Russia: The Revenge of Subjectivity

By Mikihalevich, Aleksandr | UNESCO Courier, March 1993 | Go to article overview

Russia: The Revenge of Subjectivity

Mikihalevich, Aleksandr, UNESCO Courier

PSYCHOANALYTICAL literature was circulated in Czarist Russia from 1907 onwards by Russian doctors who had been trained in Switzerland, Germany or Austria and had then gone on to practise analysis in their own country. These followers of modified forms of Freudianism strongly opposed the view that the causes of mental illness are constitutional, and were hostile to the pessimistic and lazy attitude which led to confining its victims in asylums. From their experience as practitioners in local communities, they came to believe that there was little point in working on dreams, associations of ideas and sexual and infantile phantasms in an autocratic society that did not allow its subjects any autonomy. Nevertheless, the Czarist censors did nothing to prevent the publication of the review Psikhoterapiya, the formation of a medical circle whose meetings were known as the "little Fridays", or the translation of the works of Freud and his disciples.

The Russian Freudians, who were comfortably established in their country's scientific and professional institutions, were reluctant to relate individuals to their psycho-sexual background, to the effects of childhood traumas, or to the conflict triggered off by the remoteness and coincidence of past and present in their experience. They turned instead to psychotherapeutic techniques consisting of a mixture of psychoanalysis (to shed light on the meaning of the symptoms), and of suggestion (to reeducate patients and help them to readapt).

The influence of the "nervism" school formed by I. M. Sechenov and later developed by I. P. Pavlov and V. M. Bekhterev prompted the Russian Freudians to look for a physiological basis for the psychological mechanisms and processes described by psychoanalysis. This reductionist approach tended to make them somewhat distrustful of introspection, to raise the brain reflex to the status of a key concept in scientific psychology and to play down the insights of mentally disturbed people into their own condition.

However, this voluntarist view of the individual as a programmed entity was qualified by clinical practitioners such as Drs. Drosnes, Ossipov, Vyrubov and Pevnitzky, who acknowledged the validity of Freud's discoveries concerning the sexual causes of neuroses. This was tantamount to discovering that the individual had a "psychic reality" which was shaped by the pleasure principle and was impervious to the illusions of voluntarist teaching. At the same time, Freud's disciples applied psychoanalysis to literature and political events, and rediscovered, in the wake of Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy, the pathological motivations underlying certain forms of terrorist and revolutionary action.


The new regime that emerged from the October revolution tolerated the existence of a Soviet Association of Psychoanalysis (1922-1931) and a Governmental Institute of Psychoanalysis (1922-1925). Intellectuals living in the big cities and Communist youth organizations realized that Freud could become a useful adjunct to Marx and could justify the sexual freedom favoured by Lenin in a bid to break down the traditional hidebound bourgeois family. Trotsky regarded the works of Freud and Adler as tools that could be used to create a new kind of human being and to provide decisive arguments against the theses of idealism. Medical doctors who were advocates of psychoanalysis, such as A. Zalkind, set out to construct a new form of teaching practice based on the concept of sublimation: since human beings possess a single form of bio-psychic energy, it should be managed in such a way as to derive the maximum benefit from eroticism for collective purposes, and also perhaps to bring about the end of "sexual imprisonment".

Although it did not share these extraordinary views, the Soviet Association of Psychoanalysis, a club of university teachers and middle-ranking Communist Party officials favourable to Freudianism, worked on possible ways and means of taking prophylactic sociological action. …

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