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Reading :: Psychology in the USSR: An Historical Perspective

Jun 16, 2017 | No Comments
Psychology in the USSR: an historical perspective
Edited by Josef Brozek and Dan I. Slobin

The link goes to a used version of this book for sale on Amazon. The version I read was from the UT library, where I found it by chance when looking for another book. The chapters in this 1972 collection are English translations of articles printed in Soviet journals in 1966, in honor of the 50th anniversary of the Revolution. Each article is laid out in two columns, the formatting uses underlining rather than italics, and the page size looks about 9"x12". In other words, it looks more like a conference proceedings than a book—not much to look at.

But the contents, for someone like me (someone who wants to understand how the history of Soviet psychology was told by the Soviets in the mid 1960s), are a fascinating time capsule. The articles tend to be short, especially in Part I (a few pages each, nearly all written by Brozek, with a glossary by Bowden and Cole). Parts II and III have articles by Smirnov, Leontiev (here, Leont'yev), Bozhovich and Slavina, and Menchinskaya. Part IV is focused on Georgian psychology, which developed along a somewhat separate track.

In the Praface, the editors also recommend other issues of Soviet Psychology, including a 1967 Vygotsky memorial issue (vol.V, n.3) (p.vii). As the editors note, the current volume contains a "self-portrait" of the development of Soviet psychology, and a "selective" one (p.vii; underlining in the original). n.b., the editors thank Levy Rahmani for helping to select materials for this volume (p.viii); I'll be reviewing his own book soon on this blog.

As mentioned, Part I is mostly Brozek's work. Especially useful is a timeline of Soviet psychology, "Some significant historical events in the development of Soviet psychology" (pp.11-13) and an unattributed set of biographies ("Noted figures in the history of Soviet psychology: Pictures and brief biographies," pp.22-29) translated from the 1960 Pedagogical Dictionary and 1964-1965 Pedagogical Encyclopedia. The entry on Vygotsky is generally laudatory:
He formulated the theory of the socio-historical origin of higher mental functions in man, and developed new methods for investigating various mental processes. Vygotskiy's [sic] greatest contribution lies in the fact that he was the first to attempt to demonstrate the Marxist thesis of the socio-historical nature of human consciousness in concrete psychological investigations. According to Vygotskiy, all higher, specifically human mental processes (logical memory, voluntary attention, conceptual thought, etc.)—in like manner to labor processes—arise with the help of tools of "mental production"; these tools are symbols, and above all, the symbols of language. These symbols are of social origin, originally being formed in joint activity of people, later becoming individual psychological means as well, used by the individual for thinking, voluntary direction of his behavior, etc. This form of mediation, according to Vygotskiy, is gradually internalized. The role of words in mental life depends on their meanings, which are generalized images of reality; words represent concepts which develop in the course of the individual's life. (p.28)
In Vygotskiy's works one finds, along with the correct positions, several incorrect positions—particularly those making errors of a pedological nature. Taking as a whole, however, the psychological works of Vygotskiy played an important and positive role in the development of Soviet psychological science. (p.29)
Overall, this bio is economical and of high fidelity. I'm sure that someone can find out for sure, but it reads like Luria to me. But note a few things: (1) The bio emphasizes Vygotsky's instrumental period, with its focus on mediation and higher psychological functions, rather than Vygotsky's later holistic period. The instrumental period provided the basis for Leontiev's activity theory and was arguably easier to reconcile with the ideological demands of the mid-1930s. (2) The bio analogizes the development of higher mental functions to labor processes. Vygotsky drew this connection, but only as an analogy, and insisted that psychological tools were not the same as physical ones; Leontiev conflated the two when building his theory around labor activity. (3) The author of the bio is still cautiously distancing him/herself from Vygotsky in terms of pedology, 30 years after the Pedology Decree of 1936.

Moving to Part II. Smirnov's "On the fiftieth anniversary of Soviet psychology" (pp.51-71, originally from Voprosy psikhologii, 1967, 13(5), 13-37) overviews psychology's development in the USSR. I'll focus particularly on events related to the cultural-historical school, of course. Again, the assessment of Vygotsky is generally laudatory: "As we know, L.S. Vygotsky played an outstanding role in the establishment and development of Soviet psychology as one of the first successors to the pioneers in the struggle for Marxist psychology" (p.53). And he quotes Leontiev:
In adopting this viewpoint, Vygotsky actually made consciousness a central problem in his scientific investigations. "The problem of consciousness," writes A.N. Leont'yev on this account, "is the alpha and omega of the creative pathway of L.S. Vygotsky." (p.53)
And Smirnov continues to filter Vygotsky through Leontiev as he concludes this section:
Consciousness (if we make use of the distinction made by Leont'yev between "signification" [znacheniye] and "meaning" [smysl]) is not only a system of significations, but also a system of meanings. (p.53)
Smirnov does return to Vygotsky later when discussing Gestalt psychology, emphasizing Vygotsky's criticism of the school and of Koffka in particular (p.57).

Smirnov covers the Pedology Decree and its results, noting its effects, including rejection of mental testing and a broad acceptance of "the unity of consciousness and activity." He notes that "several papers published as pedological works actually contained valuable psychological material that contributed to the development of psychological science" (p.58).

