November is Epilepsy Awareness Month. Since it is coming to a close, I decided to make a small post about it.
It is estimated that today 1 in 26 people in the United States are affected by epilepsy, totaling about 65 million worldwide. This makes it more common than Parkinson’s disease, multiple sclerosis, autism, and cerebral palsy combined.
This neurological disease is characterized by uncontrollable seizures, which could risk additional injury and even death. It can be genetic. Because of the symptoms of violent shaking, epilepsy has been stigmatized in both the past and the present as demonic or of supernatural origins.
Historically, many famous figures have had, or, by looking at contemporary accounts, we suspect may have had epilepsy. They are from all across the world, including major political and cultural players in Russian history.
Here are but a few:
Tsar Ivan V Alekseyevich (1666–1696) – Ivan reigned jointly as tsar with his younger half-brother Peter the Great from 1682 to 1721. Despite this long reign, it was merely symbolic, since he had severe mental and physical disabilities. For the first seven years of his reign, his older sister, Sophia, was the real power behind the throne, using Ivan as merely a puppet to foreign dignitaries. He died at the age of 29, a couple years after becoming blind and paralytic.Tsar Pyotr I Alekseyevich (1672-1725) – More commonly known as Peter the Great, Pyotr is perhaps the most famous tsar in Russian history. And for good reason. As sole tsar and newly-declared Emperor from 1721 to 1725 after reigning with his half-brother nearly thirty years prior, he modernized Russia in all forms, including the military, government, and culture. He westernized an empire that was, at the time, very wary of Western ideas. Pyotr’s health had always been poor; he was literally a giant amongst his contemporaries, standing at 6 feet 8 inches. He had small hands and feet and narrow shoulders, and was very likely an alcoholic. He had noticeable facial tics throughout his life, which lead historians to believe that he suffered from petit mal (also known as absence seizures), a form of epilepsy.
Tsar Pavel [Paul] I Petrovich (1754-1801) – It is believed that this tsar, who reigned for only five years, had always been sickly since birth. Not much had happened during his reign, save for changing the laws of succession to the throne.Fyodor Dostoyevsky (1821-1881) – Fyodor is the world-famous Russian author, having written culturally rich works as Crime and Punishment, The Idiot, The Brothers Karamazov, Demons, and many more. Some of his work contains a theme of epilepsy or suffering a stigma due to a sickness. In The Idiot, the main character, Prince Lyov Nikolaevich Myshkin, suffers from epilepsy. He is naively good-natured and open-hearted, which causes society to stigmatize him as a simpleton and mentally disabled. The Brothers Karamazov also has one of the characters suffering from epilepsy. At the age of 18, he suffered his first epileptic fit. In honor of his son, he named one of the Karamozov brothers after him. One year, in 1877, he had up to four separate epileptic seizures, leading to a sharp decline of health. His three-year old son, Alexei, died a year later after a three hour seizure. Dostoyevsky’s illness inspired many doctors, including Sigmund Freud, to figure out the specific characteristics and reasons for epilepsy, sparking a new era for its study.
Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky (1840-1893) – Composer most well known for his 1812 Overture (listen here). He had seizures before his death, and a possible family history of epilepsy. However, it is not known if he can be formally diagnosed with the disease, since the seizures were provoked.
Dmitri Sinodi-Popov (1855-1910) – Dmitri was a Russian artist who, in 1870, had to quit his studies at St. Petersburg Academy of Arts due to his epilepsy. He later returned, within the decade, to his home town Taganrog, where he continued his studies. In addition to his artistic talent, he also played the violin and spoke French, Italian, and Greek.Vladimir Lenin (1870-1924) – Leader of the Bolshevik Party and first leader of the Soviet Union, he developed epilepsy in his final year of life, as well as several strokes that severely worsened his health. He died on January 21, 1924 after suffering a 50-minute seizure.
As this incomplete list shows, people with epilepsy can accomplish immense things that affect the world. This point is by no means exclusive to Russia, either. Historical figures such as Vincent van Gogh, Julius Caesar, Napoleon Bonaparte, Pope Pius IX, and Harriet Tubman all suffered from epilepsy in some form. None of these men and women were incompetent in society, much less in life, and their accomplishments should not be overshadowed by their illness.