Duke University Alumni Magazine


The sometimes supportive but ultimately fractious relationship between communism and psychoanalysis is examined in a new book by a Russian historian.

igmund Freud hasn't had an easy time of it, lately. A Library of Congress exhibition, "Sigmund Freud: Conflict and Culture," finally opened this past fall--some five years after it was conceived. When the director of the Freud Archives proposed the show, a "Freud-bashing contingent," as an account in The New Yorker put it, looked warily to a "lovefest" and circulated a protesting petition. The petition attracted the signatures of, among others, Oliver Sacks, Gloria Steinem, and a granddaughter of Freud. So the library "beat a tactical retreat," said the magazine story, and rethought its presentation of the master.

That rethinking led to a presentation of the full-fledged Freud--not exactly a lovefest, but a feast for those drawn to Freud as a force in modern culture. Along with original manuscripts of works like Civilization and Its Discontents, the exhibition embraces the odd, like the death mask of the "Wolf Man"; the poignant, like a snapshot from Vienna showing the four sisters of Freud destined to perish in Nazi death camps; and the irreverent, like video clips from The Flintstones that give comic expression to psychoanalytic concepts. Through a wrap-around series of wall quotations, it also incorporates critical commentary; J.M. Cattell observed, in 1926, that "psychoanalysis is not so much a question of science as a matter of taste, Dr. Freud being an artist who lives in the fairyland of dreams among the ogres of perverted sex."

If it is a matter of taste, psychoanalysis follows a precarious course in a culture dedicated to conformity and resistant to competing teachings. Duke historian Martin Miller charts that course in Freud and the Bolsheviks: Psychoanalysis in Imperial Russia and the Soviet Union, published last fall by Yale University Press. Miller's project was sparked in 1979, when he was studying in the Psychiatric Epidemiology program at the Columbia University Medical Center. A colleague there showed him six letters that had been purchased many years before by the Psychiatric Institute at Columbia, only to be forgotten. The letters had been written by Freud to a Russian psychoanalyst. They "weren't all that interesting," Miller says, "but it's always wild for a historian to find unpublished materials from somebody famous."

Cultural clash: above, the Soviet troika of Lenin, Marx, and Engels; facing page, the iconic inventor of psychoanalysis
Illustration: Corbis / Brian Vikander

After that discovery, he uncovered records of debates on Freud and psychoanalysis. The debates had been conducted by senior Soviet communist party officials. Delving into recently released Soviet archives, he found episodes "that I didn't know existed and that my colleagues in Russian and Soviet history didn't know existed."

In its handling of psychological deviance, tsarist Russia showed a peculiar combination of Enlightenment thinking and state-centered concerns. Miller notes in his book that the idle, for Peter the Great, had to be "cured" in order to work to serve the state; the insane, for Catherine the Great, had to be "cured" to regain their reason and contribute to, rather than disturb or threaten, the social order. The first Congress of Russian Psychiatry in Moscow, in 1887, was filled with warnings that the country was being "enveloped by a pandemonium of insanity" demonstrated by political radicalism, artistic decadence, and criminal deviance. Those drawn to radical politics had a different view of social engineering and social menace: One skeptical physician, P. I. Iakobii, declared that the institutionalization of the insane was not rooted in ideas of humane treatment but in "class fear of the abstract madman."

Freudianism made an early entry into Russia. A Russian translation of Freud's Interpretation of Dreams appeared in 1904; it was the first to be made into any other language. Four years later, a review article on psychoanalysis was published in the country's leading psychiatric journal. The author was Nikolai Osipov, a psychiatrist at the Moscow Psychiatric Clinic. Like disciples elsewhere, Osipov would be drawn to psychoanalysis as "a method of understanding the psychogenesis of neurosis, a method of psychotherapy, and a scientific worldview," as one of his colleagues would note. He went on to organize a "little Friday group" at his clinic devoted to psychoanalysis, and to set up an outpatient facility for neurotics based on Freud's treatment methods.