He also discusses an incident about which I have seen hints, but no solid history: In 1950, at a joint scientific session of the USSR Academy of Sciences and USSR Academy of Medical Sciences, participants reevaluated and repropagated Pavlov's theories—specifically "the fundamental significance of the principle of determinism and the reflex concept of the mind" (p.59).
But mention should also be made of certain incorrect views presented at the Session by some physiologists in their attempts to reject psychology as an independent science and to reduce it entirely to the physiology of higher nervous activity. This false notion of the interrelationship between these two fields, so harmful to the development of psychology, was later surmounted, and a very important role in its liquidation was played in the USSR Academy of Sciences' Conference on Philosophical Problems of the Physiology of Higher Nervous Activity and Psychology of 1962. (p.59)
Smirnov goes on to criticize investigators who applied "a vulgarization of Pavlov's teachings" and displayed "dogmatism" about those teachings (p.59). It's said that history is written by the victors, but histories are written today by today's victors, retelling what had been told yesterday by yesterday's victors. At the time of writing, the victory of 1962 was fresh enough to be discussed by other authors in this collection. (Now I have to reread writings from 1950-1962 to see how they told the incident earlier.)

A bit later, Smirnov gets to Leontiev's work, in which he emphasizes that "the historical development of consciousness as a higher form of reflection of objective reality is an object for special study" (p.64). This discussion leads him back to the investigation of signs in the Vygotsky school, which he characterizes thus:
In the very first decade of the founding and development of Soviet psychology, Vygotsky, in creative collaboration with Luriya and Leont'yev, presented and elaborated the widely known sociohistorical theory of the development of mind, namely, that natural and social evolution fuse into one in ontogenesis. Social evolution involves the formation of higher mental functions mediated by special, auxiliary, artificial, man-made stimuli (signs) that facilitate the fulfillment of actions and have a social character. Whereas initially they are the means whereby one man influences another, they later become the means with which an individual influences himself and regulates his behavior and mental processes, and moreover the sources of the 'voluntariness' of those processes. Originally external, these media later are replaced by internal forms that have no external manifestations. (p.65)
Note the "troika" account and the focus on Vygotsky's instrumental period. Smirnov continues:
At the beginning of the 1930s the sociohistorical theory of Vygotsky underwent extensive criticism. The chief objections were directed against the separation of two lines of evolution and the recognition of signs (including, especially, nominal signs) by an instrument that transforms a natural function into a cultural function, which was considered a deviation from the theory of reflection. The reproach was made that the development of human mental life was not studied in the context of social evolution, as a function both of the nature of social relations and of the material and intellectual life of society at various stages in its historical development. (p.65)
In Ye. D. Khomsaya's "Neuropsychology: A new branch of psychological science (pp.114-122, originally in Voprosy psikhologii 1967, 13(5), 103-113), the author claims that "the first neuropsychological investigations in our country were carried out as far back as the twenties by L.S. Vygotsky"—citing some of Vygotsky's work on brain lesions and acknowledging that "Vygotsky left no completed works" on this question (p.114). Khomsaya notes that Vygotsky's work on functional localization laid the foundations for Leontiev's "functional organs" as well as Luria's discussion of how motor disorders are "compensated through a semantic system of supports" (p.115). Later in the chapter, the author discusses the work conducted during WW2 by Leontiev, Zaporozhets, and others focused on the restoration of functions disturbed by local brain lesions (p.120).

In G.S. Kostyuk's "The problem of child development in Soviet psychology" (pp.123-143, originally  in Voprosy psikhologii 1967, 13(6), 24-45), the author offers a chronological history starting in the 1920s. In Vygotsky's (1926) Pedagogical psychology, he "endorsed the unity of the biological and the social, and the decisive role of social conditions in the child's psychological development" (p.124). As in Smirnov's chapter, Kostyuk asserts that Vygotsky's cultural-historical theory was "worked out in close cooperation with A.N. Leont'yev and A.R. Luriya" (p.126). Later, in 1945, Leontiev argued that changes in the child's activity "proceed in two directions: from the primary changes in the sphere of the child's life relationships in the sphere of his activity toward his development of actions, operations, and functions; from the secondary transformation of functions and operations toward the development of a given sphere of activities in the child and the appearance of the leading activity, i.e., the start of a new stage of development" (p.130; unfortunately the author does not provide a citation). Kostyuk also notes, based on the work of Volokitina et al., that "the pupil is never prompted by any single motive, but rather by an integrated system of motives that are interrelated in a complex manner and are sometimes even contradictory" (p.133; cf. David R. Russell's 1997 "Rethinking genre in school and society" for a similar take).

A.N. Leontyev's "Some prospective problems of Soviet psychology" (pp.144-157, originally in Voprosy psikhologii 1967, 13(6), 7-22) is a bit of a letdown. It overviews the tasks that psychology as a field must take on, including "problems created by the technological revolution and the ensuing modifications in the functions of human labor" (p.144) and the corresponding shift to managerial, organizational, and design issues (p.145). These are exciting topics, foreshadowing the applications to which activity theory was put in the mid-1980s when it was taken up by Bodker, Engestrom, and others. But Leontiev is speaking of psychology in general, not activity theory in particular, and the applications remain vague.

