Reading :: Human Brain and Psychological Processes

Posted by: on Jul 19, 2017 | No Comments

Human Brain and Psychological Processes
By A.R. Luria

I just reviewed Luria’s Higher Cortical Functions in Man, and if you read that review, this book will sound familiar. Luria published this present book in Russian in 1963, the year after Higher Cortical Functions; both books were published in English in 1966. We see many of the same themes, and Luria notes that the present book was also based on his work from 1938-1963.

In the introduction, Luria notes that interrupted higher mental functions such as writing, reading, and speech can be reconstructed along different paths (p.16). Drawing on Anoshkin, he uses the word “function” to “denote a complex adaptive activity of a whole system, and sometimes of a whole organism” (p.17). Again, he credits Vygotsky and Leontiev for their insights into the social-historical origin of human mental activity (p.21). He argues that an animal’s behavior is a result of (a) inborn tendencies and (b) direct, individual experience; but humans can also tap into (c) the experience of mankind in general (p.21). This general experience is incorporated into activity, language, work products, and forms of social life. In fact, mediation—and Luria once again uses the example of the knot in the handkerchief—involves changing one’s environment to control one’s behavior from the outside, deliberately and socially. “All complex forms of voluntary attention and logical memory, conceptual perception and abstract intellectual activity are the result of the assimilation of socially-formulated activity and have a similar, complex structure. … all these processes must be interpreted as products of social life, passing through a complex period of historical evolution, organized at different levels and carried out by means of highly involved forms of reflex activity, and all established through the conditions of existence of human society” (p.22).

Indeed, he quotes Vygotsky’s Development of the Higher Mental Functions to argue that a function, initially social and shared by two people, gradually crystallizes to become a way to organize the individual’s mental life (p.23). “The social-historical conditions of life do not abrogate the laws of reflex processes” developed during biological evolution, “but enrich and reorganize these processes, converting them into more complex functional systems, formed under the influence of objective activity, and with the close participation of language” (p.24).

A bit later in the book, Luria discusses functional location, drawing on Vygotsky, Leontiev, and Zaporozhets to argue “that individual behavioral processes are consistently interconnected during development and that in the process of ontogenesis, not only the structure of individual mental processes, but also their relationship to each other may change” (p.56). Interestingly, here he evokes the idea of “the concrete reflection of the outside world,” arguing that this “reflection” “serves as the basis for the construction of new and more complex behavioral processes” (p.56). This interests me in that Soviet psychologists incorporated Lenin’s theory of reflection, but understood it differently; Luria is using the term “reflection” here to denote senses, but keeping it separate from the construction of higher mental functions. See also p.3, in which Luria seems to say that direct senses are not psychological processes.

In discussing voluntary memory, Luria cites Vygotsky and Leontiev, noting that memory is compensated by the organizational role of the intellect (p.58).

And that’s it for this review. The book becomes more complex here and delves into specific disturbances in thinking, which are fascinating but a bit far afield for my purposes. Like Higher Cortical Functions of Man, this book provides us with a good sense of how Luria applied Vygotsky’s insights in his development of a new field, and for that reason, I recommend it.

Reading :: Higher Cortical Functions in Man

Posted by: on Jul 19, 2017 | No Comments

Higher Cortical Functions in Man
By A. R. Luria

I’m not actually going to review this entire book—the version I read, the 1966 Basic Books version, is massive—but I do want to touch on the framing. The book is based on Luria’s neuropsychological work from the 1930s to the time of writing, and it was a landmark book for the neurosciences, exploding the myth that higher mental functions were associated with specific parts of the brain (the reading center, the writing center, etc.). Rather, Luria argues that these higher functions result from the networking together of different parts of the brain. A disruption of that network—say, a gunshot wound in a specific part of the brain—can interrupt that higher mental function, not because it has destroyed the function’s brain center, but because that part of the brain is part of a larger chain. Excitingly, that meant that patients could learn to route around the affected area, reconstructing the chain with a substituted brain area. (If you’ve read The Man with a Shattered World, you have a concrete example of how such rehabilitation might work.)

Of specific interest to me at present: Luria lavishly credits Vygotsky for the basic insights on which his work is built (and dedicates the book to him). In the Foreword, Luria ties “higher cortical processes” to the “higher mental functions” that Vygotsky described (p.1). Luria bases the generalizations on observations over “the past 25 years” (which would be 1937-1962, since the Russian version was published in 1962, a date range beginning with Luria’s internship at Burdenko Institute of Neurosurgery. Luria notes that he “first began his clinicopsychological investigations of local brain lesions more than 30 years ago under the guidance of his friend and teacher L.S. Vygotskii. Much of what is written in the following pages may therefore be looked upon as a continuation of Vygotskii’s ideas” (p.2).