Photo: Corbis

Osipov was a pioneer in applying psychoanalytic theory to literature, a movement that was to gain a large following among the Russian Freudians. In one of his papers, he discussed the emotional distress of two of Tolstoy's female characters--Natasha Rostova in War and Peace and Kitty Shcherbatskaia in Anna Karenina--and offered a critical examination of their doctors' response to their symptoms. As Osipov saw them, "the two women suffered deeply from phobias, tortuous dreams, and suicidal urges," says Miller. "The physicians in each novel tended to dismiss these symptoms as romantic excesses of aristocratic women rather than to recognize the possibility of 'deep psychic trauma' in an individual who either threatens or attempts to kill herself."

Another Russian psychiatrist, Tatiana Rosenthal, published a study of Dostoevsky's novellas. She was particularly interested in the connection between creativity and psychopathology; the writer's own biography, in her view, mirrored the descriptions of delusions, hallucinations, fantasies, and phobias in his fictional characters. She concluded that "the root principle of creative expression lies in the immanent unconscious."

In 1909, Osipov helped found Russia's first psychoanalytic journal, Psychotherapy. It published examples of theoretical and clinical research, along with reviews of papers and reports of meetings on psychoanalytic issues. Freud's own journal wouldn't make its debut until a full year later.

Historian Miller: "Certain forms of experimentation were tolerated as long as they could be justified as supportive of the revolution"
Photo: Les Todd

The rise of psychoanalysis in pre-revolution Russia reflected, in part, the failures of the psychiatric profession. "Despite all the advances of modern scientific medicine, psychiatrists had managed primarily to treat cases of highly disturbed patients," Miller writes. "People with symptoms of a less severe kind --who were already being referred to as 'neurotics'--did not fall easily into existing diagnostic categories." At the same time, Freud's theories coincided with the rise of outpatient therapy; psychoanalysis involved the creation of a professional subspecialty that was committed to the use of words rather than confinement or drugs. "The psychiatrists who were turning with enthusiasm to Freud were also redefining what it meant to be a patient. People who would not have been under medical care with their symptoms in earlier times now were being attracted to the clinics and private offices of a new generation of psychoanalysts."

Freud himself was aware of developments in Russia, though he read no Russian. On the eve of the First World War, he noted that "in Russia, psychoanalysis has become generally well known and has spread widely," but lamented the absence of "a really penetrating comprehension of analytic theories." Russian psychiatrists from time to time would come to meet and train with him. He also received professional referrals from Russia--the most important being the patient known in the clinical literature as the Wolf Man.

The Wolf Man, whose real name was Sergei Konstantinovich Pankeev, was born into the Russian aristocracy. Pankeev began to experience symptoms of depression as a university student. Freud's analysis of the case centered on the patient's recovery of the early memory of having witnessed his parents engaged in sexual intercourse. Pankeev's recovered memory, Freud decided, was far more important than proving whether the memory was based on a real event. Remarkable for the detective-story richness of its narrative, the case, as outlined by Freud, had a transforming impact on psychoanalysis: It was central to Freud's efforts "to argue his general theory about the destructive significance of unconscious drives," writes Miller, "against his main rivals in the psychoanalytic movement, Jung and Adler."

Russia underwent its own political transformation in 1917. In February, Nicholas II abdicated and his autocracy was replaced by a provisional government. Eight months later, the Bolsheviks seized power. "On the one hand, the centralization of power was accomplished, which included the elimination of competing political parties and the enforcement of decision making by the party's increasingly authoritarian central committee," Miller notes. "On the other hand, as boundaries remained fluid in many areas of society, certain forms of experimentation were tolerated as long as they could be justified as supportive of the revolution." The psychoanalytic community recognized that survival was not possible without the approval and tolerance of the party; their agenda was not entirely their own.

Illustration: Corbis/Bettmann

Still, the agenda moved forward for a time. In 1922, two leading psychoanalysts formed the country's first Institute for Psychoanalysis. At that point, there were just two such training institutes in Europe--one in Vienna and the other in Berlin. Moscow, under communist authority, became the third center. Participants at that year's International Psychoanalytic Association congress in Berlin, though, weren't uniformly impressed. In Russia, many psychologists and other non-medical specialists from the social sciences and humanities practiced psychoanalysis; outsiders were suspicious of the trend. There was also widespread suspiciousness directed toward Soviet ideology. Most psychoanalysts outside Russia were politically conservative and anti-Marxist. All of those currents kept the Russians isolated in the International Psychoanalytic Association.