Leontiev does reference the 1950 "Pavlovian Session" in which psychology was too directly influenced by physiology—an influence that could be repudiated at the time Leontiev wrote this piece in 1967 (p.151).

Leontiev concludes by urging a "'vertical synthesis,' as it were, of the different levels on which processes underlying human mental activity take place" (p.153, emphasis in the original). This argument leads him to recall Vygotsky's work "on the mediated nature of higher mental functions," which understood the transition from elementary to higher mental functions not "as the result of a superimposition of higher functions onto more elementary functions, but as a result of a structural transformation of activity, corresponding to some task, mnestic, intellectual, or motor" (p.153, his emphasis). And "thus, as a result of mediation of the connection between the subject and the objective world by a tool, the action of the subject acquires a new structure that reflects the new objective relations: the properties of the tool, the object of labor, and the purpose of labor—its product" (p.153). Note, again, that Leontiev locates Vygotsky's contribution in his instrumental period and portrays Vygotsky as sharing Leontiev's understanding of mediation related to the object of labor activity.

Let's move on to L.I. Bozhovich and L.S. Slavina's "Fifty years of Soviet psychology on upbringing (pp.161-180, originally in Voprosy psikhologii 1967, 13(5), 51-70). Notably, the authors rely heavily on Vygotsky's Pedagogical Psychology (1926), which had just been republished that year. They argue that "Vygotsky was never an advocate of either permissive education or of ideas leading to atrophy of the school" (p.166—both charges that were leveled in the 1930s by critics such as Rudneva). Rather, they say, Vygotsky argued that although the child adapts to the environment, the environment is not rigid and responds reciprocally to the child (p.166). They characterize Vygotsky's work on mediation: "The primary instinctive drives, directed toward an action goal, from his point of view, convert to a method by means of which this goal is reached, thereby changing their character"—and they argue that Leontiev and others have confirmed this claim (p.166).

From A.V. Barabanshchikov, K.K. Platinov, and N.F. Federenko's On the history of Soviet military psychology (pp.222-231; originally in Voprosy psikhologii 1967, 13(6), 76-84) I learned that El'konin and Leontiev worked in the department of military psychology at the Military Pedagogical Institute immediately after WW2. In 1947, through this institute, Leontiev published An Outline of Mental Development; material from this publication was later included in Problems of the Development of Mind (p.228). 

And that's it. Other chapters exist, and an entire section (on Georgian psychology), but this review has covered most of what interested me. I hope it's interested you as well. If it has, this book is worth picking up as a historically situated "self-portrait" of Soviet psychology.
In Blog

Reading :: New Myth, New World

Jun 9, 2017 | No Comments
New Myth, New World: From Nietzsche to Stalinism
By Bernice Glatzer Rosenthal

Let's start with some background to understand why I picked up this book in the first place. It was a revelation when I finally read "The Socialist Alteration of Man" in 2015—it completely changed my view of Vygotsky's project and I've spent the last couple of years trying to process it.

I began studying CHAT approaches in graduate school in the mid-1990s, when it was first being picked up in my field. In addition to Engestrom, Cole, Wertsch, etc. I read Vygotsky's Thought and Language and sorta-Vygotsky's Mind in Society, but both were of course framed by the Western readings I had been doing. In later years, I read a bit more of Vygotsky and became aware that there was a split between the cultural-historical and AT schools, but this split was usually portrayed as a "generational" difference in the literature I was reading. Reading Kozulin's introduction to Thought and Language 2ed suggested that this split was much deeper, so I began reading more of Vygotsky's works as well as bios and histories.

But it was "The Socialist Alteration of Man" that drew a line under the differences. Even allowing for the fact that the piece was a bit exaggerated, it became clear to me that Vygotsky was really focused on fundamentally transforming Man, in accordance with the ideas of the Revolution, and his focus on "psychological tools" really was a means to that end. We can see hints of that agenda in Luria's Uzbek expedition and his Mind of a Mnemonist, but also in Luria's defectological work such as his twin study Speech and the Development of Mental Processes in the Child and his account in The Man with a Shattered World, in which the "stack" (my term) of internalized psychological tools is reconstructed or alternately constructed for individuals. As Miller says, the focus is on the individual, albeit usually in a dyadic relationship, building new capabilities. And if one believes that individuals had been limited by obsolete structures that were in the process of withering away, as Vygotsky apparently did, it would be easy to see the individual's development as potentially limitless.

That's a sharp contrast with Western CHAT, which—as in so many other ways—is a funhouse-mirror reflection of Vygotsky's theory. Here, although the individual develops, s/he does not develop dramatically. Instead, what develops dramatically are the mediators (tools, rules, division of labor). The best example isn't in the CHAT tradition per se, but is often cited in CHAT literature: Hutchins' Cognition in the Wild. Studying a Navy ship, Hutchins explicitly argues that there is no way we can attribute the ship's success to the individuals, who are largely inexperienced and who cycle out after two years. Instead, he positions the individuals as part of a larger cognitive system that includes artifacts. We can see similar examples in Wertsch (who argues that pole vaulters don't improve dramatically, but they break records because the pole itself has changed) and Bodker (who applies Leontiev's AT to interface design). My own empirical research has followed this path, examining how people pick up, import, and innovate texts to collectively mediate their own organizational work. In this tradition, the individual is as limited as always, but her mediators can be redesigned and redeveloped limitlessly, and the resulting mediated activity takes the center stage in development. (Some researchers are even applying the notion of the zone of proximal development to organizations, which is a telling application of the concept.)

