Spielrein, Sabina Nikolayevna
First name:
Sabina Nikolayevna
20th century
Field of expertise:
Child and adolescent psychiatry
Place of birth:
Rostow (RUS)
* 07.11.1885
† 12.08.1942
Biography print

Russian-Jewish physician und psychoanalyst.


Sabina Spielrein (1885–1942) was born in Rostov-on-Don in Southern Russia as the oldest of five siblings (Richebächer 2005: 14). She grew up in a wealthy Jewish upper-class family, her father was an agronomist and grain wholesaler, her mother a trained dentist. Yet Spielrein’s childhood and adolescence were marked by sustained physical violence at the hands of her father and, most likely, other persons. Her sister Emilia (born in 1895) died of typhoid fever in 1901; all of her brothers were to become renowned scientists: Isaak (born 1895) an industrial psychologist and pioneer of “psychotechnics” in the Soviet Union; Jan (born 1887) a professor of electrical engineering in Moscow; and Emil (born 1899) a professor of biology at Rostov University. As early as at the age of three or four, Spielrein developed severe defecation problems. As a teenager, she compulsively uttered excretory phantasies during meals, accompanied by laughter and cries of disgust. She became increasingly withdrawn but still was extremely eager for learning and knowledge. While her intellectual development remained unaffected, she showed more and more problematic behaviours, including frequent crying, laughing and screaming fits (Carotenuto 1986: 252 f.).


Hospitalisation and relationship to Carl Gustav Jung

After a stay at a sanatorium in Interlaken (Switzerland), she was transferred to “Burghölzli”, the Zurich clinic directed by Eugen Bleuler, on 17 August 1904. Her diary entries of that time are marked by agonising inferiority complexes and a need for love. Her attending doctor was Carl Gustav Jung (1875–1961), who noted “masochistic traits”, “obsessions”, “paranoid” symptoms and a “pronounced affective disorder”. What he found most noticeable were her “tics (twitching her legs, sticking out her tongue, jerkily turning her head, grimacing and making defensive movements), which she displayed almost throughout her hospitalisation” (quoted after Volkmann-Raue 2002: 40; translated from German). To cure her “severe hysteria”, Jung applied early methods of psychoanalysis (“free association”); he assumed that there was a neurotic connection between the existing physical traumata and sexual impulses (Jung 1905: 115). After a few months of treatment, patient and doctor developed an increasingly trustful relationship. Spielrein took up medical studies in Zurich in April 1905 and was finally discharged from the clinic on 1 June (Volkmann-Raue 2002: 41).


Jung had already entrusted her with scientific tasks while she was still an in-patient; this collaboration continued even as a “tragic transference love” (Cremerius 1986: 9) developed between 1906 and 1909: 19-year-old Spielrein became the student, assistant and mistress of the 28-year-old analyst. Yet, in a letter to Sigmund Freud, Jung described her as “reckless” and saw her in behaviour a “‘Russian peculiarity’ that both repelled and magically attracted” him (quoted after Reetz 2006: 194 f.; translated from German). He used the notes from his therapy sessions with Spielrein for his association research (Freud & Jung 1974: 260 ff.) and published a lecture on her case in 1908. It is, however, disputed whether or not the two really had sexual contact. Jung told Freud that the relationship was one between kindred spirits and “on par”: that it had grown on the basis of deep mutual understanding and shared interests. Spielrein invested heavily in this love affair and allegedly wanted to have a child with Jung, but he feared a potential scandal. His letters to Freud in which he addressed this “therapeutic boundary violation” contributed to Freud’s development of the theory of countertransference and the method of training analysis (cf. Reetz 2006: 234 f.).


In early 1909, the relationship became public after Spielrein’s parents had gotten wind of it. By this time, Jung was already very prominent, and Spielrein worked as a doctor at a clinic in Zurich. Jung’s first attempt to get in touch with Freud on the matter dates back to September 1905, when he sent a letter containing a medical report in which he stated that Spielrein had fallen in love with him. This letter, however, apparently never reached Freud. In October 1906, Jung turned to Freud once again (Minder 1993) but did not end the relationship with Spielrein until 1909. Spielrein herself also wrote a letter to Freud on 30 May 1909, but he refused her request to see him. Instead, in a letter to Jung from 18 June 1909, Freud recommended that the issue should be dealt with at the intrapsychic level: “In view of the matter we work with, it will never be possible to avoid little laboratory explosions” (quoted after Carotenuto 1982: 235). Spielrein, for her part, found a productive way to deal with the patriarchal complicity of her two dominant father figures, while Jung did not mention her in his 1962 autobiography, even though she had been his companion for more than 15 years – they kept corresponding until 1919 – and had translated his work into Russian.