The rise of the Moscow institute in the early Twenties signaled what Miller calls "the high tide of the psychoanalytic movement in Russia." It supported an outpatient clinic, offered training programs, and published some of the most influential books and articles by Freud and his followers. "No government was ever responsible for supporting psychoanalysis to such an extent, before or after."

But that support was tenuous. One of the institute's most conspicuous activities was in directing an experimental home for disturbed children. The school devoted itself to applying Freud's ideas to the psychological conflicts of infants and adolescents. "Great attention was devoted to the sexual life of the children," Miller writes. "Since it was assumed that many of their actions were motivated by the unconscious quest for sexual gratification, the children were permitted to express themselves and interact with others freely, as long as no physical harm was evident." A government commission applauded the school's "progressive" work, but it recommended some serious political compromises. The school was asked to focus on "the study of the social origins of child development," by which the commission meant "the problem of social classes" so important to the ideology of the party. The school's founders balked, and the authorities brought a speedy end to the experiment.

Psychoanalysts continued to plunge into the minefield of ideological politics. Bernard Bykhovskii, a young Bolshevik philosopher specializing in dialectical materialism, wrote an article called "On the Methodological Foundations of Freud's Psychoanalytic Theory." Bykhovskii argued that psychoanalysis as a theory could contribute to a deeper understanding of man and society in the specific context of a socialist future. The article was published in a major party organ in 1923; it inaugurated a public debate on "Freudian Marxism." In Miller's words, "This debate on Freudian-Marxist theory, which was argued out in the party's most important journals, emerged at a critical juncture in the post-revolutionary period. Lenin was still alive, but ailing. The party leadership was divided into numerous factions and without a clearly established ideological direction. It is highly unlikely that Freudian Marxism could have risen to such prominence in Bolshevik journals at any other moment."

Bykhovskii's article was followed by another, "Freud and His School on Religion," by M.A. Reisner. Reisner, one of the principal authors of the first Soviet constitution, tried to show the points of convergence shared by Marx and Freud in their interpretation of religion. From Freud, he said, one can see that there are concealed forces motivating individuals; individuals who turn to religion are frequently seeking solace from the burden of personal conflicts. When placed beside a Marxist analysis of society and history, this insight leads to an understanding of how organized religion--supporting traditional social-class hierarchies with its powerful ceremonies and symbols--has acted to maintain order over freedom. Religion, then, becomes the "organization of neuroses and manias on a large scale," a social project that leads to "the sublimation of the creative forces of man through the power of revelations."

The counterattack against the supporters of Freudian-Marxist harmony came swiftly. In treating the two theories, a party ideologist named V. Iurinets wrote darkly about ideological colonialism emanating from the West and threatening post-revolutionary Russia. A member of the Communist Academy in Moscow, I.D. Sapir, pointed out that the concept of the unconscious had been dismissed by Engels and Lenin as being the result of "nonexistent, insufficient, or distorted knowledge of the objective processes of nature and society." Freud's patients, he said, were selected products of the collective mentality and class structure of their society. Class society was "the richest source of traumatizing influences on the psyche," but it was the nature of that society--not its individual victims--that ought to be the focus of inquiries into the roots of distress.

Miller notes that the record is ambivalent on Lenin's own views toward Freud. One memoir of Lenin quotes the Soviet leader as declaring of psychoanalytic theory: "There is no place for it in the party, in the class-conscious, fighting proletariat." But the context of that quote is often overlooked: Lenin was lamenting the extension of Freudianism into sexual-conduct guides. In fact, Lenin owned three volumes of Freud translations, and many of his top aides were sympathetic to psychoanalysis. Before he fell into political disfavor, Trotsky wrote that Freud's theories produce "deductions and surmises which point to a materialist psychology."

