Sabina Spielrein

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Sabina Spielrein
Born Sabina Naftulovna Spielrein
(1885-10-25)25 October 1885
Rostov-on-Don, Russian Empire
Died 12 August 1942(1942-08-12) (aged 56)
Zmievskaya Balka, Rostov-on-Don, Soviet Union
Nationality Russian
Fields Psychotherapy
Institutions University of Vienna
Alma mater University of Zurich (M.D., 1911)
Academic advisors Carl Jung, Sigmund Freud
Part of a series of articles on
Unofficial psychoanalysis symbol
Memorial plaque at former residence of Sabina Spielrein in Berlin, Germany
Memorial plaque on the house where Sabina Spielrein lived at 83 Pushkin St, Rostov-on-Don. The sign says: "In this house lived the famous student of C. G. Jung and S. Freud, psychoanalyst Sabina Spielrein (1885-1942)"

Sabina Naftulovna Spielrein (Russian: Сабина Нафтуловна Шпильрейн, also transliterated "Shpilrein" or "Shpilreyn"; 7 November 1885 – 12 or 14 August 1942) was a Russian physician and one of the first female psychoanalysts. She was in succession the patient, then student, then colleague of Carl Gustav Jung, with whom she had an erotic relationship during 1908-1910, recounted in their correspondence from the time and her German diaries.[1] She also met, corresponded, and had a collegial relationship with Sigmund Freud. One of her more famous analysands was the Swiss developmental psychologist, Jean Piaget.[2][3] She worked as a psychoanalyst and teacher in Switzerland and Russia.[4] In a thirty-year professional career, she published over 35 papers in three languages (German, French and Russian), covering psychoanalysis, child development, psycholinguistics and educational psychology.[5][6] Her best known and perhaps most influential published work in the field of psychoanalysis is the essay titled "Destruction as the Cause of Coming Into Being", written in German in 1912.

Early life and family[edit]

She was born 1885 into a wealthy Jewish family in Rostov-on-Don, Russian Empire. Her mother Eva (born Khave) Lublinskaya was the daughter and grand-daughter of rabbis from Yekaterinoslav.[6] Eva trained as a dentist, but did not practice. Sabina's father Nikolai (born Naftul) Spielrein was an agronomist. After moving from Warsaw to Rostov, he became a successful merchant.[7] On her birth certificate, Sabina appeared as Sheyve Naftulovna,[8] but throughout her life and on official documents she used the name Sabina Nikolayevna.[9] She was the eldest of five children. One of her brothers, Isaac Spielrein,[10] was a Soviet psychologist, a pioneer of work psychology. From her early childhood, Sabina believed that she had a 'higher calling' to achieve greatness, and she communicated about this privately with a 'guardian spirit'.[1] However, her parents marriage was turbulent. She experienced physical violence from both her parents, and suffered from multiple somatic symptoms and obsessions.[6] Some commentators believe she may have been a victim of sexual abuse in the family.[11] She attended a Froebel school followed by the Yekaterinskaya Gymnasium in Rostov, where she excelled in science, music and languages, and achieved a gold medal.[12] She spoke three languages fluently by her teens.

Time in Switzerland[edit]

Spielrein went to Zurich to enroll as a student of medicine. She had a breakdown and was admitted in August 1904 to the Burghölzli mental hospital near Zürich, where Carl Jung worked. She remained there until June 1905, being treated by Jung for hysteria, involving masochism and fantasies of beating[13] a treatment which established a deep emotional relationship with Jung who was later to be her medical dissertation advisor. Bruno Bettelheim commented of her treatment that “However questionable Jung's behaviour was from a moral point of view...somehow it met the prime obligation of the therapist towards his patient: to cure her”.[14] Spielrein was able to begin her medical studies in 1905, graduating as a doctor in 1911. The intense relationship with Jung continued however, culminating in a (shared) fantasy of having a child between them to be called Siegfried. The historian and psychoanalyst Peter Loewenberg has argued (among others) that this was a sexual relationship, in breach of professional ethics, and that it "jeopardized his position at the Burghölzli and led to his rupture with Bleuler and his departure from the University of Zurich".[15] Others, like the author John Kerr, considered the relationship did not become wholly physical, despite Jung's temptation: as he wrote to Spielrein's mother, “no one can prevent two friends from doing as they wish...the likelihood that something more may enter the relationship”.[16] A documentary analysis of the three-way correspondence between Spielrein, Jung and Freud concerning the relationship appears in John Launer's biography of her, together with a review of how different commentators have interpeted this.[17]

