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Russia: Post-Soviet Society Embraces Psychoanalysis -- Again

Psychoanalyst Viktoria Potapova and her couch await their next patient (RFE/RL) MOSCOW, May 5, 2006 (RFE/RL) -- For many years in the Soviet Union there was no therapist's couch -- but there was the kitchen table.

“Psychoanalysis” was a forbidden term, and other forms of therapy were almost nonexistent.

For most, the only way to cope with personal problems was talking with friends during late-night kitchen debates, usually over tea or vodka.

This kind of homegrown therapy remains popular in Russia. Yulia, a young Muscovite, still likes to gather friends in her cramped kitchen for heart-to-heart talks.

She says these discussions are her way of working through a lot of emotional difficulties.

'Nonsense In My Head'

“I had a lot of nonsense in my head, a lot of complexes," Yulia says. "My friends really helped me get over these complexes. The men who fell in love with me afterward maybe also helped me to understand that I’m not ugly, and that I’m actually quite a nice girl! [laughs] When someone loves you, you start feeling more confident.”

Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, however, Russians have found new ways of improving their mental health.

One -- psychoanalysis, the practice pioneered by Sigmund Freud a century ago -- is slowly gaining traction in Russia.

Coming Home

Viktoria Potapova is the president of the Moscow Society of Psychoanalysts and one of just 15 Moscow analysts recognized by the International Psychoanalytic Association.

Trained in France, she is part of the first wave of Russian psychoanalysts who returned to the country in the late 1990s after studying abroad.

At that time, she says, Russian psychoanalysis was in a sorry state.

“When we came back in 1999, there were heaps of psychoanalysis institutes in Russia, heaps of psychoanalysts who simultaneously practiced psychoanalysis, yoga, and extrasensory healing," Potapova says. "The understanding [of psychoanalysis] was then very vague. Few psychiatrists recognized psychoanalysis as a science.”

"Russians are definitely very inward-looking," Potapova says. "They have this capacity not to live in denial. Living a long time in a bourgeois culture makes people closed, and in the end one can withdraw within oneself. This Russian boisterousness is, of course, difficult to bear sometimes, but it is also a resource."

Potapova currently treats some 30 patients. They lie on a red couch in a snug consulting room in her Moscow flat and talk about themselves.

Potapova says many of her patients are relatively wealthy businesspeople disillusioned with the capitalist values that have in many ways dominated Russia's post-Soviet existence:

“Now that people have reached a certain summit, they suddenly realize that they are not happy, that the material base they strived for is, unfortunately, not everything in life, that conflicts and tensions exist at work, in their business, that their business is under threat of collapse," Potapova says. "Their families are often in a similar state. This person does not understand why he experiences a feeling of emptiness, which is often filled with alcoholism, drugs, or workaholism.”

Psychoanalysis largely remains the realm of the rich in Russia. Patients are usually required to hold three, 50-minute sessions a week, at a starting cost of $15 per session. With traditional analysis typically lasting four years, the practice is out of the reach of most Russians.

Looking For A Cheaper Version

For the less well-heeled, bookstores offer a broad selection of self-help psychology guides. Television has also tapped into the trend. Last year, a television show called “We’ll Solve Everything” featured a psychotherapist giving consultations to real patients. The show drew a massive audience.

This Russian fascination with psychotherapy, and psychoanalysis in particular, goes back a long way.

Freud And The Russians

Freud’s theories, which initially scandalized many Europeans, were by contrast well received in Russia at the time.

“The Interpretation Of Dreams” -- Freud's most famous work, published in 1900 --appeared in Russian translation as early as 1904, making it the first translation of this work.

The Bolsheviks were enthusiastic about Freud’s concepts and believed they could be applied to the creation of the new Soviet man. Leon Trotsky openly praised psychoanalysis, and Josef Stalin's own son attended a nursery school run according psychoanalytic principles.

A pair of Muscovites hash out their issues the old-fashioned way (RFE/RL)

But the Freudian craze was short-lived. By the end of the 1920s, psychoanalysis had fallen from grace. It was dismissed as a bourgeois practice that conflicted with communist materialism, and, because of its growing influence in the United States and Europe, was declared outright dangerous.

Freud Interprets Russia

But while the Soviet Union lost interest in Freud, Freud's interest in Russians continued.

In 1928, he published a paper studying the psychological condition of the 19th-century Russian writer Fyodor Dostoevsky. Ten years later, in his book “Moses And Monotheism," he analyzed the killing of the last Russian tsar, Nicholas II, as a symbolic act of patricide.

The most famous dream in the history of psychoanalysis was also dreamt by a Russian -- Sergei Pankeyev, better known as the “Wolf Man" in Freud's famous case study.

Pankeyev’s dream of white wolves sitting on the branches of a tree helped Freud establish his theory of psychosexual development. It has since been analyzed by hundreds of psychoanalysts around the world.

Another famous Russian in the history of psychotherapy is Sabina Spielrein, who is believed to have precipitated the split between Freud and his favorite pupil, Carl Jung. Freud reportedly strongly disapproved of the affair between Jung and the young woman, whom Jung treated for hysteria.

Spielrein later became a colleague of Freud's in Vienna and one of the first women psychoanalysts.

'What Interesting Patients You Have!'

Freud thought Russians had a remarkable affinity for exploring their unconscious compared to their more rational Western counterparts. It's a quality that Potapova believes holds true today.

“Russians are definitely very inward-looking," she says. "They have this capacity not to live in denial. Living a long time in a bourgeois culture makes people closed, and in the end one can withdraw within oneself. This Russian boisterousness is, of course, difficult to bear sometimes, but it is also a resource. When I talk about my cases to my foreign colleagues, they always say with envy: ‘What interesting, vibrant patients you have.’”

Sigmund Freud

Sigmund Freud

Sigmund Freud in 1938 (courtesy photo)

ON THE COUCH: A century and half after his birth, SIGMUND FREUD continues to influence cultural and scientific discourse. "There are no neutrals in the Freud wars," academic Peter Gay wrote in "Time" magazine in 1999. "Admiration, even downright adulation, on one side; skepticism, even downright disdain, on the other. This is not hyperbole.... But on one thing the contending parties agree: for good or ill, Sigmund Freud, more than any other explorer of the psyche, has shaped the mind of the 20th century. The very fierceness and persistence of his detractors are a wry tribute to the staying power of Freud's ideas."


Listen to an excerpt of Freud speaking in a 1938 BBC interview:
Real Audio Windows Media


Post-Soviet Russia Embraces Psychoanalysis -- Again

Freud’s Flat Shows The Man Beside The Couch

How Has Freud's Work Held Up?

Related Links:
The Freud Museum, Vienna
The Freud Museum, London
The Sigmund Freud Archives
Freud Museum Picture Library
A Freud Bibliography

Sigmund Freud arriving in London in 1938 (AFP)