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Eye on Psi Chi: Spring 1997
Post-Soviet Psychology:
What Is Ahead

Albert A. Nalchajian, Psychological Research Center, Yerevan
Samvel S. Jeshmaridian, National Academy of Sciences of Armenia
Harold Takooshian, Fordham University (NY)

The world watched in awe on December 25, 1991, as the largest nation on earth suddenly ceased to exist. It was on that Christmas Day that the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, born in the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917, split into 15 independent republics. These 15 republics are Russia Federation (still the largest on earth, by territory), Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Estonia, Georgia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Latvia, Lithuania, Moldova, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Ukraine, and Uzbekistan.

What is the future of psychology in this region? This question seems important to those studying psychology in the U.S., for at least three reasons. First, the sheer size of the post-Soviet Union, which included one-sixth of the earth's entire land area and 291 million citizens at the time of its dissolution. Second, the unusual nature of psychology in this region--its unique history before the 1917 revolution, then its odd development during the Stalin years, and gradual reformation since the 1960s (Joravsky, 1989). Third, the suddenness of change in 1991, which is now transforming psychology so dramatically in these 15 republics.

This presentation offers U.S. students and faculty a look into that "other world" of Soviet science. To do this, we offer 10 points about Soviet psychology before 1991, to compare with 10 points after 1991.

Pre-Soviet and Soviet Psychology Before 1991

1. Origins
The unique history of Russian psychology stretches back to the formation of the Moscow Psychological Society in 1885--seven years before the formation of the American Psychological Association in 1892. Under such world-class researchers as V. M. Bekhterev and I. P. Pavlov, Russians were at the forefront of world science. Yet this was an uneven mix of neurology, physiology, psychology, and philosophy--with never a clearly distinguishable psychology in Russia during these early days. After the Revolution of 1917, Russian psychologists moved far from mainstream world psychology, to the point where Soviet-era psychologists were rarely cited in the textbooks or articles of other nations, with only a few possible exceptions, such as Lev Vygotsky and Alexander Luria (Rieber & Carton, 1992; Nalchajian, 1972).

2. Control
During the communist era, psychologists were expected to produce a "Marxist psychology" in sync with Marxism-Leninism's materialist, environmentalist, egalitarian ideology. So, for example, the once-large Psychoanalytic Institute in Moscow closed its doors when Freudian mentalism was prohibited. A 1936 meeting of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU) went so far as to actually ban "testy" (psychological tests) and much of Western scientific psychology as anti-Marxist (Takooshian & Trusov, 1992). Moreover, key physiologists like P.V. Simonov contended that the growing knowledge of brain physiology would make the field of psychology unnecessary.

3. Oppression
During the Stalin era, 1924 till 1953, government control became oppressive of psychologists, to an extent rare in other nations. Psychologists lost their positions and, on occasion, their lives. Bekhterev himself--the day after he made an offhand comment during his physical examination of Josef Stalin--was fatally poisoned at the Bolshoi Theatre buffet. Like Armenia's top psychologist, Gurgen Edilian, many leading psychologists found themselves exiled or worse during those dark years, putting scientific psychology on a shaky footing (Joravsky, 1989).

4. Centralization
Up to 1991, all Soviet government functions were centralized in Moscow, including higher education. "Aspirants" (graduate students) studied at local universities throughout the 15 republics, yet their official degree actually was from the Moscow-based High Committee on Attestation, which had to receive, examine, and approve all dissertations. What Western schools commonly term "outside readers" were often termed "opponents" in the USSR--readers outside the aspirant's committee whom Moscow assigned to examine independently the dissertation's quality. Occasionally the Attestation Committee appointed a so-called "dark opponent"--an outside reader whose identity was not revealed, and who took an especially hard look at a questionable dissertation. It was the Moscow Committee's approval that awarded aspirants their doctorates.

5. Reverse Tuition
Imagine--Soviet universities were free for full-time students. No tuition. In fact, the state routinely paid students a stipend to attend college, treating this as their full-time occupation. This policy naturally attracted thousands of students from Third World countries and other nations to study in Soviet universities, receiving free lodging, tuition, and a stipend (three times as much as native Soviets). How different this is from Western universities, where students often must strain to finance tuition, relying on aid from their family, employer, government loans, or foundation grants.

6. Facilities
Imagine a school with no photocopy machines. This was the common situation in Soviet schools, where students had no access to photocopy or fax machines, Soviet-made computers often took days to return a job's output, and carbon paper was more common than word processors.