Luria continues that line in Section I, “The problem of localization of functions in the cerebral cortex.” After reviewing early conceptions of brain localization (e.g., brain centers), he argues that “no formation of the central nervous system is responsible for solely a single function”—rather, there are networked functional systems (p.27). In fact, as was well known, a brain lesion can disturb voluntary performance while leaving involuntary performance intact; Luria argues that the result of such a brain lesion is not loss but disorganization (cf. Leontiev and Zaporozhets). Indeed, Luria argues that

The principal achievement of modern psychology may be considered to be the rejection of both the idealistic notion that higher mental functions are manifestations of a certain ‘mind’ principle, distinct from all other natural phenomena, and the naturalistic assumption that these functions are natural properties bestowed by nature upon the human brain. One of the major advances in modern materialistic psychology has been the introduction of the historical method by means of which higher mental functions are regarded as complex products of sociohistorical development. (p.31)

He goes on to cite Vygotsky—specifically his book Development of the Higher Psychological Functions, of courseand Leontiev, and “to a certain extent” Janet and Wallon (p.31). Specifically, he notes Vygotsky’s argument that “social contaact between the child and adults always lies at the root of such forms of activity as paying attention or voluntary movement” (p.33). This social genesis “determines the second fundamental characteristic of these functions, their mediate structure“; here, Luria uses the example of an external sign such as a knot or note to organize a mental process. Speech, he notes, “plays a decisive role in the mediation of mental processes,” a claim that he supplements with a quote by Lenin (p.33). Indeed, he praises Pavlov for recognizing “the ‘second signal system,’ which is based on speech” (p.34). And:

The fact that systems of speech connections are necessary components of the higher mental functions makes the cerebral organization of these functions an extremely complex matter. We therefore suggest that the material basis of the higher nervous process is the brain as a whole but that the brain is a highly differentiated system whose parts are responsible for different aspects of the unified whole. (p.35)

He goes on to endorse Leontiev’s “functional brain organs,” which are “formed in the process of social contact and objective activity by the child” (p.35). The “upper associative layers of the cerebral cortex, the vertical connections arising in the secondary associative nuclei of the thalamus, and the overlapping zones uniting different boundaries of cortical analyzers evidently constitute the apparatus that performs this highly complex task. It is in man that this apparatus of the brain has attained its highest development, sharply distinguishing the human brain from that of animals. We, therefore, agree with the view that evolution, under the influence of social conditions, accomplishes the task of conversion of the cortex into an organ capable of forming functional organs (Leont’ev, 1961, p.38)” (p.35).

Luria again credits Vygotsky’s insight that “higher mental functions may exist only as a result of interaction between the highly differentiated brain structures and that individually these structures make their own specific contributions to the dynamic whole and play their own roles in the functional system. This hypothesis … is a thread running through the whole of the book” (p.36). In their early stages, higher mental functions “depend on the use of external evocative signs” (here he cites Leont’ev and Vygotsky), and “Only when this is complete do they gradually consolidate, so that the whole process is converted into a concise action, based initially on external and then on internal speech” (p.36). In fact, we can conclude that higher mental functions’s structure “does not remain constant but that they perform the same task by means of different, regularly interchanging systems of connections” (p.36).

The foundations of higher mental functions are in simple sensory processes, so disturbing these senses or their integration will cause underdevelopment. In fact, Vygotsky formulated a rule: in early stages of ontogenesis, a brain lesion will primarily affect a higher center, i.e., a function that is developmentally dependent on the area where the lesion is located. But in the stage of fully formed functional systems, a lesion in the same area will primarily affect a lower center, one regulated by that function (p.37).

We’ll stop here. Luria goes on to discuss agnosia, apraxia, and various other issues associated with brain lesions as well as his diagnostic methods. But for we humble non-neurologists, the central insights of the book are in the review above. Luria clearly took Vygotsky’s book on the higher mental functions as his starting point, he is unstinting with his praise for Vygotsky’s work, and he used it to illuminate a new field. If you are even marginally interested in these issues, or in Soviet psychology, I highly recommend the book.

Reading :: Rehabilitation of Hand Function

Posted by: on Jul 19, 2017 | No Comments

Rehabilitation of hand function
By A.N. Leont’ev and A.V. Zaporozhet͡s

What does hand rehabilitation have to do with psychology? More than I expected. In this book (published in Russian in 1945 and in English in 1960), the authors recount experiments in hand rehabilitation from the perspective of Soviet psychology. And in the process, they lay down markers for what would become the dominant framework for Soviet psychology, activity theory.

