nursing, pursued largely by English and American Quakers, who hoped to establish a nurse training centre in Russia based on a western system of nursing education. However, in spite of official Soviet government approval, this never came to pass. In this project I examine the various reasons for this and outline the reasons behind why the kind of training system that emerged in Soviet Russia during this period was established. 

The type of system that eventually did emerge after years of war and revolution sought to separate nurses from their Tsarist era image of a religious Sister of Mercy and instead turn her into a proletarian type of “red sister”, and later a “medical sister”. However, in attempting to transform the social and political perception of the nurse, the nurse’s social status was not improved. Inhabiting almost the lowest rung on the medical professional ladder, the nurse struggled to gain respect and professional recognition. With largely inadequate training facilities, mixed attitudes to their competency by both colleagues and the authorities, and frequently poor living and working conditions, I aim to assess the doctor/nurse/patient dynamic within the hospital, clinic, or sanatorium and how this impacted on treatment and care. Using a variety of archival and printed sources in Russia, Britain and the United States, I aim to bring into focus the role and status of the Soviet nurse during this formative period of Russian history and draw on various Soviet, gender, and medical discourses to shed light on the position of the nurse within Soviet society.


Podcast of a lecture 'Caring Communists? The Development of Early Soviet Nursing, 1917-1941' by Dr. Susan Grant, given as part of the Centre for the History of Medicine in Ireland (CHOMI, UCD) Seminar Series, 31 January 2013.

Susan Grant is an Irish Research Council CARA Mobility Postdoctoral Fellow, University College Dublin and University of Toronto.  She recently published her book, Sport and Physical Culture in Soviet Society: Propaganda, Acculturation, and Transformation in the 1920s and 1930s (New York and London: Routledge, 2012) which is based on her PhD dissertation. Susan also held the 2012 Alice Fisher Fellowship at the Barbara Bates Center for the Study of the History of Nursing, University of Pennsylvania. For more information on Susan's research, click here.

1 comment:

  1. I would very much like to see research into the slow transition from village midwives to those trained in urban centres. There seems to be plenty of possibly useful documentation in provincial archives.

    We see petitions to Catherine the Great's assembly, asking for more midwives in the cities; the admission of Jewish midwives from the Pale; the welcoming of trained midwives by isolated Mennonite families.

    On the other hand, right through to the twentieth century, there was resistance by ordinary villagers, apparently not just because the urban-trained midwives were seen as imperious outsiders but also because they did not take part in all the domestic tasks needed while the mother was lying in. We might interpret this as conduct comparable to that of the men-midwives of Western Europe.

    We see here attitudes glimpsed in parts of Western Europe at various periods and places, but little studied. Is this one of the reasons why many midwives resisted anatomical training, or ignored it when they returned to their districts or villages?

    We see similar issues arising today in South and South-East Asia, although each cultural zone involves different cultural tensions.

    Research on Russia, if widely publicized, would contribute greatly to both the history of Russian women and to a comparative history and anthropology of childbirth and nursing.