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.