The history of homeopathy in the Russian Empire
until World War I, as compared with other European countries and the USA: similarities and discrepancies

by Alexander Kotok, M.D.
On-line version of the Ph.D. thesis improved and enlarged
due to a special grant of the Pierre Schmidt foundation.

4.3.2 The Belev experience

It should be mentioned that in the 1860s and 1870s some zemstvos tried to introduce homeopathy based on treatment performed by clergymen. The most distinguished example is doubtless represented by the Belev zemstvo which had been using homeopathy for more than 20 years. Boris Veselovsky, the author of a major work "Istoriia zemstva za 40 let", published in 1909, reported, in his chapter on medicine that:

In the Belev district of Tula province, during the first years, a very insignificant sum of about 200-300 rubles was assigned for medicine, but even this was mostly unspent. In 1869, the zemstvo 'introduced for the uezd a cheaper kind of medical help - homeopathy', assigning for this aid 150 rubles yearly [...] at the priests' disposal. Nineteen priests provided homeopathic treatment, so the zemstvo was very satisfied with the results and with the low price of this treatment and decided to continue its application. The priests reported that 'uncomplicated diseases peculiar to the peasants, were dealt with easily by this form of treatment' and that 'this treatment succeeded with diseases that were considered incurable'. In 1871, the zemstvo had abolished the position of the physician, but because of an epidemic of cholera in 1872, this position was renewed. In general, the zemstvo sponsored homeopathy for 25 years [...]. A trend towards a special inclination to practice homeopathy could also be found in other places. For example, the Trubchev zemstvo meeting of the Orlov province decided in 1877 to buy homeopathic drugs for experiment64.

Henry E. Sigerist may be referring to this "experiment" when he wrote:

One Zemstvo body which decided to have its patients treated by homeopathy, ruled that physicians are not required for the purpose, and the priests and school teachers could administer treatment just as well. Such instances were exceptional, however...65

It is important to stress that the Belev (the above mentioned Bel'sky uezd) zemstvo approved the involvement of rural priests in medical affairs. In his "Geschichte der HomIopathie in Ruhland", Bojanus cites the protocol of the meeting sent to him by the chairman Baron Cherkassov:

At the meeting of Belev district zemstvo which was held on September 5, 1869, a proposal of the Chairman came to the knowledge of those present. According to this proposal, it would be worthwhile to entice the district clerics to provide homeopathic medical care to the peasants, in order to provide more prestige to the zemstvo medical department. This initiative was taken by the Chairman after the eparchial newspaper published its article "On An Expedient Method of Treatment of the Common People" (No. 15, 1865).

The meeting decided: in order to carry out this proposal, the zemstvo should ask the district clerics whether they would agree to treat diseases with the homeopathic method. Those clerics who agree will be provided with manuals and homeopathic kits. An annual sum of 150 rubles [for this aim] was requested [...].

According to decision of the Belev district zemstvo meeting of September 5, 1869, 20 homeopathic kits, together with suitable manuals were distributed to the district clerics. Of the annually assigned sum of 150 rubles during the years 1870, 1871 and 1872 only 300 rubles were spent, whilst 150 rubles were saved. 13 rural clerics reported that homeopathic treatment is perfect and especially useful in uncomplicated illnesses. [...]. The priests produced the following figures of peasants treated from 1870 to 1873:

Village Name of Cleric  
Kamenki Flerov 2606 sick persons
Pogorelovo Preobragensky 1533  - " -
Semenovskoe Uspensky 815  - " -
Sunichovo Znamensky 823  - " -
Novikh-Dolets Sergievsky 751  - " -
Labodino Troitsky 250  - " -
Peskovatovo Darsky 304  - " -

While the reports were being presented to the zemstvo meeting, the clerics in villages Zaitsovo, Kuz'minski and Stromka treated 275 patients in addition. Thus, at the expenditure of 300 rubles during these three years, 7357 people were treated successfully.

