, Volume 34, Issue 1, pp 132-168

Post-Soviet Placebos: Epistemology and Authority in Russian Treatments for Alcoholism

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Abstract

The dominant modalities of treatment for alcoholism in Russia are suggestion-based methods developed by narcology—the subspecialty of Russian psychiatry which deals with addiction. A particularly popular method is the use of disulfiram—an alcohol antagonist—for which narcologists commonly substitute neutral substances. Drawing on 14 months of fieldwork at narcological clinics in St. Petersburg, this article examines the epistemological and institutional conditions which facilitate this practice of “placebo therapy.” I argue that narcologists’ embrace of such treatments has been shaped by a clinical style of reasoning specific to a Soviet and post-Soviet psychiatry, itself the product of contested Soviet politics over the knowledge of the mind and brain. This style of reasoning has facilitated narcologists’ understanding of disulfiram as a behavioral, rather than a pharmacological, treatment and has disposed them to amplify patients’ responses through attention to the performative aspects of the clinical encounter and through management of the treatment’s broader reputation as an effective therapy. Moreover, such therapies have generally depended upon, and helped to reinforce, clinical encounters premised on a steeply hierarchical physician–patient relationship.