Putin Regime Abusing Psychology the Way Soviets Did Psychiatry, Russian Psychologist Says

April 7, 2015
Lev Vygotsky, founder of Soviet "child science" in the 1920s.

Staunton, April 7 — One of the most notorious practices of the Soviet system in its last decades was the incarceration of perfectly health dissidents in psychiatric prisons under the pretext that they were suffering from “sluggish schizophrenia” and treating them with mind-altering drugs in the name of “curing” them of their proclivity to dissent.

Aleksandr Zelichenko, a Moscow psychologist, says that this practice which has never been fully recognized or condemned is now returning, albeit in a somewhat different guise. “History is repeating itself — but no longer with psychiatry but with psychology,” which is being misused by the state against the population.

Article 213 of the criminal code defines “’hooliganism’ as the violation of public order for MOTIVES of various kinds of hatred,” Zelichenko points out. Who are to establish these motives? Clearly, psychologists are. Article 282 makes illegal actions “DIRECTED at the awakening of hated.” And once again, he says, psychologists are used to do so.

As so often happens, he continues, “in general, the intention here was exclusively good: for the assessment of social danger of this or that action it is necessary to know the motives of the individual. But as with many other good intentions, things have turned out ‘like always,’” Zelichenko says.

Are all psychologists capable to making these determinations? Are they given enough information to do so? Or are they being used by the authorities to come up with “diagnoses” that they authorities have decided upon in advance? These and many other questions, he suggests, remain open.

Psychologists, of course, are aware of these issues, but they generally prefer not to talk too much about them not only because it could cost them work but because it might result in “the loss of the aura of mysteriousness” around their science, Zelichenko says. People in glass houses don’t normally throw stones. But that failure, he says, has had some unfortunate results.

People with “very doubtful professional preparation and still more doubtful” standards simply serve the country’s punitive organs, especially if they feel politically aligned with the authorities and what they are doing, Zelichenko argues. Sometimes that leads to scandals as in the Pussy Riot case, but more often it passes unnoticed.

It is long past time for Russia’s psychologists to think about what they are getting into by such cooperation. “In the 1920s and 1930s,” he writes, “psychology developed in a stormy fashion. Very stormy,” and as always happens in such cases, it promoted itself as being capable of solving “the most varied tasks.”

“Thus arose the profession of the pedologists,” who argued that the use of mass testing of children and young people would allow the government to run the country more efficiently, he says. But they made many mistakes, and those mistakes cost individuals, groups, and ultimately the psychologists dearly.

In 1936, the government banned pedology altogether, throwing the baby out with the bath water and setting psychology back 30 years or more. “Something similar” is likely to take place again, and that is something psychologists should not only think about but warn others before it is too late.