History of the Unconscious in Soviet Russia: From Its Origins to the Fall of the Soviet Union1

By Angelini, Alberto | International Journal of Psychoanalysis, April 2008 | Go to article overview

History of the Unconscious in Soviet Russia: From Its Origins to the Fall of the Soviet Union1


Angelini, Alberto, International Journal of Psychoanalysis


Russia accepted the notion of the unconscious and psychoanalysis before many Western countries. The first Russian Psychoanalytic Society was established in 1911. After World War I and the Russian Revolution, for a short happy period, the following psychoanalysts were active: Sabina Spielrein, Tatiana Rosenthal, Moshe Wulff, Nikolai Osipov and Ivan Ermakov. Scholars associated with Soviet ideas participated too, including Aleksandr Luria, Michail Rejsner and Pavel Blonskij. Lev Vygotskij himself dealt with the unconscious. A second psychoanalytical society was set up in Kazan. Unfortunately, at the end of the 1920s, repression dissolved the psychoanalytic movement. Even the word 'psychoanalysis' was banned for decades. Nonetheless, interest in the unconscious, as distinct from psychoanalytic theory, survived in the work of the Georgian leader D. Uznadze. His followers organized the 1979 International Symposium on the Unconscious, in Tbilisi, Georgia, which marked the breaking of an ideological barrier. Since then, many medical, psychological, philosophical and sociological scholars have taken an interest in the unconscious, a subject both feared, for its ideological implications, and desired. Since the 1980s, psychoanalytic ideas have been published in the scientific press and have spread in society. The fall of the USSR in 1991 liberalized the scientific and institutional development of psychoanalysis.

Keywords: ideology, Marxism, paedology, psychoanalysis, reflexology, Russia, set theory, USSR, the unconscious

Origin and repression

Russia was one of the first countries to welcome psychoanalytic ideas, before psychoanalysis was accepted or even known in many Western nations. Furthermore, the notion of the unconscious was already present in the tradition of 19th century Russian philosophers and in the 'objective psychology' school, whose most predominant member was Ivan P. Pavlov. The latter, despite his distance from psychoanalysis, was nevertheless cited by Freud (1905 [1972, p. 176]), as regarding the psychic anticipation of a motor act. Meanwhile another member of the objective psychology school, Vladimir M. Bechterev, through his interpretation of perversions and inversions based on reflexology, attracted the attention of Otto Fenichel (1924). On his part, the 19th century founder of objective psychology, Ivan M. Sechenov, had on several occasions expressed important reflections on the theme of the unconscious.

From the beginning of the 20th century, psychoanalytic ideas began to spread in Russia. Only relatively recently have studies on the history of the subject been written (Angelini, 1988, 2002; Etkind, 1993; Miller, 1998). The crucial year is 1908, with three significant events. Firstly, an important psychiatric journal, Psikhoterapiia [Psychotherapy], was launched in Russia, with Vyrubov as its editor. The latter was a psychiatrist who had shown an interest in the suggestive-persuasive method used in Berne by Paul Dubois (1904) and in the Freudian theories which were then starting to appear on the scientific horizon. In the following years, Psikhoterapiia regularly published information on the progress of the psychoanalytic movement, as well as full psychoanalytical articles, including various translations of Freud's writings. Also in 1908, a military doctor from Odessa, A.A. Pevnitskii, held the first conference with a psychoanalytic subject in St Petersburg. Finally, in that same period, the Korsakoff's Journal for Neuropathology and Psychology published two articles by Nikolai J. Osipov (1887-1934). Osipov was to become known in the official history of psychiatry as one of the most important pupils of Bechterev. These articles dealt with Jungian studies on the concept of complex, the associative experiments, and the most recent works of the Freudian school (Osipov 1908, 1909).

Osipov had studied in Switzerland and had worked for some time at the Burghñlzli Hospital in Zurich canton, Jung's workplace.

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