7. Separation
In almost every nation, higher education and scientific research are linked; university students are paid to do state-of-the-art research by private or government grants, which doubles as their training. In contrast, Soviet society traditionally kept education and scientific research entirely apart under two separate ministries--the Ministry of Higher Education and the Academy of Science.

8. Nonclinical
World psychology has become increasingly applied since World War II, to the point that most psychologists today are involved in mental health specialties--clinical, counseling, school. In contrast, clinical psychology was virtually nonexistent in Soviet society, where citizens rarely sought out strangers to confide their personal difficulties. In fact, even American visitors to the USSR were warned to avoid Soviet psychiatrists, who had the ominous authority to confine against their will people the psychiatrist deemed threatening to society.

9. Nonprivate
Traditionally, everyone in the USSR was a state employee, with no private practices or associations. This began loosening under Mikhail Gorbachev's "perestroika" (reconstruction) starting in 1986 (Holowinsky, 1990), so psychologists and others could form private associations to do professional or research work (Matyushkin, 1991).

10. Insular
At the 1923 All-Union Congress on Psychoneurology, after Kornilov called for a new "Marxist psychology," the sci-ence became another arm of Communist ideology, intentionally drifting apart from world psychology. It became insular, avoiding Western concepts and sources.

Post-Soviet Psychology Since 1991
Since 1991, the changes in Russia and the other 14 republics have been so transforming that the world is unsure even what to call these republics, which are now separate, yet interdependent. In the 1992 Olympic Games, athletes from these 15 republics were labeled CIS (Commonwealth of Independent States) at first, then FSU (Former Soviet Union), NIS (Newly Independent States), and later simply PSU (Post-Soviet Union) (Goble, 1997). In less than 10 years, psychology has seen changes, in line with the 10 points above:

1. There are now 15 national psychology associations where there had been one, and psychologists in each are seeking to become more involved in world psychology--through journals, books, and exchanges (Halpern & Voiskounsky, 1996; Gilgen et al., 1995; Koltsova et al., 1995).

2. The oppression of the Stalin gulags is apparently long past, and psychology is relatively free from political pressure. In fact, since 1991, the magnificent buildings once used only by the Communist Party officials are now converted into community centers, where science, business, and other groups can meet.

3. The Marxist influence on psychology still exists, but on a voluntary basis, while the science of psychology grows more diverse. In 1995, for instance, Russian President Boris Yeltsin endorsed an unusual Executive Order defending psychoanalysis, perhaps the first time a government has protected a school of psychology.

4. Psychology is no longer centralized in Moscow, and each republic can confer its own degrees. In fact, most republics have signed agreements with Moscow recognizing each other's degrees.

5. Though state universities remain free for students who score high on entry tests, some 25-75% of students now pay at least some tuition, which can be very costly compared to the average income of the population. Moreover, some private schools are now emerging to compete with the state schools. These privates charge tuition, yet still lack the resources to compete with the massive state schools. Time will tell if these privates can one day surpass state schools in their selectivity of applicants, funding, and quality of training.

6. Due to the poor economy in the 15 republics, facilities remain meager, but improve as the republics are now more open to outside resources--the Internet, fax, and foreign technologies. Sadly, U.S. and foreign aid to PSU schools is stolen by corrupt PSU leaders, and some are leaving their homeland as survival becomes harder.

7. Education and science remain separate, despite government decrees beginning in 1991 to link the university with the Academy.

8. Clinical and other so-called "practical psychology" has blossomed since 1991 as more psychologists have been retraining in mental health and leaving the lab for applied work. A clear example of this is in Armenia where, after its 1988 earthquake killed 25,000 people, clinical psychologists from Europe and the U.S. volunteered to train Armenia's local psychologists in clinical methods to treat the thousands of child and adult survivors (Kalayjian, 1995). In St. Petersburg, too, a new Association for Child Psychiatry now treats, for the first time, sexual abuse and other family crises (Lunin, 1997).

9. Predictably, private associations and practices have flourished as prohibitions have been removed. Most republics now have several specialty associations within
psychology and, in 1996, St. Petersburg began publishing the first Russian psychology newspaper (Lunin, 1997).