By the end of the 1920s, the Soviet Freudians, their institutions, and their ideas had been silenced. "As long as the party leadership felt itself in need of legitimation, it accommodated psychoanalysis as part of the effort to establish a Marxist psychology," Miller writes. The eventual attack on the psychoanalytic community was "part of the intentional shift from a creative period of competitive theories to one in which any concept or organization could be seen as a threat to the hardening doctrine of Stalinism." During the late 1920s, in the name of "building socialism," vestiges of private ownership--banks, businesses, schools, or land--were nationalized or abolished. The distinction between public and private spheres was obliterated in exclusive favor of the former. What fell outside the approved public realm was relegated to the domain of "counterrevolutionary forces." The concept of socialism "in a single country at war with the capitalist world," says Miller, "meant that internationalist movements like psychoanalysis, with its institutes stretching from America to Europe, were viewed as oppositional and dangerous."

Psychoanalysis "remained at its core a system of ideas about personality development and a clinical approach to certain mental disturbances that could not be subsumed within a Marxist framework or a Bolshevik policy," according to Miller. "Its theoretical foundations were rooted in sexual conflicts operating within the individual's unconscious, whereas Marxism's assumptions centered on class conflicts in the external world of socioeconomic relations of groups." Both were interpreting these respective conflicts with deterministic fervor: Freud saw the need to mediate an internalized conflict between the individual's instinctual need for both gratification and social adaptation, while Marxist-Leninist ideology saw a revolution that would put an end to class-based oppression and inequality. Conflict in psychoanalytic theory was individual, internal, and repetitive; conflict in the Bolshevik scheme of things was collective, imposed by external forces, and certain to run its historical course.

The place of Freudianism in the Soviet context wasn't helped by more strident statements from Freud himself. In Civilization and Its Discontents, he expressed serious reservations about a communist society in which private property was abolished and the bourgeois class made into an officially approved enemy. In other writings, he drew parallels between religious commitment and Marxist political ideology; the Soviet Union had created illusions that were "no less questionable and unprovable than the earlier ones."

For its part, the communist party came to treat Freud's ideas as not just questionable and unprovable but unacceptable. A 1930 Congress on Human Behavior was called to resolve the disputes among the competing psychological theories and establish an authoritative Marxist psychology. One of the organizers of the congress and its keynote speaker, Aron Zalkind, directed a devastating attack on psychoanalysis. He insisted that for Freud, "man exists entirely in the past," "the conscious is subordinate to the unconscious," and "man is preserved from the demands of society in a private little world." Socialist society, in contrast, requires "a socially 'open' man who is easily collectivized, and quickly and profoundly transformed in his behavior --a man capable of being a steady, conscious, and independent person, politically and ideologically well trained."

"Freudian Man" would not meet the demands of "the task of socialist construction." Psychoanalysis was equated, then, with being bourgeois and anti-Soviet.

The death of Stalin in 1953 paved the way for a new round of Soviet shifts--including the gradual rehabilitation of Freud. Psychoanalytically informed clinical studies began to see publication. One Soviet psychologist, Dmitry Uznadze, took it upon himself to accomplish something that Freud had never done--to establish empirical proof for the existence of the unconscious. In advertising his work as a scientific advance over Freud's, he was, at least implicitly, paying tribute to the master. "Intentionally or not, he was setting the stage for a full-scale renewal of the Soviet interest in Freud, which had been dormant since the 1920s," Miller writes.

That renewal saw its early expression with a 1958 conference held in Moscow under the auspices of the Presidium of the Soviet Academy of Medical Sciences. The conference offered the requisite condemnation of Freudianism as "an ideological weapon in the fight against Marxism." But it also affirmed the urgent need for an intense study of Freud and the entire field of modern psychoanalysis.

One of the presenters, a neurophysiologist named F.V. Bassin, would later write a study called The Problem of the Unconscious. Bassin criticized Freud for his decision to stress psychological mechanisms, rather than neurological processes, in his theory of the unconscious. Still, he recognized psychoanalysis as an achievement for having devoted such attention to the role of unconscious conflict.

