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  • Writer's pictureDale DeBakcsy

A Healer at the Fringe of Civilization: The Siberian Odyssey of Doctor Anna Bek

It is the early 1870s and we are heading into the mining town of Gornyi Zerentui, located in the mountainous Transbaikal region on the distant Siberian fringe of Imperial Russia. Here political prisoners are sent to work the mines for bare subsistence pay, overseen by the descendants of former political exiles, like the director of the mine whose house we are currently stepping into. It is filled with poor relations, doing their parts to keep the household running as a way of earning their keep; our interest is not in them but in the nursery where we shall find the household nanny sleeping in a makeshift bed while next to her three children slumber on the floor, sweetly oblivious to the scurrying sounds of omnipresent cockroaches.

One of those sleeping children is Anna Nikolaevna (1869–1954) and what she can expect from her life here in a part of Europe as of yet untouched by railway and indoor plumbing is a marriage to a mining engineer, the raising of ten or so children, and a slow descent deathward, all contained within a radius of perhaps 50 miles. But Anna, you see, has a mind, a phenomenal mind which will send her to the mightiest capitals of Europe, and all across the sweeping vastness of Imperial Russia.

It will also get her into a great deal of trouble, but for now she is the golden child, full of promise. Sitting underneath the dining room table while her older sisters have lessons in reading and writing, she seems to absorb the concepts immediately and naturally to the astonishment of all her family. Her sisters tell her repeatedly that she must ask their father to be allowed to go away to school in Irkutsk, some 950 miles away but still the closest school of any steady reputation, and one day, summoning all her courage, she does. And he, to the surprise of everyone, agrees.

Anna’s life, first at Gornyi Zerentui then at the Gugda mine, was a carefree one before her departure for formal schooling in 1882. She learned new things, romped through nearby forests, gathered berries and burned tree stumps, without a thought for the next day. At the Institute for Noble Girls in Irkutsk, however, her life took a sudden Dickensian turn as she was stuffed in a three-storey stone house with the barest minimum of food to eat and smothering restrictions on all activity. It was a place of little personal joy, but intellectually Anna flourished, given proper mental sustenance at last. She learned German and French and was soon top of her class, in which capacity she became the particular interest of the school’s new director, Konstantin Frantsevich, who inspired her with the thought that knowledge was only any good if it could be employed in the active helping of other people.

Graduating with Highest Honours in 1888, she had reached the pinnacle of what might be expected for a woman in provincial Russia. She had heard rumours of Higher Women’s Courses being offered in the imperial capital of St Petersburg, but that was 4,600 miles away, a month’s journey under the best of available conditions, and besides the Women’s Courses were reputed to be a wicked institution where women learned materialism and, gasp of gasps, atheism, as a result of their increased knowledge of the crude mechanisms of bodily functioning.

At first, Anna did not set her sights as high as St Petersburg but decided to settle down as a teacher of some sort in her home town and to do good in that fashion. To that end, she and some friends founded a small school, but upon the death of her mother she had the guilty thought that, if she had applied herself more, had stretched her brain and become a doctor, she might have been able to save her. When she read in one of her father’s papers the announcement of a new school, the Women’s Medical Institute, to be founded in St Petersburg with the tsar’s own approval, she formed her plans in an instant to attend and began cramming the Greek and Latin that would be required for her entrance exam.

In 1894, without having previously written to the Institute to discover its present status, she and her brother set out for St Petersburg, stringing together a chain of horses-and-carts, precarious ferries, and finally railroad cars to cover the distance in a brisk thirty-one days, only to discover upon arrival that the Institute was not open, and would not be any time soon. The Higher Women’s Courses were still running, however, and, impressed by Nikolaevna’s Irkutsk transcripts, they accepted her immediately. Here, Nikolaevna was able to further her higher general education, but it was not the place to further one’s medical knowledge and so she went to the city that had, for decades, been a refuge for women the world over seeking medical training: Paris.

Did she write ahead, to inquire about how likely it was that she would be accepted by a Paris medical university, before making the trip? You know enough at this point to know that the answer is no and, once again, the promising young student arrived in a city only to find that it did not have a place for her. It was 1895, an election year, and the government had decided to stand firm against the waves of foreigners who were taking up places at the university that ought to be going to Frenchmen.

Rejected by Paris, all was, however, not lost, for there were still the French provinces, which were eager to accept high-calibre students, and where a top-rate education could still be had. Nikolaevna ended up in Nancy, where she fell in instantly with a group of Russian-speaking women students who formed her intellectual entourage, supporting her emotionally and practically as she stormed ahead with a rigorous exam schedule. She achieved top marks again, but her score was later lowered by the administration so that a foreigner would not take first place on the exam rolls.

Her education was humming along when she heard that the Women’s Medical Institute would finally be opening in 1897, at which point she dropped everything to return to her much-missed native soil and join the first class. The topics of her first years there were rehashings of material she had learned in Nancy, and this gave her time to get involved with the intellectual scene that late nineteenth-century St Petersburg had to offer. These were heady times to be a student in the imperial capital. Young intellectuals were looking away from tsarist autocracy to bold new ideas in governance, with socialism and communism forming the stuff of a thousand dinner conversations held nightly throughout the city.

Nikolaevna was a founding member of a Marxist discussion circle that met regularly to sing workers’ songs and discuss different points of communist philosophy, and when the government began drafting students in Kiev for military service in 1901, she was one of the primary organisers of the Institute’s general student strike against the government’s actions. As a ringleader of the strike, she was targeted by the authorities, who decreed that she must leave the capital and go into exile for a period of one year, whereupon she returned home to serve out her time.