Let’s put this book in context. Leontiev had worked under Vygotsky in the early 1930s, but then took a job at Kharkov along with other members of the Vygotsky-Luria network. Throughout the early 1930s, Leontiev and Vygotsky differed in their ideas of how Soviet psychology should develop: Vygotsky thought that the root phenomenon to study was word meaning or sense, while Leontiev argued that the root phenomenon was actually labor. Vygotsky died in 1934, and the Vygotsky-Luria network (the “cultural-historical school”) came under Stalinist attack in 1936-1937 for being insufficiently adherent to the party line. Leontiev’s angle of focusing on labor was easier to defend. In 1940, Leontiev defended his dissertation and in his article “The Genesis of Activity,” he laid the tenets for activity theory. (He has been accused of lifting these tenets from Rubinshtein, who sat on his committee.)

When Nazi Germany violated its nonaggression pact with the USSR in June 1941, the Soviet Union moved to a war footing. On February 5, 1943, the USSR established a system of rehabilitation hospitals—and, according to the foreword of this book, by Col.-General E. Smirnov, “it was forbidden to discharge officers and men who were capable of rehabilitation” (p.ix). Luria and Leontiev were assigned to head two of these rehabilitation hospitals.

The book at hand was written based on two research cycles, in 1943 and 1944, focusing on rehabilitation of hand function. Both involved Zaporozhets directly, while Leontiev supervised as scientific director; others were involved, including Gal’perin (first cycle) and Rubinshtein (second cycle) (p.xiii). Zaporozhets wrote Ch.4-9, while Leontiev wrote Ch.1-3 and 10.

In Ch.1, Leontiev sets out the task at hand (no pun intended). He begins by noting that people with restricted movements will perform differently depending on the conditions: telling them to “raise your arm as high as you can” gives poorer results when their eyes are closed compared to when they have their eyes open and are against a ruled screen—and the results are even better when they are asked to “take this object” (p.5). Beginning with the basics of activity theory—actions, motives, object, and activity—Leontiev argues that the differences in performance have to do with the meaning of the action. That is, the “same” action will be invested with a different attitude and orientation depending on the framing activity (p.14). Specifically, the person being rehabilitated may integrate the action into an “activity of self-defence” or “an activity with a difficult motive” (p.14). (In a footnote: “The term ‘object’ is used here, of course, in its widest sense meaning everything towards which the action is directed” (p.14)).

And this is why hand rehabilitation comes under the heading of psychology. “The character of a movement is determined not by its own motor task and not by the original orientation of the patients’ own personality but by the concrete relationship of the one to the other in the given action” (p.16, his emphasis). This insight leads Leontiev to developing occupational therapy. OT already existed before the Soviets got to it, of course, but it had two virtues. First, it got results. Second, it fit the Soviet focus—and specifically Leontiev’s focus—on labor. In later chapters, we’ll see how this focus on labor plays out.

In Ch.2, Leontiev examines “the co-ordination of deranged movement” (p.17). He argues, following Anokhin and Sherrington, that in trauma such as gunshot wounds, the motor experience is disorganized, and “even when there is complete anatomical preservation of the central and peripheral system, the co-ordination of the movement may be disturbed to some degree” (p.18). Thus rehabilitation should first focus on restoring coordination (p.18). To improve coordination, the researchers used a kymograph (crediting Luria’s work with the combined motor method) to provide feedback to patients as they undertook tasks with the uninjured and injured limbs (p.19; the method is quite vague). When patients had this visual feedback, they were able to smooth out their movements in moments (p.21). The task had been reorganized around different stimuli. (I was reminded of the work Leontiev later published in Problems of the Development of Mind in which he supposedly trained people to detect light with their hands—work that A.A. Leontiev later characterized as parapsychology.) The researchers found that the degree of discoordination was not directly correlated to the range of movement (p.26).

Just a note here. Leontiev’s experiments (well, the ones he supervised) were not as elegant and clean as Vygotsky’s or Luria’s. They involved elaborate mechanisms, sketchy statistics, and in places, endless case studies.

Also in this chapter, Leontiev reports on rehabilitation after Krukenberg’s operation — an operation for someone whose hand has to be amputated. Essentially, the radius and ulna are separated and the Pronator teres muscle is wrapped around both, allowing the patient to use the two bones as an elongated pincer. Obviously, this operation requires the patient to substantially reconstruct both motor and sensory impulses. In their experiments, the research team concluded that this reconstruction does not simply involve elementary sensation — untrained patients couldn’t tell if they were feeling a cube or a cylinder, while trained patients could. (Notice the implications for applying Lenin’s reflection theory—you can see them in Leontiev’s application.)

Moving on. In Ch.4, Zaporohets discusses “the problem of motor organization and the restoration of movement” (p.63). Here, he argues that trauma leads to a new functional system to protect the injured organ. This functional system should be temporary, but can become fixed.