10. The insular days are gone, as PSU psychologists reach out beyond their borders for collaboration (Adler, 1994). One clear example is the University of California, which has already established its first PSU campus; the American University of Armenia (AUA) opened its doors in 1991, with 101 matriculants, a $3-million endowment, and American-style procedures: entry-testing, course grades, written exams, and state-of-the-art technology (Jeshmaridian & Takooshian, 1994). U.S. Fulbright exchanges to the PSU have also increased. We two authors (SSJ and AAN) are now faculty members of Psi Chi, and we expect to introduce this honor society's excellent concept to our PSU colleagues.

The dramatic changes within the post-Soviet Union present not only great opportunities, but also increased problems--stress, political instability, and economic confusion. For example, recent news articles warned that new PSU elites may prove as dangerous as past Communist dictators (Coleman & Belyaninov, 1997) and are unstable (Goble, 1997). In fact, two of us are Fulbrights now doing cross-cultural research on moral development and family life (SSJ) and on political leadership styles (AAN) to help us address home-country issues upon our return. PSU psychology continues to grow into a more vibrant and diverse force, in order to address the also-growing social problems which await it.

Adler, L. L. (1994, August). Collaborating with researchers across countries and cultures. International Psychologist, 18-19.

Coleman, F., & Belyaninov, K. (1997, January 13). Rich, the Russian way. U.S. News and World Report, 37-39.

Joravsky, D. (1989). Russian psychology: A critical history. New York: Basil Blackwell.

Koltsova, V., Oleinik, Y., Gilgen, A. R., & Gilgen, C. K. (1995). (Eds.). Post-Soviet perspectives on Russian psychology. Westport, CT: Greenwood.

Gilgen, C., Koltsova, V., & Oleinik, Y. (1995). Soviet and American psychology during World War Two. Westport, CT: Greenwood.

Goble, P. (1997). Five years later: What happened to the CIS? Analysis of Current Events, 9 (1), 7.

Halpern, D. F., & Voiskounsky, A. (1996). States of mind: American and post-Soviet perspectives on contemporary issues in psychology. New York: Oxford.

Holowinsky, I. Z. (1990). Soviet psychology after perestroika. Presentation to the annual meeting of the American Psychological Association, Boston, August 10-14.

Jeshmaridian, S. S., & Takooshian, H. (1994, Spring). Country profile: Armenia. Psychology International, 5, 8-9.

Kalayjian, A. S. (1995). Disaster and mass trauma. Long Branch, NJ: Vista.

Lunin, I. (1997, January 31). Unpublished paper, State University of New York, College at Geneseo.

Matyushkin, A. M. (1991). Zhizn i psikhologiya [Psychology and life]. Voprosi Psikhologii, 2, 4-11.

Nalchajian, A. A. (1972). The psychological and philosophical problems of intuitive cognition. Moscow: Misl.

Rieber, R. W., & Carton, A. S. (1992). The collected works of L. S. Vygotsky. New York: Plenum.

Takooshian, H., & Trusov, V. P. (1992). Post-Soviet psychology. In U. P. Gielen, L. L. Adler, & N. A. Milgram (Eds.), Psychology in international perspective (pp. 54-69). Amsterdam: Swets & Zeitlinger.

This article is based on the Psi Chi Distinguished Lecture presented by Dr. Nalchajian at the 36th Annual Meeting of the New England Psychological Association, New London, CT, on October 26, 1996. Albert Nalchajian headed the Social Psychology unit of the Institute of Philosophy and Law of the Academy of Sciences of Armenia (1981-96) and is currently a Fulbright scholar serving at Fordham University. Samvel Jeshmaridian served as a social psychologist in the Academy of Sciences of Armenia (1982-96) and is currently a Fulbright scholar serving at St. Francis College. Harold Takooshian served as a U.S. Fulbright scholar to the USSR in 1987-88 at the Universities of St. Petersburg, Moscow, Tbilisi, and Yerevan. Dr. Takooshian has been a longtime Psi Chi faculty advisor at Fordham University, has served as Psi Chi's Eastern Regional Vice-President from 1993-97, and was recently elected as Psi Chi's new President-Elect.

Copyright 1997 (Volume 1, Issue 3) by Psi Chi, the International Honor Society in Psychology



Eye on Psi Chi is a magazine designed to keep members and alumni up-to-date with all the latest information about Psi Chi’s programs, awards, and chapter activities. It features informative articles about careers, graduate school admission, chapter ideas, personal development, the various fields of psychology, and important issues related to our discipline.

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