From the villages Durakovo, Luchek, Komarevo, Poronino, Temrossnaia and Ivamordino the reports of the clerics were not submitted. The midwife Sokolova, who took part in using the kit together with the cleric in the village Monaionki, informed that they could not yet provide any report as no sufficient time had passed since the kit had been received.

No doubt that those clerics who did not send reports, probably had no less success in their activity. Thus, the general result should be seen as extremely favorable.

Signed: Baron Cherkassov

With the original authenticated: Secretary Kazansky66.

Bojanus did not add any critical comment on these wonderful figures, although the figures presented seem to be too impressive. Even while considering the number of the recovered peasants to be exaggerated, one may nevertheless suggest that the priests liked their new duty.

Two years later an enlarged version of Bojanus' book was published, this time in Russian, entitled "Gomeopatiia v Rossii". Bojanus slightly changed the facts: "The evidence collected from 13 priests on the success of their healing, shows that the homeopathic method of treatment enjoys a great success...."67. Bojanus did not clarify from whence the additional 6 priests came. As to Veselovsky, his information is based exclusively upon several lines included in the essay of E. G. Lazarev dealing with the development of medical service in the Belev uezd68.

The Glukhov zemstvo authority (uprava), in its search for information, turned to the Belev zemstvo in 1886, regarding its use of homeopathy and its place in the local system of public health.

The [Belev] authority replied that homeopathy has been practiced in the Belev zemstvo since 1870, in addition to allopathy, in the isolated areas of the district. This homeopathic treatment is carried out by the priests who receive homeopathic medicines from the zemstvo. The zemstvo is completely satisfied with the results obtained69.

Unfortunately, we may only guess why in the zemstvo, which was "completely satisfied with the results obtained", homeopathy came into decline. From my correspondence with the Tula State Archive I learned that financially at least there were indeed many reasons for being "completely satisfied". Mr. Dmitry Antonov, the Chief Archivist, replying to my request, informed me kindly that according to the documents found at the archive, during the period since 1874 (when the Belev zemstvo started publishing its annual financial reports) until 1886, the zemstvo had steadily enjoyed that most of the "homeopathic allocations" were left unspent. In 1873, only 25 rubles had been spent for buying homeopathic drugs (of the permanent yearly assignations of 150 rubles). In the next several years the unspent money was also considerable. The amount spent for purchasing homeopathic medicines were (in rubles): 1874 — 41,5; 1875 — 51; 1876 — 51; 1877 — 83,5. In 1879, it was deceided to decrease the annual allocation to 75 rubles. In 1880, 1881 and 1883, for some obscure reason, no homeopathic drugs had been bought. The following several years represent very modest expenditures for homeopathy: 1882 — 34,5; 1884 — 36; 1885 — 32. In 1886, the last year providing information on the Belev homeopathic experience, the annual sum decreased again, this time to 30 rubles, while only 26 rubles had been spent. The next reports of the zemstvo, according to Mr. Antonov, contain no data regarding homeopathy70.

I have to recognize, that this "homeopathic story", especially its end, raises a number of questions. On the one hand, the zemstvo informed its counterparts from the Glukhov authority that indeed homeopathy has found its place within the Belev zemstvo medical system and that the zemstvo is "completely satisfied with the results obtained". On the other hand, no financial means were assigned any more for homeopathic medicines after 1886. In my opinion, the most probable explanation may be the following. The constant decreasing of the sums spent on homeopathy at the zemstvo, reflected not only doubtless cheapness of homeopathic medicines, but also a reduction of the number of those practicing homeopathy in the district. During the 16 years when homeopathy had been practiced in the district, some priests might have died, passed to other parishes, become old and might have stopped practicing homeopathy.