Scientific work

Spielrein completed her studies in 1910 as planned. Success and survival had become her overriding goals: She wrote that the words “[N]ow there is no more fear, pain is no longer felt, there is just eating, sleeping, and working” should be “carved” into her “like into grey rock” (2007: XX; translated from German). In 1911, she was the first woman to obtain a doctorate for a psychoanalysis-based thesis on the psychological content of a case of schizophrenia, supervised by Eugen Bleuler. In her second major publication, Die Destruktion als Ursache des Werdens [Destruction as the Cause of Coming into Being], she reflected on her own dispositions and was the first to develop hypotheses regarding the destructive components of libido as a “force that prettifies everything and, in some circumstances, destroys everything” (1911: 465; translated from German). She joined the “Wednesday Society”, co-founded by Freud in Vienna in 1902 as the world’s first psychoanalysis society.


For Spielrein, writing was like a “lifeline”, which may have been the result of an unconscious conviction of being undeserving and worthless and that only superior performance would secure her existence. Her last diary entry, dated 14 July 1912, reads: “Married Dr Paul Scheftel” (the Russian-Jewish physician Pavel Nahumovitch Sheftel). The couple married in Zurich and then moved to Berlin where their first daughter, Renata, was born in 1913. Between 1912 and 1923, Spielrein’s places of residence changed – Zurich, Berlin, Lausanne, Geneva – as well as her professional positions and interests: work in a surgical clinic, musical studies and compositions, from 1919 again work as a psychoanalyst. Her husband left the family at the beginning of the First World War, returned to Russia and entered a relationship with Olga Snetkova. In 1920, Spielrein joined the Rousseau Institute in Geneva where she worked with the Swiss developmental psychologist Jean Piaget (1896–1980), who also went into an analysis with her (Richebächer 2005). She wrote around thirty essays, and when she left the institute in 1923, she left behind a suitcase with diaries and letters, which were only rediscovered in the late 1970s by Aldo Carotenuto (1986).


Return to the Soviet Union

Spielrein returned to her home country, now the Soviet Union, in 1923 and took residence in Moscow. She had already been there four years ago for a lecture to introduce her Russian colleagues to psychoanalysis. She rejoined her husband Pavel Sheftel, and in 1924 the family moved back to Rostov-on-Don where their daughter Eva was born (Reetz 2006: 319). Spielrein was a member of the Russian Psychoanalytic Society; she worked at the polyclinic of the Psychoanalytic Institute in Moscow, as a university lecturer and at the Moscow-based children’s home “International Solidarity”, led by Vera Schmidt (1889–1937), a student of Freud. In 1936, psychoanalysis was banned in the Soviet Union. As a child psychoanalyst, Spielrein obviously shared Freud’s shift away from the “seduction theory” in favour of his theory of the unconscious mind. Given her own experience of childhood violence, as a therapist she could possibly only pass on as much as she herself had managed to work through. Her essays often included observations of “Little Renata”, her older daughter. Both daughters later studied music. Little is known about Spielrein’s life as a wife and mother; her husband died in 1937, and her three brothers were all arrested and executed in 1937/38 during Stalin’s Great Purge. After the capture of Rostov-on-Don by the German Wehrmacht on 24 July 1942, Sabina Spielrein and her two daughters were among the 25,000 Jewish residents of the city who were shot by SS Einsatzkommandos at Zmiyovskaya Balka, a ravine outside Rostov, between 11 and 14 August 1942 (Karger & Weismüller 2006).



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Carotenuto, A. (1982, ed.): A Secret Symmetry. Sabina Spielrein between Jung und Freud. New York: Pantheon.

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Cremerius, J. (1986): Vorwort. In: A. Carotenuto: Tagebuch einer heimlichen Symmetrie. Sabina Spielrein zwischen Jung und Freud. Freiburg: Kore, pp. 9–28.

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Höfer, R. (2000): Die Psychoanalytikerin Sabina Spielrein. Part 1. Rüsselsheim: Göttert Christel Verlag.

Jung, C.G. (1908): Über die Freudsche Hysterietheorie. In: C. G. Jung: Gesammelte Werke, Vol. 4, Düsseldorf: Patmos 1969, pp. 11–28.

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Kerr, J. (1994): Eine gefährliche Methode. Freud, Jung und Sabina Spielrein. Munich: Kindler.

