In 1816 the Ministry of National Enlightenment issued an edict relating to the practice of animal magnetism in the Russian Empire written by the members of the Medical Council in St. Petersburg. The decree authorized the practice of animal magnetism, but stipulated that it should be strictly controlled and limited to medical physicians, whose treatments were to be closely monitored. This attempt to exert state control over a contentious medical practice proved to be extremely difficult to implement. Indeed, this paper will examine how notable circles of the Petersburg nobility—with absolutely no medical qualifications—came to embrace magnetic somnambulism in the 1820s and 1830s. This strand of animal magnetism was distinctly esoteric and emerged in France in 1784, but became more widespread throughout Europe after the end of the Napoleonic Wars. According to this form of animal magnetism, magnetizers were able to place patients in an artificial state of somnambulism that not only enabled the so-called somnambules to self-diagnose health issues, but also to see within the bodies of others at a distance in order to prescribe medical treatments. Even more remarkable was the belief of some practitioners that certain individuals when placed into artificial somnambulism were able to enter a state of divine consciousness and were capable of clairvoyance and prophecy.
In this paper a study of three Petersburg practitioners of magnetic somnambulism—the poet and author Fedor Nikolaevich Glinka (1786-1880), the poet and so-called filosofka Anna Aleksandrovna Turchaninova (1774-1848) and Maria-Antonia Luchini (fl. 1830s-1840s), the widow of an Italian architect—will be undertaken. It is hoped that such a study will further our understanding of the important role played by this pseudo-scientific practice in providing a significant section of the Petersburg nobility with a means to comprehend and actively explore a fascinating variety of interrelated issues that emerged in the Russian Empire in the early nineteenth century: not least its important—and distinctly heterodox—role as a means of achieving spiritual revelation within the wider religious Awakening movement that flourished among sections of the Russian nobility; the challenge posed to the medical establishment and the wider State by somnambules who attested that they could cure themselves and others by their own innate intuitive ability; and the distinct agency afforded to female magnetisers and somnambules within a society that still afforded them little voice.
Robert Collis is Assistant Professor of History at Drake University (Des Moines) and is co-founder and Managing Editor of Вивлиофика: E-Journal of Eighteenth-Century Russian Studies. He received his BA (Hons) and MA degrees from The University of Sussex in England and his doctorate from The University of Turku in Finland, where he also received the honorary degree of Docent in 2014. Between 2010-2012 Dr. Collis was a Leverhulme Early Career Fellow at The University of Sheffield and between 2013-2014 Dr. Collis was a fellow of the Helsinki Collegium for Advanced Studies at The University of Helsinki. In 2016, Dr. Collis was elected a Fellow of the Royal Historical Society. He is the author of Petrine Instauration: Religion, Esotericism and Science at the Court of Peter the Great (Brill, 2012) and co-author of Initiating the Millennium: The Avignon Society and Illuminism in Europe (OUP, 2020).