After Spielrein graduated in 1911, she was elected a member of the Vienna Psychoanalytic Society later that year. Her dissertation, "Concerning the Psychological Content of a Case of Schizophrenia", was the first dissertation written by a woman that was psychoanalytically oriented. It was published in 1911 as the lead paper in the Jahrbuch für psychoanalytische und psychopathologische Forschungen, which was edited by Jung.[18] She continued working with Jung until 1912. She first wrote to Sigmund Freud in 1909, met him in 1911 in Vienna, and continued meeting and corresponding with him until at least 1923, eventually developing into more of a Freudian than a Jungian in her work.[19]

Spielrein married the Russian Jewish physician Pawel Naumowitsch Schefte in 1912; they had a daughter in 1913. During World War I, Spielrein continued to live in Switzerland while her husband joined his regiment in Kiev. In 1921 Spielrein was for eight months the psychoanalyst of Jean Piaget in Geneva.

Russian career[edit]

Psychoanalysis in Russia already had a turbulent history but its influence was strongest between 1921 and 1923. The Moscow Psychoanalytic Institute was established in 1922 under the direction of Moshe Wulff with Spielrein joining the staff full-time in 1923. She then became involved with an ambitious new project in children's learning known as the "Detski Dom" Psychoanalytic Orphanage–Laboratory (which also became known as the "White Nursery" due to the all-white furniture used).

Founded in 1921 by Vera Schmidt (who had also been one of Freud's students), the "Detski Dom" was intended to teach children based on Freud's theories. Along with Schmidt's own son, the school had children from prominent Bolsheviks (including Josef Stalin, whose son Vasilii was enrolled as well).[20] Use of discipline was avoided and children were allowed maximum freedom of movement.

Sexual exploration and curiosity was also permitted. The school had to close in 1924 in the wake of accusations of pornography and sexual experiments, as well as attempts to stimulate the children's sexuality prematurely (Etkind, 1993; Miller, 1998).[21]

Spielrein joined her husband in 1924 in Rostov-on-Don and their second daughter was born in 1926. In 1937 her brothers Isaak, Jan and Emil Spielrein were arrested, and executed in 1937 and 1938.[citation needed] Her husband died in 1936.


In August 1942, Spielrein and her two daughters, aged 29 and 16, were murdered by a Nazi German SS Death Squad, Einsatzgruppe D, in Zmievskaya Balka near Rostov-on-Don, together with 27,000 mostly Jewish victims.[22]


Spielrein is not often given more than a footnote in the history of the development of psychoanalysis for her conception of the sexual drive as containing both an instinct of destruction and an instinct of transformation, presented to the Vienna Psychoanalytic Society in 1912; but this conception anticipates both Freud's "death drive" and Jung's views on "transformation";[23] Toward the end of Beyond the Pleasure Principle (1920), Freud explicitly mentions her in that famous footnote, acknowledging that "A considerable part of this speculation has been anticipated in [her] work".[24]

Freud further referenced her 1911 work on schizophrenia in his postscript to the Schreber Case;[25] while her 1912 article 'Contribution to the Understanding of a Child's Soul' shows her in more orthodox Freudian mode.[26] Spielrein continued to publish articles in the Zeitschrift and Imago through the twenties, mainly focused on the importance of speech acquisition in early childhood (1920; 1922) and the sense of kinesthesia (1923; 1931).[27] Otto Fenichel however singles out for special mention her 1923 article on voyeurism, where “Sabina Spielrein described a peeping perversion in which the patient tried to overcome an early repression of genital and manual erotogeneity, provoked by an intense castration fear”.[28]

Extracts from her letters and diaries have appeared in English and German, edited by Aldo Carotenuto, along with her letters to Jung and correspondence with Freud.[29][1] The German edition also contains letters to her from Jung. Further extracts from her letters and diaries appear in the edition edited by Traute Hensch, which also contains her hospital notes in German, edited by the psychiatrist Bernard Minder.[30] An English translation of the hospital notes appeared earlier.[31] There are complete bibliographies of Spielrein's writings in the English biography by John Launer[5]and the German one by Sabine Richebächer.[6]

Popular culture[edit]


  • Spielrein, Sabina (1912). "Die Destruktion als Ursache des Werdens". Jahrbuch für psychoanalytische und psychopathologische Forschungen (in German) IV: 465–503. Retrieved October 14, 2012. 
    English translations:
1) Spielrein, Sabina (April 1994). "Destruction as the Cause of Coming Into Being". Journal of Analytical Psychology 39 (2): 155–186. doi:10.1111/j.1465-5922.1994.00155.x. Retrieved October 14, 2012.  Free pdf of the full essay by the Arizona Psychoanalytic Society. Retrieved October 14, 2012.
2) Spielrein, Sabina (1995). "Destruction as Cause of Becoming". Psychoanalysis and Contemporary Thought 18: 85–118. Retrieved October 14, 2012. 
  • (German) Spielrein, Sabina. Sämtliche Schriften. Giessen: Psychosozial-Verlag, 2008. (All of Spielrein's writings. In German. No English language edition.)