How did we get from superman to super-mediators?

Let's ask a smaller question. Where did Vygotsky's 1930 faith in the unlimited development potential of Man come from? I've already reviewed one strong influence, Trotsky's Literature and Revolution. But as Yasnitsky argues, Vygotsky didn't just draw from Trotsky, he drew from Trotsky's own source, Nietzsche. Yasnitsky heavily cites Rosenthal's New Myth, New World, so I picked it up as well. It's a good book, and unfortuately I won't do its details justice in this review, since I'm most interested in the Nietzsche-Vygotsky connection.

Rosenthal argues that Nietzsche was widely read in pre-Revolutionary Russia, and his ideas resonated with indigenous Russian ideas, enough so that they became part of the zeitgeist even without attribution (p.2). Specifically, "one idea remained constant: art can create a new consciousness, a new human being, a new culture, and a new world" (p.2). In fact, "Aspects of Nietzsche's thought were either surprisingly compatible with Marxism or treated issues that Marx and Engels had neglected" (pp.2-3). Indeed, Nietzschean Marxists emphasized issues that Marx had neglected: "ethics, epistemology, aesthetics, psychology, culture, and values" (p.68).

Yet, since Nietzsche was not in good odor during much of the Soviet period, his influence was rarely explicit—it was "buried"—so Rosenthal must be cautious about claiming Nietzsche's influence in many instances (p.3). (And sometimes, frankly, these arguments are rather tenuous.)

Nevertheless, Rosenthal traces the Soviet idea of the New Man—"a goal of Russian radicals since the 1860s"—to Nietzsche's "Superman, a being that would regard man as man now regards the ape" (p.9—explicitly referenced in Vygotsky). Over time, the Lenin cult appropriated the idea of the Nietszchean Superman and applied it to Lenin as an Apollonian image/icon (p.184). The New Man (cf. Bauer) was also developed in the USSR in two ways:
The idea that man can be remade, that human perfectionism is possible, has inspired generations of radicals, not only in Russia, but certain features of the new Soviet man—boundless energy, daring, hardness, physical vitality—derived from Nietzsche. (p.189)
Artists and writers offered two basic models of the new man—the super-functional machine-model of the avant-garde and the human or superhuman model of the realists—and some hybrid versions. (pp.189-190)
Rosenthal gives a number of examples. The super-functional man is a machine, with its body made for work (p.190). Indeed, "Some Bolsheviks wanted to breed the new man by means of eugenics" (including Trotsky; p.195), and neo-Lamarckians, like Nietzsche, wanted evolution to be in man's control (p.196). Unsurprisingly, Lysenko's campaign had such undertones of the conquest of nature (p.284). Other branches of science also did—for instance, the linguist Nikolai Marr (who died in 1934, the same year as Vygotsky) developed the Japhetic theory of linguistics, which was originally based on "Nietzsche's archaeological approach to language" before being reformulated in accordance with Marxism (p.286). Marr's myth-saturated theory appealed to Soviets in the 1930s, when the USSR struggled to assimilate non-Russian nationalities (p.287). (Recall that Rudneva upbraids Vygotsky for not following Japhetic linguistics.) Interestingly, Marr was in a study group with Eisenstein in the 1920s (p.287), so he was running in the same circles that Vygotsky and Luria were. Marr argued that the chief organ of speech was the hand, the agent of production, and all culture is based on material artifacts (p.288)—both assertions that resonate well with Engels and to some degree with Leontiev. (But, in June 1950, during resurgent chauvinism, Stalin himself wrote a series about linguistics whose effect was to dethrone Marr.)

The idea of the Superman became more generalized and harder to track at about this point. For instance, Rosenthal says that by 1936, the Stalin cult makes Stalin the superman (p.381). But also around this time, as fascists arose in Germany and Italy, the dictators kept an eye on each other and learned from each others' propaganda. Specifically, Soviet propagandists "constructed a Soviet Superman to counter the Nazi model" (p.235). Lysenko's biology "held out the promise of conquering nature and breeding the 'new man'" (p.395; cf. p.414). Makarenko, who directed "colonies for orphans and homeless children" from 1917-1936, believed in the unlimited power of education and aimed to turn his charges into New Men by molding their personalities (pp.396-397).

Eventually, of course, after Stalin's death, the new Soviet man became a joke (p.436).