4.3.3 Homeopathic activity of the Church

In the 1880's, priests-homeopaths began publishing their own observations and their discussions concerning homeopathic treatment. It was often possible to read in the homeopathic periodicals cases like the following one presented by the priest Dmitry Matveev of the Khar'kov province. He reported:

On September 11, 1886 I was invited to visit a sick woman in order to say 'the parting words' [...]. The patient was a woman in childbirth and she was really going to die. All the efforts and foolishness of the local rural old women during two days had not led to the desired results. The situation had become critical. Because of my recent practice of homeopathic treatment, I volunteered to help. The absence of labor and the general weakness of the woman pointed to Secale cornutum. I prescribed this medicine with frequent doses.

After taking the drug, as prescribed by the priest, labor began and by morning ended with a birth. The priest wrote down that the woman was saved only thanks to homeopathy71.

During the 60s and the 70s of the nineteenth century, more and more rural clergymen came to homeopathy. There is absolutely no doubt that the successful treatment by rural priests using homeopathic drugs led to a strong interest from the church authorities and strongly influenced their benevolent attitude toward homeopathy which became evident in the 1880's and especially in the 1890's. High-ranking churchmen tried to increase their social prestige and influence in society by participating in the homeopathic organizations. One high-ranking clergyman even headed a homeopathic society: Kiprian, Bishop of Semipalatinsk, was at the head of the Semipalatinsk Society of the Followers of Homeopathy. On the other hand, the rural clergy consolidated its connection with parishioners who in turn, provided financial support to the clergy. Some rural clergymen charged fees for their homeopathic treatment. For example, the priest Fedor Kibardin, arguing with one "mother" (a priest's wife) who published her opinion (in a clerical periodical) that the village clergy should refer the peasants to regular physicians, instead of treating them with homeopathy, explained:

Some of our brethren [i.e., priests] would like to treat but they say that they have no money. You should borrow, the kit will soon cover the expenses and you could even make a little money. I take, for example, 5 kopecks for one medicine, usually I give two medicines to add or replace each other [...]. This payment is enough to renew my kit, subscribe to "Vrach-gomeopat", the rest is about 100 rubles, sometimes even more, as a reward for my work. The sum of 100 rubles is a very significant addition to the priest's house budget72.

Dr Ferdinand DLUGOBORSKY (1821—1894)

I have found little evidence of the involvement of non-Orthodox clerics in the spreading of homeopathy in the Russian Empire. Nevertheless, some instances may be brought. The Polish physician I. Koisevich, of the city of Kotsk, describing in 1873 how he became a homeopath, adds the following observation:

Most of the Roman Catholic clergy do not believe in homeopathy. On the other hand, almost all the ecclesiastics of the Uniate Church coming from Galicia, have homeopathic books and remedies. I personally know two of them who treat very successfully, absolutely without drawing any scientific conclusions [on the essence of homeopathy]. It derives either from a better knowledge of German, the language in which most of the homeopathic books have been written, or for other reasons73.

In contrast to this view, it was reported in the obituary of Dr. Ferdinand Dlugoborsky (1821—1894) that he was an allopath until 1872, but after he had seen how the Roman-Catholic priest Pavlovsky's homeopathic treatment led to the recovery of a woman, he also turned to the practice of homeopathy74.

4.3.4 Russian Orthodox clergy and its homeopathic connection — how did this phenomena spread?

I would like to argue that during the closing years of the 19th century, the massive participation of the Russian Orthodox clergy in the spread of homeopathy in Russia was not a matter of fashion. It was a serious and professional commitment. It is of interest that when a collection of money for the Hahnemann memorial was initiated by the "Vrach-gomeopat" journal in 1898—99, a significant part of the total sum (2133 rubles) was represented by the metropolitan and provincial clergy's 2-3 ruble donations75. Many priests subscribed to the homeopathic periodical and felt thankful toward Hahnemann. The Russian collection was a third of all the money, about 20,000 francs, collected for this memorial erected at the Parisian cemetery Père-Lachaise in 190076. The rest of this sum was provided by donations from others, mostly Western European, countries.

