Dr. Pavel Vasilyev

Areas of specialization:

Soviet History; History of Alcohol and Drugs; History of Emotions; History of the Body

Areas of competence:

Modern Russian, Central and Eastern European History; History of Science, Technology, and Medicine; History of Crime and Law; Gender History


Personal website

My research explores the social and cultural history of late Imperial and Soviet Russia with a particular focus on the developments in medicine, crime, and law. Building on the history of emotions and the history of the self, my work integrates contemporary anthropological and historical theories of affect, emotion, and subjectivity. Focusing in particular on the city of St. Petersburg/Petrograd/Leningrad, this research asks how new forms of expertise and governance, specifically scientific medicine, public health, criminology and the modern penal system, transformed both the urban space and the lives of ordinary people in a major Russian city between the late nineteenth century and the present.

My doctoral dissertation, defended at the St. Petersburg Institute of History of the Russian Academy of Sciences in October 2013, dealt with the emergence of drug addiction as a social problem in Russia in the period from the beginning of the Great War to the end of the 1920s. To a large extent, the dissertation was based on previously unknown archival materials, which I discovered during several years of extensive research in numerous St. Petersburg archives. After analyzing how professional definitions coined by medical and legal specialists produced direct social implications, I traced changes in practical narcotic policies and drug trials in revolutionary Russia in order to explain why (and how) the early Soviet authorities eventually decided that regulation of recreational drugs and compulsory treatment of drug addicts were necessary.

Between 2014 and 2016, I was a Postdoctoral Fellow at the Center for the History of Emotions in Berlin. Within the framework of the Law and Emotions research group, I examined the role of emotions in early Soviet legal thought and practice. The project focused in particular on the period of ‘revolutionary justice’ (1917-1922), when there was no Penal Code in Soviet Russia and the judges were officially supposed to be guided by their revolutionary feeling of justice. Drawing on an extensive range of published and unpublished materials, including numerous investigatory reports and trial records from the Central State Archive of St. Petersburg (TSGA SPb), I showed the influence of emotions on the administration of justice as well as substantial discrepancies between the writings of legal scholars and the actual implementation of the new legal model.

My current project at the Polonsky Academy, entitled Red Days on the Calendar: A Cultural History of Soviet Menstruation, examines various types of knowledge about menstruation (medical-scientific, hygienic, traditional), diverse emotions associated with it as well as evolving bodily practices and technologies that the Soviet women used to deal with their menstrual cycles. Taking ‘the personal is political’ principle seriously, I approach menstruation as an important phenomenon that is intrinsically linked to the existing political regimes, hierarchies of knowledge, gender orders and familial structures.  By combining archival and published material with the interviews and methods of oral history, I seek to provide a comprehensive picture of the Soviet menstruation experience and its changing nature in the short twentieth century.

Since 2018, I am also working on a history of clinical trials in the Soviet Union in its global context within the framework of an interdisciplinary research study led by Professor Olga Zvonareva (Maastricht University). The project, entitled Balancing Knowledge Reliability and Ethical Acceptability in Clinical Trials: From Emergence of a Randomized Controlled Trial to Precision Medicine, brings together and advances biomedical science, historical and social studies of science, technology and medicine and bioethics to provide a foundation for adequate and responsible balancing between scientific robustness and ethical considerations in clinical trials. It received the Early Career Researcher Program Grant under the Presidential Program of Research Projects of the Russian Science Foundation (RSF).

I am also the coordinator of the Soviet and Post-Soviet Movie Club at the Polonsky Academy. For the Spring Semester 2018/19 schedule, see https://www.vanleer.org.il/sites/files/Soviet%20Movies%202019Spring.pdf

Recent Publications:

  • “Drug Addiction and the Practice of Public Health in Late Imperial and Early Soviet Russia.” Vestnik of Saint Petersburg University. History 63, no. 4 (2018): 1100-1119.
  • “Sex and Drugs and Revolutionary Justice: Negotiating ‘Female Criminality’ in the Early Soviet Courtroom.” The Journal of Social Policy Studies 16, no. 2 (2018): 341-354.
  • “Flirting With the Market: The Early Soviet Government and the Private Provision of Health Care, 1917-1932.” In Health, Technologies, and Politics in Post-Soviet Settings: Navigating Uncertainties, eds. Olga Zvonareva, Evgeniya Popova and Klasien Horstman, 37-61. London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2017.
  • “Beyond Dispassion: Emotions and Judicial Decision-Making in Modern Europe.” Rechtsgeschichte – Legal History 25 (2017): 277-285.
  • “Revolutionary Conscience, Remorse and Resentment: Emotions and Early Soviet Criminal Law, 1917-1922.” Historical Research 90, no. 247 (2017): 117-133.