Overall, this book was enlightening. I am also relieved that, based on it, I don't think I'll need to read Nietzsche directly—since most Soviets never did! If you're interested in the new Soviet man, or in Soviet culture more generally, consider picking it up.
In Blog

Reading :: Stalinist Science

Jun 9, 2017 | No Comments
Stalinist Science
By Nikolai Krementsov

I picked up this book by chance in the UT library as I was investigating the Soviet milieu in which Vygotsky, Luria, Leontiev, and others in this tradition were working. After I finished it, I noticed that Anton Yasnitsky cites it in his dissertation as a major influence. And I can see why. Krementsov wanted to investigate the unique aspects of the Soviet science system, not superficially, but deeply and with an appropriate understanding of how different actors worked. Specifically, he examined how the Soviet science system led to the Lysenko controversy and how scientists in different disciplines resisted the Lysenkoization of their disciplines while still appearing to comply.

Not only does this account describe the milieu in which Soviet science developed, it directly discusses how some of the major players of Soviet psychology—such as Chelpanov, Kornilov, and Luria—navigated the milieu.

In Chapter 1, "Russian Science in Transition, 1890-1929," Krementsov sets the scene. Soviet science did not suddenly spring into being in 1917—it was built on pre-Revolutionary institutions. For instance, Chelpanov's Institute of Experimental Psychology had relied on private patrons before 1917; after 1917, he found patrons among the state agencies to keep the institution going (p. 20). Indeed, the patronage system became an important component in Soviet science, and "allowed scientists to use the influence of their powerful patrons in various state and party agencies," concentrating power in the hands of a few spokespeople: in a sense, Vavilov was plant science and Ioffe was physics (p.22).

Beginning in 1918, the Bolsheviks had a "liberal and accommodating" policy toward existing research institutions, but a "stern and aggressive" attitude toward educational institutions (p.23). "As a result, a number of university professors quit teaching and concentrated exclusively on research"—creating "a dichotomy between teaching and research that became a characteristic feature of the Soviet science system" (p.24). (Recall that in 1936, the Pedology Decree condemned the fact that pedology researchers exerted control over the curriculum of teachers and dismantled pedology.)

In the 1920s, orthodoxy hardened in each discipline, and scientists began to attack each other on ideological grounds (p.26). Science had to be Marxist; cf. Kornilov's 1923 argument that led to his replacement of Chelpanov (p.26). Of course, scientists such as Kornilov, Bekhterev, and Luria appropriated the Marxist lexicon to support their own ideas, ideas that opposed each other; this lexicon use signaled loyalty to the Bolshevik state (p.27).

In Chapter 2, "The Stalinization of Russian Science, 1929-1939," Krementsov notes how the "Great Break" of 1929 began a new era across Russia, including in the sciences (p.31). "Crash industrialization" required mobilizing the population as well as its resources, leading to massive propaganda campaigns, manufactured famines, an expanded secret police, and show trials, as well as the centralization of all power under the Communist Party—which was itself controlled by Stalin (p.31). A new system of agencies was created to oversee science policy (pp.32-33), eventually overseen by "the Central Committee's Administration of Agitation and Propaganda (Agitprop)" (p.33). The OGPU, and later its successor, the NKVD, shadowed scientists, routinely investigated their loyalties, and cleared both visiting foreign scientists and USSR scientists who wished to travel abroad (p.33). In 1930, the OGPU's Economic Division began to advise the government on science policy (p.34)—and possibly was behind "the creation and development of the unique system of sharashki, the labor camps where imprisoned scientists worked on research in their specialties" (p.34)!

For canny operators, the "system of personal links between science spokesmen and commissars that had emerged in the 1920s" had served them well, but this system "was undermined in 1929-1930 by sudden changes in the leadership of practically all commissariats and governmental agencies" (p.34), forcing scientists to find new patrons (p.35). Patronage became dangerous during the Great Terror of 1936-1938: "Many scientists were arrested and imprisoned (and in several cases shot) for alleged association with such newly uncovered 'enemies of the people'" and "the multiple governmental and party patrons of the 1920s, then, were replaced in the late 1930s by a single patron—the Communist Party's Central Committee" (p.35).

Importantly for the story of Soviet psychology, "In 1932 almost all institutions that conducted research in fields related to medicine were welded into one monstrous institute—VIEM" (p.37). In the early 1930s, it was possible to invite "foreign specialists to work in [the USSR's] scientific institutions"; as the decade wore on, these opportunities dried up in favor of isolationism, and "After 1939, Soviet science's international contacts were almost completely severed" (p.44).

In late 1930, a campaign launched by Stalin proclaimed that "science had a 'class nature' and followed the principle of partiinost' (literally, party-ness), hence, Soviet science must be 'proletarian' and 'Communist'" (p.47). For an example, the author quotes Razmyslov's 1934 criticism of Vygotsky and Luria (p.47). Partiinost' amounted to "science's subordination to party goals and aims" (p.48).

Also in the early 1930s, "a campaign for the practicality of science also gained momentum" as a way of ensuring that science served the State; "applied research started to be considered the essence of science" (p.47; again, cf. the Pedology Decree). And "scientific criticism also acquired a 'patriotic' accent during the 1930s" (p.47; cf. the subsequent criticism of Vygotsky and Luria's 1930 book Studies on the history of behavior, which summarized Western sources just before this turn happened).

