Dec. 5, 1996
Vol. 16, No. 7

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    The lingering effects of violence

    Neuroscience of today sheds light on Russia's violent history Violence in society can perpetuate itself over decades, long after a nation has suffered an initial traumatic experience, according to research by Richard Hellie, Professor in History, who has been studying the effects of violence in 16th- to 18th-century Russia.

    Taking an unconventional, multidisciplinary approach to historical research, Hellie has been using in his research recent studies on neurological damage suffered by children who have witnessed violence.

    His research shows that much of the mayhem experienced in Russia during the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries can be linked to a psychological environment poisoned by destructive events and people's inability to cope with them.

    The violence in Russia touched all levels of society, from authority figures who used harsh punishment on criminals to villagers who attacked each other without apparent provocation. So pervasive was the brutality that Peter the Great's facial and body tics were possibly symptoms of a case of stress-induced Tourette's syndrome, Hellie said. The czar, as well as many of his subjects, could have been suffering from what is now known as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.

    The experience of the Russians offers one explanation for why violence becomes a feature of some cultures, according to Hellie. It also provides a warning that uncontrolled violence in today's society may be planting the seeds for increasing violence in generations to come.

    As medical research has shown, "excess exposure to traumatic violence will alter the developing central nervous system, probably by changing receptor sensitivity. This predisposes the victim to be a more impulsive, reactive and violent individual," Hellie writes in the paper "Interpreting Violence in Late Muscovy from the Perspectives of Modern Neuroscience."

    Because exposure to violence changes the brain chemistry in ways that are probably irreversible, "violence breeds more violence. It feeds on itself," he said.

    For guidance in examining the records of brutality in Russia, Hellie turned to the work of Bruce Perry, a professor at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston and one of the nation's leading researchers on trauma and children.

    "I think Professor Hellie's capacity to integrate principles of neurodevelopment and trauma into his scholarly interpretation of that period in history is brilliant," Perry said. "Indeed, his paper speaks volumes about many situations of social dissolution, environmental chaos and the neglect and traumatization of children -- and the transgenerational issues of violence and political instability."

    The remarkably violent social conditions in early modern Russia began in 1558 with a 25-year war with the Baltic state of Livonia and continued throughout the reign of Ivan the Terrible. His death in 1584 was followed by a chaotic period known as the Time of Troubles, a period of peasant uprisings and other unrest that lasted from 1598 to 1613.

    Among the external threats the nation faced were those posed by the Tatars, a warrior group on the southern reaches of the country who raided Russia periodically to capture men to sell as galley slaves and women and children for childbearing. Those few people who returned told horrible tales of suffering, which parents used as warnings to children.

    The Russian government itself created an extremely punitive judicial system in which counterfeiters, for instance, were punished by having molten metal poured down their throats. Women were buried alive for murdering their husbands, and religious dissidents were burned alive in cages.

    The atmosphere of violence touched daily life in other ways. People commonly killed their own babies, particularly daughters, and thieves would attack women to tear their earrings from their ears. "There are all kinds of Muscovite records of peasants from one village assaulting those from another for no apparent reason," Hellie said.

    The effects of this violence on people's psychological development is clear in light of what is now known about neuroscience, Hellie continued. "Growing up in a violent society is likely to be self-perpetuating. Children learn that violent aggression is the preferred solution to problems, and the brain that develops during such learning is adapted both to produce and cope with violence." The abnormal brain development people experience as a result of violence inhibits their ability to develop humor, empathy and attachment, all of which could counter the effects of violence. Instead, people develop other ways to deal psychologically with it. Men in particular develop a "fight or flight" response. As a result of persistent fear, such as that spawned by the prolonged trauma experienced by the Russians, people are also often drawn to alcohol, which can lead to more violent behavior.

    Another response to violence is withdrawal, which is common among children and women. These people surrender to violence by becoming disassociated from it. They experience depression, amnesia and other forms of mental illness, and may become suicidal. "We know that feelings of helplessness and powerlessness were prominent in Moscow," Hellie said.

    The violent period in Russia began to decline in 1721 with the end of Peter the Great's Northern War (1700-1721), which eased the outside threats that in turn had prompted the internal violence. The Russian people began the long psychological recovery from the damage that had been done by decades of disruption, although later violent periods, such as the era under Stalin's rule, would begin the cycle again.

    Hellie said that the experience of the Russians can provide an important lesson for other societies that are experiencing violence today.

    "We can see this kind of violent behavior in places like Northern Ireland, Bosnia and the nations in Africa," Hellie said. "The impact of present day violence will go on in these places for 25 more years. I think what we are learning about neuroscience provides us with important information for understanding these trouble spots, as well as valuable material for understanding history."

    -- William Harms