Grigory Ryzhakov – Russian Writer

A Genius Rediscovered: The Scientific Legacy of Sabina Spielrein


launer-spielrein-bookcoverThis year the world celebrates the 130th birth anniversary of Sabina Spielrein, one of the greatest  minds of the XXth century. Sadly, she was forgotten and have only recently been rediscovered. We are only beginning to realise the impact of her ideas on modern science and on our understanding of human psychology. I am sure that the dramatic story of her life will inspire many people.

I am delighted to post here a guest article by John Launer,  the author of the new Spielrein’s biography called Sex vs Survival.


Sabina Spielrein was a Russian-Jewish psychiatrist and paediatrician, best known for being a patient of the famous psychologist Carl Gustav Jung, and then one of his mistresses. An increasing number of people now recognise that she was also one of the most original thinkers in psychology in the twentieth century. She was born in Rostov-on-Don in 1885 but worked in Zurich, Vienna, Berlin, Geneva and Moscow, before returning to her home town for the last twenty years of her life.  Because of anti-Russian prejudice in the west, anti-Semitism, and Stalin’s repression of intellectuals, her own writings have remained almost known until recently. She wrote in three languages and covered a vast range of topics from mothers-in-law to schizophrenia, evolution and the development of speech. After her tragic death in the Holocaust in 1942, she was completely forgotten both in the west and in Russia. Historians only began to rediscover her work in the 1980s and 1990s.

In her writing, Spielrein brought together psychoanalysis with the study of children’s development, biology and neuropsychology. She used ideas from both Jung and Freud, and tried to persuade the two men to make contact with each other after their bitter split. She worked with the great educational psychologist Jean Piaget and was his psycho analyst. Later on, she helped to run a famous psychoanalytic kindergarten in Moscow – after Stalin shut it down, he gave the building to Maxim Gorky and it is now the Gorky Museum.  She taught the two eminent Russian neuropsychologists Alexander Luria and Lev Vygotsky. She influenced all these men and helped them to form their ideas. However, she was a modest individual and a bridge-builder, and she never tried to take credit for her influence or gather a following around her. As a result, the men around her often failed to acknowledge her importance.

The list of Spielrein’s intellectual achievements is extraordinary. When she was still a medical student, she wrote a dissertation about the importance of trying to understand the way that people with schizophrenia speak. At the time, almost everyone assumed it was ‘nonsense’, and she was one of the first to realise it had a special kind of sense and logic to it. A year later, in 1912 she wrote a paper called ‘Destruction as the Cause of Coming into Being’. She based it on Darwin’s idea of the preservation of species, making a link between the apprehension of death and the imperative to reproduce.  The paper combines a huge range of learning from philosophy, literature, religion and anthropology as well as psychiatry. She drew on Nietzsche and also the symbolist writers Solyovov and Ivanov. She was also very familiar with the work of the great Russian scientists of her time including Ilya Mechnikov. Some of the ideas in her paper anticipate thinking from the field of evolutionary psychology in our own age.

Spielrein was almost certainly the first person to use psychotherapy with children, and to work with them through play rather than words. She understood the importance of the relationship between mothers and infants, long before other thinkers like Melanie Klein and Anna Freud wrote about this. Some of her papers have a feminist emphasis, and she understood the difficulties that women face in their choices about reproduction. She agreed with the Hungarian psychoanalyst Sandor Ferenczi that psychiatrists and therapists should develop warm and equal relationships with their patients, rather than claiming to work from a position of superior knowledge and objectivity. In the 1920s, she helped to develop Russian pedology. This was a science that tried to break down barriers between medical, psychological and educational ways of looking at children. The historian Alexander Etkind has written about the history of pedology and her contributions to it (1). A hundred years on, all these ideas and ways of working look very much ahead of their time. In many professional fields, people are only now beginning to rediscover the same ways of working.

How is Sabina Spielrein now regarded? Sad to say, most psychiatrists and psychologists have still never heard of her – or they know of her as the hysterical patient and passionate mistress played by the actress Keira Knightley David Cronenberg’s move: ‘A Dangerous Method.’  Many people use the same ideas she came up with, without realising she was writing about them a hundred years ago. There was no accurate biography of her until a few years ago when Sabine Richebaecher wrote one in German: it in now available into Russian (2). My own recent biography is the first book to cover the development of her ideas and to summarise most of her papers (3). A number of scholars in the United States and elsewhere are beginning to write about the importance of her ideas, particularly about the relationship between mothers and their children, and the way this develops through the use of sounds and then language.

Russian thinkers have often been ignored or forgotten in western universities and in history books. In accounts of psychology in the future, Sabina Spielrein deserves a very important place.  I believe that people will come to recognise her importance in twentieth century intellectual history.


  1. Etkind, A. (1997) Eros of the impossible: The history of psychoanalysis in Russia. Boulder CO: Westview Press. [In Russian:Эткинд А.М. Эрос невозможного : История психоанализа в России. – СПб. : Изд. дом “Медуза”, 1993. – 463 с. ; 21 см.]
  2. Richebächer, S. (2008) Eine fast grausame Liebe zur Wissenschaft. Munich: BTB. [in Russian:Рихебехер С. Сабина Шпильрейн: “почти жестокая любовь к науке” : биография /Сабина Рихебехер; [пер. с нем.: К.А. Петросян, И.Е. Попов науч. ред. и лит. обраб. пер., вступ. ст. и примеч. в тексте – к.психол.н., доц. Ф.Р. Филатов]. – Ростов-на-Дону : Феникс, 2007. – 413 с., [8] л. ил., портр., факс. ; 21 см.]
  1. Launer, J.  (2015) Sex versus survival: The life and ideas of Sabina Spielrein. New York, NY: Overlook Press.


Sex Survival: a book review





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