As Krementsov summarizes much later in the book, "Three sets of universal rhetorical assertions—partiinost', Marxism, and practicality—embodied the Bolshevik image of science, an image that originated within the 'Communist' science of the 1920s and developed through the political campaigns of the 1930s. They became the obligatory attributes of 'Soviet' science and the 'Soviet' scientist, which the scientific community routinely exploited in its self-portrayal and self-representation in its dealings with the party-state bureaucracy" (p.216). This rhetoric was temporarily displaced during World War II, but returned during the Cold War (p.216).

Other features of Soviet science emerged during this time: public discussions (p.51), self-criticism, and jubilees (p.52).

In Chapter 3, "Stalinist Science in Action: The Case of Genetics," Krementsov moves into the extended case of Lysenkoism. In the 1920s, Russian genetics advanced quickly, partly due to international contacts (p.56). But in the 1930s, the increasing centralization of the science system led to intradisciplinary competition for resources—and the increasing politicization made that competition hardball. In agricultural plant science, Trofim Lysenko—who, with his peasant background, lack of academic training, his lack of academic ties, and his total focus on practical concerns, was ironically the ideal Soviet scientist—began acquiring power in the discipline (p.58). Lysenko's doctrine, "agrobiology," "was cast as the basis for the whole of Soviet agriculture." Agrobiology was cast as a Soviet science, unlike genetics. By 1935, "Vavilov, the main spokesman for genetics, was dismissed from the presidency of VASKhNIL" and "Lysenko and a number of his allies were appointed members of the academy" (p.59). In summer 1936 (a busy summer—in June the USSR banned abortion and in July it essentially banned pedology) VASKhNIL had a public discussion over genetics; this discussion led to the Fourth Session of VASKhNIL in December, "entirely devoted to the controversy" (p.59). The geneticists appeared to carry the day (p.60), but not long afterwards, "the Great Terror proved strategically damaging for genetics mainly because a number of its spokesmen, and all their principal partners within the party-state apparatus, perished" (p.61). In addition, the institutions that had been bastions of genetics lost their power and faded away (p.61). By 1940, Vavilov was arrested as a British spy and genetics lost its strongholds (p.78).

In Chapter 4, "World War II and the Sweet Fruits of Victory," Krementsov discusses the profound changes in the science system due to the Nazi attack on the USSR on June 22, 1941: "Suddenly, everything changed" because "the party-state bureaucracy recognized the vital importance of science and gave its scientific community new responsibility and respect" (p.95; recall that during the War, Luria and Leontiev were put in charge of rehabilitation hospitals and focused on rehabilitating injured soldiers). The Party swelled as citizens were admitted on the battlefield, without the customary indoctrination (p.97). Scientific authority expanded (p.97). Between 1943-1946, the government rewarded scientists with awards, orders, and prizes (p.99). But the sharashki also expanded, including closed research institutions dedicated to the atomic bomb and weaponry (p.103).

With this shift in terrain, "In 1945 Soviet geneticists launched an attack against Lysenko's domination over their field," seeking support first from the Central Committee (p.105). "By mid-1947, despite Lysenko's fierce resistance, the geneticists had gained ground" (p.105). They gained support partly because the USSR joined the Allies against the Axis during World War II, which led to a restoration in scientific relations with the West; they "used international acclaim for Soviet genetics to undermine Lysenko's authority" (p.115).

But, of course, this international support was a two-edged sword. In Chapter 6, "The Fateful Year: 1948," Lysenko triumphed at the August VASKhNIL meeting, having gained the intervention of Stalin himself (pp.158-159). The Cold War had begun, and the strictures of Stalinist science suddenly returned. Stalin was himself neo-Lamarckian (p.166) and sympathized with Lysenko as early as 1935 (p.159). In intervening, Stalin was sending a message: as Krementsov summarizes, "now it was the party-state bureaucracy, not the scientific community, that was responsible for defining which scientific concept was correct. The party apparatus displayed unambiguously its power and intentions, turning the VASKhNIL meeting into a lesson Soviet scientists had to learn, an example they had to follow" (p.183).

Chapter 7, "Talking the Talk: Ritual and Rhetoric" examines the fallout among the scientific disciplines. Interestingly, Krementsov says, "Despite their ritual rhetorical obeisance to the new party control of the content of science, they in fact sought to counteract the party's seizure of control and to reassert their own hegemony over their disciplines" (p.194). Specifically, "In biology, medicine, pedagogy, psychology, and linguistics, scientific leaders sought to protect their existing intellectual and institutional agendas by sanctifying them as quintessentially Michurinist—and hence 'preapproved' by the Central Committee" (pp.194-195; for an example of the 1948 reaction to Lysenko's triumph by Soviet psychologists, see this review). For my purposes, let's focus on the reaction by the Academy of Pedagogical Sciences in a meeting on Sept 4, 1948 (p.204). Kornilov, who was "academy vice-president and academician-secretary of its Psychology Division, presided" (p.205). The president, Kairov, "criticized" and "unmasked" and etc., as one might imagine, but also called attention to "'questions of the influence of heredity, environment, and upbringing on the development and shaping of human beings'" (p.205)—the Pedology Decree, which had criticized the two-factor causality of heredity and environment—was only 22 years in the past. Smirnov, who was "director of the Institute of Psychology," "urged that all psychological works be reassessed from a Michurinist perspective" (pp.206-207).