See also[edit]

Victor Ovcharenko - the Russian scientist who first introduced Sabina Spielrein's biography to the public in post-Soviet times.


  1. ^ a b c Carotenuto (ed.), Aldo (1986). Tagebuch einer hemlichen Symmetrie: Sabina Spielrein zwischen Jung und Freud. Freiburg: Kore. 
  2. ^ Schepeler, E. M. (1993). "Jean Piaget's experiences on the couch: Some clues to a mystery". International Journal of Psycho-Analysis 74 (2): 255–273. PMID 8491531. 
  3. ^ Vidal, F. (2003). "Sabina Spielrein, Jean Piaget—going their own ways (P. Bennett, Trans.)". In Covington, C.; Wharton, B. Sabina Spielrein: Forgotten Pioneer of Psychoanalysis. New York: Brunner-Routledge. pp. 271–280. ISBN 1-58391-903-1. 
  4. ^ Diu, Nisha Lilia (28 August 2011). "Jung Love: Sabina Spielrein, a forgotten pioneer of psychoanalysis". London: The Telegraph. Retrieved 1 January 2012. 
  5. ^ a b Launer, John (2015). Sex Versus Survival: The Life and Ideas of Sabina Spielrein. London and New York: Duckworth/Overlook. 
  6. ^ a b c d Richebächer, Sabine (2008). Eine fast grausame Liebe zur Wissenschaft. Munich: BTB. 
  7. ^ Sabina Spielrein.
  8. ^ Ljunggren, Magnus (2001). "Sabina and Isaak Spielrein". In Björling, Fiona. On the Verge: Russian Thought Between the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries. Lund University. pp. 79–95. 
  9. ^ Etkind, Alexander (1997). Eros of the Impossible: The History of Psychoanalysis in Russia. Boulder, CO: Westview Press. p. 172. 
  10. ^ Isaac Spielrein.
  11. ^ Graf-Nold, A. (2001). "The Zurich School of Psychotherapy in Theory and Practice: Sabina Spielrein’s Treatment at the Burghölzli Clinic in Zurich.". Journal of Analytical Psychology 46: 73–104. 
  12. ^ name="Richebächer 2008"
  13. ^ F. McLynn, Carl Gustav Jung (1996) p. 87-8
  14. ^ F. McLynn, Carl Gustav Jung (1996) p. 89
  15. ^ Loewenberg, Peter (1995). "The Creation of A Scientific Community: The Burghölzli, 1902-1914". Fantasy and Reality in History. New York: Oxford University Press. p. 76. ISBN 9780195067637. 
  16. ^ Quoted in F. McLynn, Carl Gustav Jung (1996) p. 124
  17. ^ Launer, John (2015). Sex versus Survival: The Life and Ideas of Sabina Spielrein. New York: Overlook Press. pp. 87–107. ISBN 9781468310580. 
  18. ^ Hall, Karen. Sabina Spielrein 1885-1942 Jewish Women: A Comprehensive Historical Encyclopedia, 1 March 2009. Jewish Women's Archive. Accessed 1 May 2015
  19. ^ F. McLynn, Carl Gustav Jung (1996) p. 192-7
  20. ^ (Russian) Petryuk PT, LI Bondarenko, AP Petryuk. Contribution of Professor Ivan Dmitrievich Ermakov in the development of psychiatry and psychoanalydsis (the 130th anniversary of his birth). News psihіatrії that psihofarmakoterapії. - 2005. - № 2. - S. 143-147.
  21. ^ "Sex, Attachment, and Couple Psychotherapy: Psychoanalytic Perspectives. Edited by Christopher Clulow. p 14.". 
  22. ^ "About Rostov : Remembering Rostov". Retrieved January 23, 2012. 
  23. ^ Bettelheim, Bruno (1983) "A Secret Asymmetry" in Freud's Vienna and Other Essays. New York: Alfred A. Knopf.
  24. ^ Freud, Sigmund (1922). "Beyond the Pleasure Principle". Editorial Preface by Ernest Jones. Translated by C. J. M. Hubback. Retrieved May 23, 2013. A considerable part of this speculation has been anticipated in a work which is full of valuable matter and ideas but is unfortunately not entirely clear to me: (Sabina Spielrein: Die Destruktion als Ursache des Werdens, Jahrbuch für Psychoanalyse, IV, 1912). She designates the sadistic component as 'destructive'. 
  25. ^ S. Freud, Case Studies II (PFL 9) p. 220
  26. ^ F. McLynn, Carl Gustav Jung (1996) p. 192
  27. ^ Otto Fenichel, The Psychoanalytic Theory of Neurosis (1946) p. 46, 282 and 655
  28. ^ Otto Fenichel, The Psychoanalytic Theory of Neurosis (1946) p. 348
  29. ^ Carotenuto (ed.), Aldo (1982). A Secret Symmetry: Sabina Spielrein between Jung and Freud. New York, NY: Random House. 
  30. ^ Hensch (ed.), Traute (2006). Sabina Spielrein: Nimmt meine Seele: Tagebücher und Schriften. Freiburg: Freitag. 
  31. ^ Minder, B. (2001). "Sabina Spielrein, Jung’s patient at the Burghölzli". Journal of Analytical Psychology 46: 43–66. 
  32. ^ a b c Sabina Spielrein at the Internet Movie Database.