It was here, while in exile, that she met Evgeny Vladimirovich Bek, a conscientious, socially responsible and much-respected military doctor who had been given the job of roving Siberian physician after supporting the cause of the soldiers against the military administration in 1894. He and Anna were both committed medical practitioners who had been cast to the far reaches of the empire to keep their radical ideas far from the country’s administrative centres. She respected and admired him greatly but was never head-over-heels in love with him, which might have been a problem had she not had enough run-ins as a student with romantic love to know that it ended in heartbreak and self-recriminations more often than not. He was a sturdy and admirable man who was interested in the same things she was and who did not blink at the idea of his potential wife continuing her medical education.

He would, in short, do fine.

They married in 1902 and the following year, after returning from her exile, Nikolaevna, now Bek, received her medical degree just in time for the couple to serve together as doctors in the military hospitals of the Russo-Japanese War (1904/5) where the full brunt of Russian administrative incompetence was impressed on them daily. By 1906, they were back in Siberia, in the small town of Aksha where Evgeny was doctor to the Cossack Host and Anna made strides in developing a community centre to act as a central location for dramatic productions, educational displays and book exchanges, in an overwhelmingly successful attempt to raise the self-awareness and educational standards for a region given primarily to drinking and fist-fights as its main avenue of entertainment.

Moving in 1912 to Chita, the capital of Transbaikal, she applied her knowledge of new trends in psychology (particularly the theories of Maria Montessori) to the development of a new school for the region that spawned the training of dozens of teachers and the rise of an engaged parent community who were astounded by what their children were capable of, given a systematic structure to operate within. As in Aksha, Anna and Evgeny divided their patient load between them, with Anna more often than not seeing to the needs of women patients who were uncomfortable with a male doctor, and who appreciated her competence and professionalism.

With the arrival of the First World War in 1914, however, life in Chita took a decided stumble towards chaos that would last the better part of a decade. Evgeny was detailed to serve in the Chita military hospital, where he once again advocated for the betterment of the soldiers’ conditions (in this case an increase in their meagre rations) and once again was punished by the military administration with reassignment, this time to a Turkish typhus ward that was a virtual death sentence for a man of his age. In 1915, he duly caught typhus and died of it, leaving his wife to support their child in a region that was growing more unstable by the minute.

After the tsarist government fell in 1917, Chita became a crossroads in the subsequent Civil War which saw Soviet, tsarist and independent Cossack forces battling back and forth across the land, taking and losing the important political hub of Chita in turn while the citizens did the best they could to negotiate the constantly shifting ideological landscape. Anna was dedicated to reform and the championing of the workers’ cause, but was not comfortable with openly siding exclusively with the Communist Party. She knew too many people who were doing good and useful work from all manner of different political perspectives to allow herself to take part in any movement that would force her to disavow the people whose goodness she believed in. She recalled in her memoirs, written some decades later,

When one [member] of the Bolshevik Party … pointed out to me that by entering the party I could work on public education with greater success I was very confused; while I sympathised with the Bolsheviks, at the same time I knew that I was not suited to become a party member. One of my shortcomings was that I always evaluated people according to their moral qualities and not according to their political convictions. [transl. Anne Rassweiler].

This decision, to not openly declare herself a Bolshevik during the Civil War, would cause problems for her later, but she had made herself such a central part of the educational and medical system in Chita that she was retained with each change of ownership of the city, and only left in 1922 to be closer to her daughter, who lived at Irkutsk. Two decades had elapsed since Bek had been anywhere near the country’s interior, and she was starting her sixth decade of life, but she was determined to remake herself as a university professor in an increasingly unpredictable and hostile political climate.

She took it as her life’s work to espouse the benefits of reflexology and paedology, which at the time meant a holistic approach to child development which used anatomy, physiology and psychology together to evaluate and understand the different stages of human development. Rather than talking about abstract psyches or philosophically fashionable ideal concepts, she wanted to see how all the parts of the body work together to gradually create an adult being, and how we might use that knowledge of neural and motor development to create a better education system. While paedology was embraced at first by Soviet science as a solid, materially grounded counterbalance to Western medical mysticism, by 1936 it had fallen out of fashion, and Bek was forced from her position at the University of Tomsk in 1936 after refusing to disavow her belief in its scientific validity.

She found work in Novosibirsk for another seven years after that as a paediatrician and industrial trade school physician, but she would never again know the personal satisfaction she experienced in Chita as a medical practitioner and community organiser, nor the professional esteem she had experienced as an author of papers and researcher in the late 1920s when her paedological views were fashionable. She retired in 1944 to the role of grandmother, gifting the world one last treasure in the form of the memoirs she wrote in 1948 to tell her family a little bit about the remarkable life she had lived – starting on a floor in tsarist Siberia, and ending, quietly, one year after the fall of the Stalinism that had put her academic career in the service of children to a premature end.


We would know none of this story without the work done by Anne D. Rassweiler in researching Bek’s life, and translating and publishing her memoirs, which she did in The Life of a Russian Woman Doctor: A Siberian Memoir, 1869–1954 (2004). It is an astounding document, and the book provides useful notes on the particular relation of Siberia to the rest of tsarist and Soviet Russia during this turbulent era. This is exactly the sort of research and publication we need more of – so many women wrote nothing of their lives, and of those who did, so many accounts remain obscure in the hands of families who do not entirely know what to do with them, and the more exchange there is between families possessing documents like this and academics who can bring them to the light of day, the better the world will be. So, yeah, get it.

And if you want to read more tales of great women physicians, check out my History of Women in Medicine and Medical Research, available from Amazon, and Pen and Sword US and UK.


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