Martynkewicz, W. (1999): Sabina Spielrein und Carl Gustav Jung. Eine Fallgeschichte. Berlin: Rowohlt.

Minder, B. (1993): Jung an Freud 1905: ein Bericht über Sabina Spielrein. In: Gesnerus 50 (1/2), pp. 113–120.

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Richebächer, S. (2008): “Ich sehne mich danach, mit Ihnen allen zusammenzukommen....” – A Letter by Sabina Spielrein-Scheftel (Rostov-on-Don) to Max Eitington from 24 August 1927. In: Luzifer-Amor – Zeitschrift zur Geschichte der Psychoanalyse 21, No. 42, pp. 65–74.

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Mähler, S. (2013): Eine dunkle Begierde oder eine gefährliche Methode? Zur Figur der Sabina Spielrein in David Cronenbergs Spielfilm Eine dunkle Begierde. In: Cinema Quadrat e.V., P. Bär, G. Schneider: David Cronenberg. Gießen: Psychosozial Verlag, pp. 97–101.

Minder, B. (1994): Sabina Spielrein. Junge Patientin am Burghölzi. In: Luzifer-Amor. Zeitschrift für Geschichte der Psychoanalyse 7, pp. 55–127.

Spielrein, S. (1911): Über den psychologischen Inhalt eines Falles von Schizophrenie (Dementia praecox). In: Jahrbuch für psychoanalytische und psychopathologische Forschungen 3, pp. 329–400.

Spielrein, S. (1912): Die Destruktion als Ursache des Werdens. In: Jahrbuch für psychoanalytische und psychopathologische Forschungen 4, pp. 465–503.

Spielrein, S. (1920): Renatchens Menschenentstehungstheorie. In: Internationale Zeitschrift für Psychoanalyse 6 (2), pp. 155–157.

Spielrein, S. (1920a): Das Schamgefühl bei Kindern. In: Internationale Zeitschrift für Psychoanalyse 6 (2), pp. 157–158.

Spielrein, S. (1920b): Das schwache Weib. In: Internationale Zeitschrift für Psychoanalyse 6 (2), p. 158.

Spielrein, S. (1920c): Verdrängte Munderotik. In: Internationale Zeitschrift für Psychoanalyse 6 (4), pp. 361–362.

Spielrein, S. (1923): Ein Zuschauertypus. In: Internationale Zeitschrift für Psychoanalyse 9 (2), pp. 210–211.

Spielrein, S. (1986): Werke. Freiburg: Kore.

Spielrein, S. (1986a): Die Destruktion als Ursache des Werdens. Tübingen: Edition Diskord.

Spielrein, S. (1987): Sämtliche Schriften. Freiburg: Kore.

Spielrein, S. (2007): Nimm meine Seele. Tagebücher und Schriften. Berlin: Der Freitag.

Spielrein, S. (2001): Tagebuch und Briefe. Die Frau zwischen Jung und Freud. Edited by T. Hensch. Gießen: Psychosozial Verlag.

Stephan, I. (1992): Die Gründerinnen der Psychoanalyse. Eine Entmythologisierung Sigmund Freuds in zwölf Frauenporträts. Stuttgart: Kreuz.

Volkmann-Raue, S. (2002): Sabina Spielrein: Die Destruktion als Ursache des Werdens. In: S. Volkmann-Raue, H. E. Lück: Bedeutende Psychologinnen. Biographien und Schriften. Weinheim: Beltz Verlag, pp. 39–55.


A complete bibliography of all writings published by Sabina Spielrein, including details of English translations, is available at the website of the International Association for Spielrein Studies: www.spielreinasociation.org.


Popular Culture


Ich hieß Sabina Spielrein (Germany 2002). Documentary directed by Elisabeth Márton (released in the US in 2005: My Name Was Sabina Spielrein).

Prendimi l'anima/The Soul Keeper (Italy/France/UK 2002). Biopic directed by Roberto Faenza. 

A Dangerous Method (Canada/UK/Germany 2011). Feature film directed by David Cronenberg.


Heike Oldenburg, Jessica Thönnissen, Burkhart Brückner


Referencing format
Heike Oldenburg, Jessica Thönnissen, Burkhart Brückner (2016): Spielrein, Sabina Nikolayevna.
In: Biographisches Archiv der Psychiatrie.
URL: www.biapsy.de/index.php/en/9-biographien-a-z/307-spielrein-sabina-nikolajewna-e
(retrieved on:22.02.2024)