Further reading[edit]

  • Carotenuto, Aldo. A Secret Symmetry: Sabina Spielrein Between Jung and Freud. New York: Pantheon, 1982 (One source states a revised edition in 1983; elsewhere 1984 is given as the year of publication. Originally published in Italian: Carotenuto, Aldo, Diario di una segreta simmetria. Sabina Spielrein tra Jung e Freud. Rome, Astrolabio, 1980 [a more recent Italian edition was published in 1999]. The German edition contains some of Jung's letters to Spielrein [the English editions do not]: Carotenuto, Aldo: Tagebuch einer heimlichen Symmetrie : Sabina Spielrein zwischen Jung und Freud. Freiburg im Breisgau: Kore, 1986. According to the bibliography of William Kerr's A Most Dangerous Method [page 571], the book A Secret Symmetry "contains the extant portions of Spierein's diary during the years 1909-1912 as well as her letters to both Freud and Jung.")
  • Covington, C. (2001) Comments on the Burghölzli hospital records of Sabina Spielrein J. Analytical Psychology, 46, 105-116
  • Fusar-Poli,Paolo. Sabina Spielrein. Am J Psychiatry 2012;169:21-21
  • Goldberg, A. (1984) A Secret Symmetry. Sabina Spielrein Between Jung and Freud. Psychoanal Q., 53:135-137
  • Hoffner, A. (2001) Jung's Analysis of Sabina Spielrein and his use of Freud's free association method J. Analytical Psychology, 46, 117-128
  • Kerr, J. (1993) A Most Dangerous Method: The Story of Jung, Freud and Sabina Spielrein.. New York: Alfred A. Knopf.
  • Launer, John. "The problem with sex." QJM: An International Journal of Medicine 100 (2007): 669-670. (Can be read online at publisher's web site. Brief summary of Spielrein's attempt to reconcile psychoanalysis with evolutionary theory and developmental psychology).
  • Launer, John (2015). Sex versus Survival: The Life and Ideas of Sabina Spielrein. New York: Overlook Press. ISBN 9781468310580. 
  • Raphael-Leff, J. (1983) A Secret Symmetry. Sabina Spielrein Between Jung and Freud. Int. R. Psycho-Anal., 10:241-242
  • Richebächer, Sabine (2003) "In league with the devil, and yet you fear fire?" Sabina Spielrein and C. G. Jung: A suppressed scandal from the early days of psychoanalysis. Covington, C. and Wharton, B. Sabina Spielrein. Forgotten pioneer of psychoanalysis. Brunner-Routledge, Hove and New York, 227-249
  • Richebächer, Sabine (2005) Sabina Spielrein. "Eine fast grausame Liebe zur Wissenschaft". Biographie 400 p. Dörlemann Zürich
  • Silverman, M. (1985) A Secret Symmetry. Sabina Spielrein Between Jung And Freud. J. Amer. Psychoanal. Assn., 33(S):205-209
  • Thompson, N. (1996) Freud, Jung And Sabina Spielrein: A Most Dangerous Method.. Psychoanal Q., 65:644-649
  • Van Waning, A. (1992) The Works of Pioneering Psychoanalyst Sabina Spielrein—'Destruction as a Cause of Coming Into Being'. Int. R. Psycho-Anal., 19:399-414

External links[edit]