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Sabina Spielrein

· ​Women of value ·

It was the year 1904 and in Burghölzli Psychiatric Clinic, Zurich the then 30-year-old Carl Gustav Jung was trying out the new Freudian psychoanalytic technique on a young woman, 18-year-old Sabina Spielrein.

A scene from the film “A Dangerous Method” (2011) directed by David Cronenberg which portrays the relations between Carl Gustav Jung, Sigmund Freud and Sabina Spielrein

The daughter of a Jewish merchant and a dentist, born at no. 83 Puškin Street in the Russian city of Rostov, Sabina had been admitted to this clinic, considered one of the best in Europe, because of a hysterical psychosis contracted after the death of her younger sister, Emilia, who was only four years old: her medical records when she was admitted described her as a patient out of control, prey to very pronounced nervous tics and unusual attacks of laughter and tears. With her, rejecting the traditional therapy of hypnosis, Jung took the first steps with the so-called “talking therapy”, the new psychoanalytical technique conceived of by Dr Sigmund Freud of Vienna which was at that time becoming established in German-speaking regions.

In the space of only eight months Sabina Spielrein re-merged from the state of physical and psychological frustration which she had been through between 1905 and 1911. Now cured, she obtained a degree in medicine and psychiatry in Zurich, writing a thesis under the supervision of Jung himself on the language of a schizophrenic patient and subsequently undertaking pioneering studies in psychoanalysis, which led her to be the first person to identify the death instinct. This was recognized, albeit in a reticent and ambiguous manner, by Freud himself who, in his essay Beyond the Pleasure Principle, mentioned her, stating that “a considerable part of these speculations was anticipated by Sabina Spielrein, in a work rich in content and ideas which unfortunately is not quite clear to me. She describes the sadistic element of the sexual drive as ‘destructive’”.

In the meantime an intense and troubled relationship of love had sprung up between Jung and Sabina which lasted for seven years. It came to an end perhaps because Jung refused to beget their longed for son Siegfried, who for the two lovers would have embodied the possibility of the union of the Semitic and Aryan races. They both shared a passion for Wagner from whose celebrated work they had taken the name for their “ideal son”, and Sabina, who by virtue of her artistic temperament was moreover an excellent musician, could both play and compose at high levels, as revealed in a letter written to Freud in 1909: “It was Wagner who introduced the demon into my soul with terrible clarity. I wanted to do without metaphors, for perhaps you will laugh at the exuberance of my feelings. The whole world was like a melody to me: the earth sang, the lake sang, the trees sang, branch by branch”.

But as has been said, the passionate intellectual and artistic friendship between Jung and Sabina was broken off, despite the fact that they continued to maintain a “professional” correspondence for the rest of their lives. Jung’s wife Emma also contributed to the break-up of their relationship. Sabina made an implicit reference to her in one of the first letters she wrote to Freud: “Four years ago Dr Jung was my doctor, he then became a friend and subsequently ‘poet’, that is, lover. He finally seduced me and everything went as usually happens in ‘poetry’. He preached polygamy, his wife would agree, etc., etc., but my mother received an anonymous letter written in excellent German which told her to save her daughter who might be ruined by Dr Jung”.

In 1912 in Vienna, Sabina married Pavel Scheftel, a Russian doctor of Jewish origin like her. From their union were born in 1913 Renate and Eva, although it is not clear whether the latter was a daughter whom Pavel had had by another woman. With them, however, Sabina moved to Moscow where, in a splendidly decorated Art Nouveau building, together with Vera Schmidt, one of the leading figures in the Russian psychoanalytical movement, she founded the “White Nursery”, so called because of the colour of its walls and furniture. It was a psychiatric hospital, but also a place for teaching, in which children were invited to express themselves freely, without being repressed by an iron discipline. The white colour which surrounded them reinforced the possibility of inner clarity, it permitted them to “colour” the space with their own emotions and creative resources. “It seems that it is the first time that a psychoanalyst has been put in charge of directing a children’s’ nursery school”, Sabina wrote to Jung: “What I would like to show is that if a child is taught freedom from the outset, he or she will perhaps become a truly free man or woman”, and “to this I will devote all my passion”. This sort of psychoanalytical laboratory for children had as pupils the children of Bolshevik representatives, including Vasily Stalin, the son of Joseph. The White Nursery was called by various names, including the Psychoanalytic Nursery of Moscow and the International Solidarity Workshop: it provided for teaching methods that were very advanced for the time, play, music, the study of animals and in general development in an atmosphere free of conditioning. Stalin, however, having removed his son, closed the nursery, accusing Schmidt and Sabina of “sexual perversion” because the children there were also taught to know their own sexuality. In fact the nursery was closed because the educators’ aim had been to help children to develop in an atmosphere of freedom of action and thought, principles that were the exact opposite of Stalin’s doctrine.

In 1941, during the German occupation, Sabina returned to live in Rostov-on-Don, her native city; but her idealism and courage, forged in a past life devoted to love and to the search for freedom, caused her to commit a fatal error: she failed to flee when the Germans began to invade Russia, not believing possible – having longed for the union between Semites and Aryans in her ideal son Siegfried – the Nazi genocide against the Jews. She was summarily shot in August 1942 in the Rostov Synagogue, together with her two daughters and the Jewish population of the area.

Elena Buia Rutt




St. Peter’s Square

Jan. 27, 2020