An Alternative View of Soviet Psychiatry

Image from Maysles documentaryMind Hacks has found that the Channel 4 (UK) website has been posting classic documentaries online, including one by American Albert Maysles on Soviet psychiatry that takes an uncharacteristically optimistic view of the topic. Although it is true that Soviet psychiatry was used to abuse political prisoners, it also never became enthralled with the Freudian view (as did the American system), relying instead on a Pavlovian behavioral approach to the topic.

General Histories of Soviet Psychiatry. 

  • Bazhenova, O. V. & Scoblo, G. V.  (1992).  Infant mental health issues in the USSR.  Infant Mental Health Journal, 13(4), 337-352.

Traces the development of Soviet research on infant mental health issues between 1917 and 1992, showing the negative effect of the history of the country. Approaches in Soviet psychology and psychiatry are viewed separately, and major empirical findings are described. Attention is given to L. S. Vygotsky’s (1930-1984) ideas on child psychopathology because of his extraordinary posthumous influence. Contemporary research is still in its empirical phase, and many of the studies are descriptive with an emphasis on the role of biological factors in the genesis of the psychopathology in infancy. Recent collaborative psychological and psychiatric studies provide the opportunity for change of this emphasis and highlight the importance of considering the social environment as a risk factor for the development of psychopathology.

  • Garrabé, J. & Morozov, P.  (1991).  Les écrits Français de Wladimir Serbski. / Wladimir Serbski’s French written works.  Annales Médico-Psychologiques, 149(4), 295-308.

Presents a review of W. Serbski’s theoretical writing which contributed to a critique of the extended dimension of demential praecox developed by E. Kraeplin (1899) and revised E. Bleuler (1911) in Serbski identified as a liberal who championed the cause of human rights, particularly of the mentally ill, under the ancient regime in Russia. Serbski, who died in 1917, does not deserve the opprobrium which the condemnation of the use of psychiatry for political issues has attached to his name.

  • Ovsyannikov, S. A. & Ovsyannikov, A. S.  (2007).  Sergey S. Korsakov and the beginning of Russian psychiatry.  Journal of the History of the Neurosciences, 16(1-2), 58-64.

Sergey Sergeievich Korsakov (1854-1900) was an outstanding Russian psychiatrist, founder of the Moscow psychiatric school, a talented clinician and teacher, and a supporter of the nosological approach in the understanding and systematization of psychiatric illnesses. He described alcoholic polyneuritis with distinctive mental symptoms, which later on was coined “Korsakov’s disease.” He was the first to give a clear account of paranoia. Korsakov was a leader in more humane patient management by applying no-restraint principles.

  • Shimelevich, L.  (1993).  Zur Geschichte der Individualpsychologie in Ru-Sland. / The history of individual psychology in Russia.  Zeitschrift für Individualpsychologie, 18(3), 196-202.

Traces the history of psychoanalysis in czarist Russia based on articles published in a Russian psychoanalytic journal, Psychotherapy, from 1910 to 1914. The journal indicated that Russian psychitrists preferred Individual Psychology theories to those of Freudian psychoanalysis, chiefly because of the Russian psychiatric establishment’s rejection of Freud’s pansexualism. Adler’s name began being cited in Psychotherapy in 1910 articles, and his theories were quoted around that time. It is noted that Russian revolutionary Leon Trotski was not only interested in Adler’s theories but was also a patient of Adler.

  • Tkachenko, A. N.  (1983).  Methodology of elaboration of analysis of mind in the history of the Soviet psychology.  Psikologicheskii Zhurnal, 4(2), 3-14.

Discusses the development of units of analysis in Soviet psychology between 1920 and 1940, emphasizing the task of interpreting the differentiation and integration of the semifunctional and semisystematized “cell” of the psychiatric patient. Studies by Soviet researchers such as Vygotsky and Rubinstein suggest that this cell may be represented as a system with a progressively developing foundation and changing structures. The connection is stressed of the methodology of the problem of logic with the positive intentions represented in modern concepts of the levels of human activity.

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About Christopher Green

Professor of Psychology at York University (Toronto). Former editor of the Journal of the History of the Behavioral Sciences. Creator of the "Classics in the History of Psychology" website and of the "This Week in the History of Psychology" podcast series.