Across the Soviet science system, scientists "skillfully employed the resources of their professional culture to show the party bureaucrats an image they wanted to see" by deploying "three major rhetorical techniques developed and tested during the 1930s: the juxtaposition of 'us' and 'them,' the use of 'criticism and self-criticism,' and the invocation of 'founding fathers'" (p.218). Re the third technique, the Cold War meant that such founding fathers all had to be "native" (p.223).

Ultimately, Krementsov argues, outside of agriculture, the Michurinist revision was illusory, or in his terminology "rhetorical" (p.239). Mainly, "resolutions named persons who had already been dismissed by the Central Committee"; others had a good chance of keeping their jobs. And some "Mendelists" found safe havens in practical labs (p.240). One geneticist, who headed a department that had been liquidated, appealed to Stalin by emphasizing "the possible military importance of genetics work with microbes"—and "the letter proved effective" (p.252).

Krementsov wraps up in Chapter 9, "The Realities of Stalinist Science: Careereism and Institutional Rivalry," Krementsov overviews how Lysenko became a model for accumulating personal and professional power (p.254).

Overall, this book helped me to understand the Soviet scientific milieu much better, and I'll be consulting this review frequently to help me contextualize the writings of Soviet psychologists at different points. It has already helped me to better understand the context behind a book I reviewed recently. If you're interested in Soviet science, trying to understand Soviet psychology's development, or just interested in the dangers of partisan science, definitely pick it up.
In Blog

(catching up)

Jun 9, 2017 | No Comments
I haven't blogged in a few weeks due to the semester break, but I've been reading steadily and am planning to post a few reviews over the next week. As you might expect, these readings will primarily have to do with Soviet psychology and the Soviet milieu that impacted it. These will include:

  • Krementsov's Stalinist Science
  • Rosenthal's New Myth, New World: From Nietzsche to Stalinism
  • Brozek and Slobin's 1972 collection Psychology in the USSR: An Historical Perspective, consisting of translations of articles written by Soviet psychologists to commemorate the Revolution's 50th anniversary in 1967
  • Rahmani's 1973 overview, Soviet Psychology
  • Lewin's A Dynamic Theory of Personality. Lewin, who corresponded with Vygotsky and sent his students to work with the Vygotsky Circle, published this book in 1935, the year after Vygotsky's death.
Meanwhile I'm plowing through Cole & Maltzman's mammoth 1969 collection A handbook of contemporary Soviet psychology. It'll take a few more days to get through, even though I'm reading opportunistically. It's all fascinating, and I'll try to make the book reviews fascinating too.
In Blog

Reading :: The Psychology of Art

May 3, 2017 | No Comments
The Psychology of Art
By Lev Semenovich Vygotsky

Y'all know I'm a fan of Vygotsky, right? Yet this book, Vygotsky's 1925 dissertation, was a slog for me.

Despite its title, the book is more in the vein of literary criticism, proposing a theory of aesthetics and applying it to fables, a short story (Bunin's "Gentle Breath"), and a Shakespearean play (Hamlet). Konstantin Kornilov was so impressed by this dissertation that, when Vygotsky was hospitalized for tuberculosis in 1925, Kornilov took the unusual step of waiving the oral defense. So indicators suggest, and modern commenters on Vygotsky tend to agree, that the book is a significant contribution to Vygotsky's body of work.

Unfortunately, the question of aesthetics and the subject of literature hold no interest for me, so this book's contribution was largely opaque to me. Thus I apologize for the limitations of this review, dear readers, and I'll attempt to describe the book's features adequately enough for you to make your own decision about it.

First, the introduction, which was written by A.N. Leontiev (and undated, but based on the text, written around 1965). Leontiev calls Vygotsky "the great scholar" and "the creator of an original branch of Soviet psychology, based on the sociohistorical nature of man's consciousness" (p.v). Leontiev briefly recounts Vygotsky's hiring by Kornilov just after Kornilov won the power struggle against Chelpanov, then notes that Vygotsky was "appointed to the modest position of Junior Staff Scientist (or Staff Scientist, 2nd Class, as the rank was then known)"; in that position, Vygotsky "showed astonishing energy" (p.v), publishing a significant article in 1925 and a textbook in 1926 ( Leontiev characterizes The Psychology of Art as a "transitional" book: it marked Vygotsky's transition to psychology; it "lays foundations for the new scientific ideas in psychology which constituted Vygotsky's main contribution to science"; it "approaches works of art from the point of view of a psychologist who has freed himself of the old subjective-empirical psychology" (

Yet, Leontiev says, the book precedes the "doctrine of the sociohistorical nature of the human psyche" and relies too heavily on Kornilov's reactology (p.ix). "In his book, therefore, Vygotsky expresses his own ideas quite often in words that are not his own" (p.ix; sounds like a dissertation, all right).

Leontiev notes that The Psychology of Art was not published during Vygotsky's lifetime, attributing this fact to Vygotsky's turn from art to other questions (p.ix). Leontiev also notes that "some of the psychological views expressed in this book must now be interpreted differently—from the standpoint of present psychological views of human activity and consciousness" (p.xi). A cynic would possibly read Leontiev as saying that Vygotsky is best read through Leontiev's own lens of activity theory.