Miller writes that by the end of the 1970s, "psychoanalytic works could be read but not published, discussed but not approved, presented in a paper at a scientific meeting but not practiced in a hospital or psychiatrist's office. A substantial number of specialists in the philosophy, history, and sociology of psychoanalysis were at work, but the subject could not be taught in university or medical school courses." Their moment of validation finally came in 1979, when some 1,400 people convened in Tbilisi for the first International Symposium on the Unconscious. Viewed in the context of the larger world of Cold War political competition with the West, the Soviet participants were, says Miller, "clearly supporting the view of peaceful cooperation with the capitalist enemy."

In 1987, two years into the era of Gorbachev-inspired perestroika and glasnost, the official newspaper Izvestiia published a story on psychoanalysis. The author was Andrei Voznesensky, one of the Soviet Union's most respected poets. "Why," he asked, "have Freud's works not been published?" And "why has psychoanalysis been excluded from clinical practice" in the Soviet Union? For Voznesensky, the ability to choose what to read was basic to the creation of "a science united with humanism, one that is free, open, and limitless, like thought itself." The posing of such questions heralded an intellectual reawakening --an effort at understanding the past and the commitment to conduct the search in public space, which, as Miller puts it, "until now had been defined by the ruling authorities."

An open discussion of psychoanalytic concepts returned to the journals and newspapers. And those concepts found unexpected application--for their power in interpreting the infant and adolescent years of a dissembling Soviet Union. In 1989, two psychologists, Leonid Gozman and Alexander Etkind, published an article that represented a startling turnaround for Soviet-style Freudianism. Conditions of freedom could not be realized, they asserted, until the Soviet Union evolved from a society beholden to authority figures to one that placed power in the hands of the people. Stalin had established a tyranny based on the "love of power," while communicating to society a "dictatorship of love"; to oppose the regime, even in thought, was tantamount to betrayal, automatic guilt, and denial of the right to live.

"At this juncture, the Freud critique had turned completely around," says Miller. "From an object of scorn and attack as ordered by the governing authorities, psychoanalytic theory was converted into a critical weapon against the government."

Psychoanalysis is far more popular in post-Soviet Russia than it is in this country. According to Dan Blazer, Gibbons Professor of psychiatry and dean of medical education at Duke, "Basically, psychoanalysis today is considered primarily of cultural interest. It is not taught in medical schools--perhaps beyond a scarce mention or one lecture, but even there as historical background. The 'medicalization' of psychiatry for the most part eliminated psychoanalysis from the curriculum of medical schools and to a large extent from psychiatry residency programs as well. For example, the type of talking therapy taught today is more likely to be cognitive/behavioral rather than psychoanalysis or even psychodynamic psychotherapy. There remain some strongholds, such as in New York City, but even there the shift has been remarkable."

"But I am not certain we have seen the last word," Blazer adds. "I have talked with some analysts from the old Soviet Union. From my perspective, the reason that analysis kept a stronghold was that psychoanalysis was a reaction to the scientific reductionism that pervaded Soviet culture. We see a similar reductionism in the U.S. today--witness Edward O. Wilson's book Consilience." (In his book, the Harvard biologist argues that "all tangible phenomena, from the birth of stars to the workings of social institutions," are based on material processes that are ultimately reducible to one particular class of explanation.) The reaction to such a reductionistic approach "may lead to a revitalization of some variant of psychoanalysis in the future," Blazer says. "In fact, I just returned from the American College of Psychiatrists and this was a 'back hall' topic discussed by many, even by some of the founders of the medical model of psychiatry."

Literature professor Toril Moi, who teaches a Duke course called "Freud for Beginners," says, "In the American popular imagination today, Freud has a very negative image. When they say they're studying Freud, the first reaction my students get is, 'hasn't he been proved all wrong?' or 'isn't he totally passŽ?' If I were teaching Wittgenstein, a very controversial philosopher, the reaction would not be the same. But people who haven't read any Freud are very comfortable saying he's all wrong."