Parisian cemetery Père-Lachaise

Russian homeopaths always related to the clergy as their faithful ally in the spreading of homeopathy in the Empire, especially in the rural areas. While discussing epidemics of cholera, it was pointed out at one of the meetings of the Kiev Society of Followers of Homeopathy that

[...] Except for teachers, the clergy has been able to bring help to the people [with homeopathic treatment] [...]. There is a contingent of 50,000 of clergymen at least [in Russia]77.

It remains nevertheless extremely difficult to assess the exact number of Russian Orthodox priests who were interested in homeopathy and who used it for treating people. I have only been able to find the following statistics: according to the report of Nicholas Fedorovsky at a meeing of the Kiev Society of the Followers of Homeopathy, from 3 homeopathic pharmacies of St. Petersburg, 1172 priests, have been receiving homeopathic drugs78. Taking into account that in Russia there were then 16 special homeopathic drugstores, I can speculate that several thousands of priests worked with homeopathy.

Obviously, the clergymen who had been receiving homeopathic drugs were those who practiced in villages; moreover, many of the clerical supporters of homeopathy were representatives of the urban "black" and "white" clergy. These supporters did not treat peasants but supported homeopathy by participating in the activities of homeopathic societies. When the first Russian homeopathic societies as well as dispensaries were established in St. Petersburg79, the homeopathic press made some passing mention of the clergy, for instance that some priest (sometimes even without being named) sanctified a hospital or a clinic. In the 1890s, every homeopathic society in Russia or Ukraine was inaugurated with the active participation of the Russian clergy, and the homeopathic periodicals readily quoted the churchmen's speeches in full. It goes without saying, that this clerical participation met with an extremely hostile attitude of allopaths:

It is very regretful that the clergy enters a field absolutely unknown to it, being at that, in opposition to its direct duties, a sponsor and diffuser of ignorance80.

Also, while mentioning the speech of a high-ranking clergyman on the occasion of receiving a very considerable donation by the St. Petersburg Society of Followers of Homeopathy, "Vrach" commented:

We cannot understand the role of the respected Archimandrite Tikhon, who said 'a deeply-felt word' and wished the Society of Homeopaths to justify the trust (!) given to it. Is it suitable for the clergy to say such deeply-felt words on scientific absurdities? If somebody would establish, for instance, a society for the application of perpetuum mobile, would even then the representatives of the Church offer such sympathetic speeches?81

One should mention that the clergymen treated with homeopathy not only their congregations, but also themselves and recommended homeopathic ways of treatment to each other.

Feofan the Hermit (1815—1894)

For example, the "saint" Russian cleric, Feofan the Hermit (1815—1894; Vasily Govorov in the world), wrote to one of his church friends in 1883:

Accept my congratulations on obtaining a homeopathic physician as well as a kit. All the diseases will now be checked. It will be especially useful for a baby. You will see it by yourself. You have asked my advice on taking these medicines. I have many homeopathic books, the prescriptions being different in different sources...82

In a letter addressed to another correspondent, Feofan wrote in the same spirit:

I have heard that you are going to rely on homeopathy. Fine! I hear that the grains help many people. They also take them from me and it seems that they are helpful. There are many books about this. In my opinion, the following are the best [...]. I enclose Aconitum and Belladonna, take it in turn. During the attacks [no explanation here or later of which kind], take the drugs every 1, 2, 3 hours...83

One of the biggest achievements of Russian homeopaths was attracting the famous Russian churchman, the priest Ioann, Archpriest of Cronstadt84, who was active in publicizing homeopathy.

Renowned for both his charismatic spiritual leadership and his parish social work, Father Ioann was arguably the most popular and influential Orthodox cleric of the late imperial era. His charitable works and his sermons and writings on charity also made him by far the most important figure of the Church in late imperial charity85.