On to the book itself. Vygotsky divides it into four sections:

  • I. On the methodology of the problem
  • II. Critique
  • III. Analysis of the aesthetic reaction
  • IV. The psychology of art
In the first section, Vygotsky situates his approach, opposing it to Chelpanov's (p.14) and asserting contra Chelpanov that sciences can be Marxist (p.15). He acknowledges that we can separate social and collective psychology (p.17), arguing that we can "consider the psyche of the single individual as the subject of social psychology"—that is, differential psychology, which studies "individual differences in single individuals" (p.17). He aligns this study with general reactology (as opposed to Bekhterev's collective reflexology; p.17). "Everything within us is social, but this does not imply that all the properties of the psyche of an individual are inherent in all the other members of the group as well" (p.17). Thus, he argues, rather than distinguishing between social and individual psychology, we should distinguish between social and collective psychology (p.17). 

Moving on to critique, Vygotsky criticizes Freud in Chapter 4, arguing that although the application of the unconscious to aesthetics seems obvious, in practice "the approach is incorrect and ... these considerations have been disproved in practice" (p.72). It's worth noting that at the time Vygotsky was writing this dissertation, Luria was still trying to make Freudianism work within a Marxist framework, an attempt that Vygotsky would roundly criticize in the manuscript he wrote in the hospital immediately after finishing this dissertation.

Let's take a giant step forward to section III, on analysis. In Chapter 8, Vygotsky analyzes Hamlet, a play about which he had been writing since before college. He concludes by understanding Hamlet in terms of a threefold contradiction: "the contradiction involving the story, the plot, and the dramatis personae" (p.194). Hamlet's role is that "at any moment, he unifies both contradictory planes and is the supreme and ever-present embodiment of the contradiction inherent in the tragedy" (p.195, his emphasis).  One can imagine how this analysis led Vygotsky to think further about how real flesh-and-blood people develop by addressing and unifying actual contradictory lines of development, a theme to which he returns in his later work.

In the final section IV, on the psychology of art, Vygotsky argues that "the psychology of art involves two, or possibly three, branches of theoretical psychology. It depends upon findings from the study of perception, the study of the emotions, and the study of imagination and fantasy" (p.199). Note that Vygotsky specifically pursued the study of perception in later work, especially in the Uzbek expedition

The last chapter, "Art and Life," wraps up the book. I've read that the original ending chapter quoted Trotsky's Literature and Revolution, which had been published in 1923; Trotsky was expelled from the USSR in 1927 [correction 5/9: Trotsky was ousted from the Politburo in 1926; from the Central Committee and then from the Party in 1927; sent into internal exile in 1928; then expelled from the USSR in 1929. Thanks to Anton Yasnitsky for the chronology] , and when Vygotsky's works were reprinted in the USSR, Trotsky quotes were either expunged or relieved of their quotation marks. Alas, that seems to have happened here. But we can still see Trotsky's influence in the last couple of paragraphs. Vygotsky asserts that "psychological investigation reveals that art is the supreme center of biological and social individual processes in society, that it is a method for finding an equilibrium between man and his world, in the most critical and important stages of his life"—a view that refutes the opposing view that art is merely an "ornament" (p.259). He adds,
Since the future has in store not only a rearrangement of mankind according to new principles, not only the organization of new social and economic processes, but also the "remolding of man," there hardly seems any doubt that the role of art will also change.
It is hard to imagine the role that art will play in this remolding of man. We do not know what existing but dormant forces in our organisms it will draw upon to form the new man. There is no question, however, that art will have a decisive voice in this process. Without new art there can be no new man. The possibilities of the future, for art as well as for life, are inscrutable and unpredictable. As Spinoza said, "That of which the body is capable has not yet been determined." (p.259)
Here Vygotsky sounds the theme of the New Man that guides much of his instrumental period (before giving way to the more modest but similarly oriented "peak psychology").

At the end of the book, V.V. Ivanov supplies some commentary about this book in relation to Vygotsky's later works. It was valuable for me, since Ivanov makes a connection that I had a hard time making. He notes that Vygotsky's focus on aesthetic theory broadened to include sign mediation more generally (p.266). Ivanov reminds us that Vygotsky identified "three methods of human behavioral control":

  • "commands which are shaped outside the person (for example, the orders of a parent to a child)"
  • "commands which take shape outside a person but issue from within him. (The 'egocentric' speech of children studied by Vygotsky is an example ...)"
  • "commands which form within a person by the transformation from external into external signs (for example, internal speech, which Vygotsky describes as 'egocentric')" (p.267)
Ivanov likens learning to self-programming (p.267). And, extending the point back to The Psychology of Art, we can see how this early work in aesthetics led to the later, more broadly applicable work in Thinking and Speaking

Can I recommend this book? As I said, it was a slog for me, and I think I would have been just fine reading commentaries like Ivanov's. But if you have an interest in aesthetics or literary criticism, this book might be a good bridge for you. And if you are a dedicated researcher of Vygotsky's intellectual development, I think you will need to read it.