There are "material reasons" for that readiness to criticize, in her view. With the growth of health-maintenance organizations, "any kind of mental treatment that is long, time-consuming, and has no quick result is not going to be paid for. That means psychoanalysis is not going to be paid for." Beyond such immediate explanations, the individualism at the core of American ideology, in a different sense than state-centered Soviet ideology, may be at odds with Freud. "Americans hate thinking that they are not totally in control of their own destinies," says Moi. But Freudianism hinges on unconscious forces, meaning that "there are things going on in our psyches that we are not always in control of or aware of." Americans, too, are enamored of a kind of knowledge that is not in the realm of psychoanalytic language. "What makes Freud especially unpalatable to people is the argument that he isn't scientific. Obviously, it's difficult to set up experiments that analyze the treatments of two people with the same trauma. But Americans leap from the idea that Freudianism is not a natural science to the idea that it is all pure imagination. And American culture really has a thing about hard science: Hard science is something instantly taken as having truth and authority in this society."

"Freud is everywhere in contemporary culture," Moi adds. "You can't understand the twentieth century if you don't understand Freud." In fact, the culture is dismissive of Freud even as it embraces him--as the Library of Congress exhibition, documenting as it did the popularity of concepts like repression and sublimation, demonstrated. Such a split reaction (a split, that is, between consciously articulated beliefs and unconscious sentiments) is itself remarkably Freudian, Moi points out: "It was Freud who theorized that we are capable of denying something that we also believe in."

In the Russian context, an enduring belief in Freud is fueled by larger political and social forces that, Miller says, are reminiscent of the turmoil during the early part of the century, when the old regime was collapsing and a new order was being invented. "Once again, Russia is going through a transformation of political legitimacies." At the same time, Russians liberated in their thinking are drawn to "a forbidden past," as he puts it, including intellectual traditions that were officially condemned.

But the changing fortunes of Freudianism reflect, in large part, the declining fortunes of Russia and of Russians--a shift documented this winter in chilling detail in an issue of Granta, the British literary magazine. The issue was devoted to the theme of "Russia: The Wild East." In an article about the "vodka escape," Russian expatriate writer Vitali Vitaliev recalls a Moscow colleague, "a gifted journalist, who was suffering from a bleeding stomach ulcer, but kept drinking vodka, washing it down with Almagel--a sickeningly sweet liquid medicine. 'What are you doing? You are killing yourself,' I told him once as he coughed up blood after another glass of vodka. 'I don't care whether I survive for another twenty years of queuing and humiliation. I don't like this life. Do you?' "

Russians may be returning to Freud as a consequence of a new openness to competing ideologies. Or, uncomfortable with their past and uncertain about their future, they may simply feel they need some healing time on the couch.


Photo: Corbis/Bettmann

Theoretical Marxism, as realized in Russian Bolshevism, has acquired the energy and the self-contained and exclusive character of a Weltanschauung, but at the same time an uncanny likeness to what it is fighting against. Though originally a portion of science and built up, in its implementation, upon science and technology, it has created a prohibition of thought which is just as ruthless as was that of religion in the past. Any critical examination of Marxist theory is forbidden; doubts of its correctness are punished in the same way as heresy was once punished by the Catholic Church. The writings of Marx have taken the place of the Bible and the Koran as a source of revelation, though they would seem to be no more free from contradictions and obscurities than those older sacred books.
--Sigmund Freud, "The Question of a Weltanschauung" (1932).

Why does Soviet psychology reject Freud's teaching? Above all, we have the incompatibility of the entire methodology of Freudianism with generally accepted methods for the establishment of scientific data, the arbitrary character of psychoanalytic dogmas, the therapeutic ineffectiveness of the psychoanalytic method, the harm done to public health by psychoanalysis as a result of deflecting attention from the true capacities of medicine and prophylaxis, the demoralizing influences spread by psychoanalysis--especially in the younger generation--which give criticism the place of a leading social principle and encourage the very worst forms of decadent literature and art. Other reasons for our rejection include the nonscientific interpretation of the role which the so-called unconscious plays in normal and pathological behavior, the grossly biological explanation which psychoanalysis gives for sociological problems, and the reactionary role which this point of view plays by masking the true causes of social disaster with discussions of "displacement" instead of concentrating on the tasks related to the struggle against class exploitation and other negative aspects of the capitalist system.
--Soviet psychologist F. V. Bassin (1962)

--from Freud and the Bolsheviks by Martin A. Miller

Share your comments

Have an account?

Sign in to comment

No Account?

Email the editor