Ioann of Cronstadt (1829—1908)

Ioann of Cronstadt (1829—1908) was close to the Tsar's family in the 1890s86. He enjoyed a high authority, earning thanks for his speeches and philanthropic activity. His most famous book "My life in Christ" ("Moia zhisn' vo Khriste") had been translated into English in the late 1890s and was received favorably in England and the United States87. He was also known for having practiced magic healing with prayers; after his death the monastery where he was buried became a place of pilgrimage. Highly appreciating his merits, the Russian Orthodox Church Abroad elevated him to sainthood in 1964. In 1991, his grave was reconsecrated by the Orthodox Church in a convent that he had founded in St. Petersburg, and Father Ioann was also recognized as a saint by the Orthodox Church88.

Ioann of Cronstadt offered significant support for homeopathy in Russia by word and by deed. Later, some priests treating with homeopathy mentioned in homeopathic periodicals that it was priest Ioann's speeches concerning homeopathy, showing how Russian Orthodox clergymen created "miracles" in the treatment of the sick with homeopathic medicines, that led them to start their homeopathic activity. His authority was so great all over Russia, that even allopaths, fiercely condemning the churchmen for their collaboration with homeopaths, could not dare bringing Ioann openly to the dock89. Many Russian homeopathic societies elected him to be an honorary member. His sympathy to homeopathy and enthusiasm toward it were so deep and sincere, that sometimes even homeopaths were anxious about Ioann's expressions:

At the sanctifying of the new pharmacy and dispensary of the St. Petersburg Society of the Followers of Homeopathy on October 17th, 1881, highly respected Father Ioann made the following speech:

'Your institution or your method of treatment of diseases is based on the motto of the ancient sages-homeopaths Similia similibus curentur, the most sensible and right method. Even the Divine Wisdom could not find more correct means to heal mankind plagued with sins and with numerous maladies [...]. [The Lord proposes] to the sinful souls His God-Man example and His healing blessing commandments, whilst the bodies are treated with [...] the applying of like to the like, as, for example, clay including both earth and His life-giving saliva, was applied to the eyes of a blind person. [...]. So, my friends, in the God-Man you see the healing of like with the like. God will be your permanent all-mighty supporter in your all-useful activities [...].'

Although these words, inspired with conviction and enthusiasm, could not be left without influence on the numerous followers of Father Ioann, the originality of the comparison [...] arose the question whether it was done in the spirit of Orthodoxy. The Board [of the Kiev Society] inquired about this matter and [...] some competent men expressed in private interviews their opinion that there is nothing alien to the Orthodox doctrine in the inspired speech of Father Ioann Il'ich Sergiev [i.e., Father Ioann of Cronstadt]90.

Summing this section, I would like to mention that rural clergymen often were the first persons using homeopathy whom zemstvo physicians still unfamiliar with this kind of treatment met. As an example I may bring here the story of conversion to homeopathy of the distinguished Russian homeopath, Dr. Pavel Solov'ev, one of the founders of the St. Petersburg Charitable Society of the Followers of Homeopathy. The first time he became interested in homeopathy was when he was working (1872—1875) in the Syzran' district of the Samara province in the capacity of a district physician, and saw homeopathic manuals and medicines in use by the rural clergymen and landlords. Being surprised with that, he read those manuals and found them interesting. After he had moved to the Viatka district, another very provincial Russian locality, during his 2,5 year long rural practice there, he met again many rural clergymen treating with homeopathy. He finally decided to convert to homeopathy and received permission of the Red Cross, under which he was hired, to treat homeopathically in his day-to-day practice. Recognizing his successes in homeopathic treatment of typhus (Dr. Solov'ev lost only 12 patients out of the 188 he had treated), the Chairman of the Chief Department of the Russian Red Cross sent him a telegram of congratulation91.

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Copyright © Alexander Kotok 2001
Mise en page, illustrations Copyright © Sylvain Cazalet 2001