Banning the Soviet Lobotomy: Psychiatry, Ethics, and Professional Politics during Late Stalinism

Bull Hist Med. 2017;91(1):33-61. doi: 10.1353/bhm.2017.0002.


This article examines how lobotomy came to be banned in the Soviet Union in 1950. The author finds that Soviet psychiatrists viewed lobotomy as a treatment of "last resort," and justified its use on the grounds that it helped make patients more manageable in hospitals and allowed some to return to work. Lobotomy was challenged by psychiatrists who saw mental illness as a "whole body" process and believed that injuries caused by lobotomy were therefore more significant than changes to behavior. Between 1947 and 1949, these theoretical and ethical debates within Soviet psychiatry became politicized. Psychiatrists competing for institutional control attacked their rivals' ideas using slogans drawn from Communist Party ideological campaigns. Party authorities intervened in psychiatry in 1949 and 1950, persecuting Jewish psychiatrists and demanding adherence to Ivan Pavlov's theories. Psychiatrists' existing conflict over lobotomy was adopted as part of the party's own campaign against harmful Western influence in Soviet society.

Publication types

  • Historical Article

MeSH terms

  • Ethics, Medical / history*
  • History, 20th Century
  • Politics*
  • Psychiatry / ethics
  • Psychiatry / history*
  • Psychosurgery / ethics
  • Psychosurgery / history*
  • USSR