Interestingly, Zaporozhets emphasizes the practical importance of the work, especially in its aims of putting people back to work (p.64)—the theme of labor as well as the practicality that characterized Stalinist science. In a later chapter, Zaporozhets lauds “the general tonic and encouraging power of rational work activity” in comparison to gymnastic movements and occupational therapy meant to rehabilitate limbs, but without a framing activity (p.146). He quotes Luria along these lines as well (p.148), and he notes that the motivation of activity has a large impact on outcomes—”casual and meaningless orders” can have a “chilling effect” on recovery, while “more consequential and complicated tasks” can accelerate it (p.149).

Leontiev and Zaporozhets, then, wanted to put the occupation back into occupational therapy. One can see how this line of research would be welcome to the overtaxed war leadership of the USSR: not only can the wounded be put back to work, it was good for them! They even give the example of dispirited patients reviving when they were given the meaningful task of manufacturing “window frames and furniture to replace that destroyed by the Germans at Stalingrad” (p.150). Labor, which had created humanity, could also rehabilitate it.

Interestingly, some occupational therapists have also explored this link, although I haven’t had the chance to read that literature.

In any case, I found the book interesting in terms of understanding what Leontiev was up to during the war years and how that experience bore on his development of activity theory. For activity theorists not working in OT, I think the book is primarily interesting for historical purposes, but it’s still interesting!

Reading :: Soviet Psychology: Philosophical, Theoretical, and Experimental Issues

Posted by: on Jun 28, 2017 | No Comments

Soviet Psychology; Philosophical, Theoretical, and Experimental Issues
By Levy Rahmani

I mentioned Levy Rahmani in my recent review of a 1972 collection by Soviet psychologists—he was thanked by the authors for helping to select materials for the collection. In this 1973 book, he demonstrates why he was well positioned to make these selections—although, as Joravsky points out in his own review of the book, Rahmani has trouble articulating what makes Soviet psychology unique apart from its ideological commitments.

Rahmani does fill in some of the contextualizing history. In Chapter 1, he characterizes the changes that had happened shortly before he wrote the book: “The narrow, conformistic approach arising from the conference held in 1950 on the development of Pavlovian theory has gradually been replaced in the 1960’s by a diversity of empirically tested theories. Deeply rooted beliefs in such theories as Pavlov’s reflexology have been challenged while concepts like Vygotsky’s cultural-historical view, not long ago rejected by the official psychology, are now widely discussed” (p.5).

Chapter 1 largely chronicles the beginning of Soviet psychology post-Revolution. I’ve covered some of this history elsewhere on this blog, so let’s just hit some of the interesting highlights. On p.23, the author describes the “sociogenetic approach”:

A great deal of effort was expended by Russian psychologists after the 1917 revolution to formulate a theory compatible with the Marxist [Leninist] tenet that the human psyche is a reflection of an objective reality, in particular the social environment. They had also to cope with the task of building a theory of education applicable to the “new” man. The problem of relationships between collective psychology and individual psychology was a major concern of the psychologists of the 1920’s. They faced the following dilemma: is social psychology a legitimate branch of psychology, or should all the manifestations of the individual’s psychology be regarded in terms of his social and, particularly, class position. In the light of the theory of historical materialism, they were inclined to the second solution. (p.23)

Kornilov’s reactology “was the first attempt in Soviet psychology to bring together the biological and social factors determining the human psychology” — a two-factor theory (p.25). Readers of this blog will recall that in 1923 Kornilov replaced Chelpanov as director of the Institute of Experimental Psychology at Moscow University; but reactology fell out of favor around 1930, and Kornilov was replaced by Kolbanovskii. In 1939, Kornilov was reappointed director, and in 1943, he was appointed Vice-President of the newly founded RSFSR Academy of Pedagogical Sciences (p.30).

Meanwhile, the author characterizes the 1930s as the “battle for consciousness,” featuring Vygotsky and Rubinshtein’s separate attempts to develop a Soviet theory of consciousness (p.38). Vygotsky incorporated Engels’ account of evolution into his theory, using Engels’ discussion of tool use to back up his theory of mediation, and emphasized the role of signs as external (social) before becoming internal (individual) (p.41). Citing Brushlinskii, the author argues that Vygotsky’s theory of signs developed in three stages:

  1. Signs as self-stimulation
  2. The meaning of signs
  3. The concept of meaning itself, including the question of the development of concepts (p.43)
Rubinshtein criticized Vygotsky’s theory in various ways. First, since “Vygotsky conceived of the social factor as an interaction between the adult and the child … consciousness appeared then to be a direct expression of the individual’s inner experiences, and not to be contingent upon ‘material practice,’ i.e., on the objects of people’s actions”—leaving the door open for idealism. Second, Rubinshtein argued (1946) that Vygotsky elevated speech to the role of ultimate cause of thought—thought was not “‘a reflection of the objective world in unity with speech on the basis of social practice, but rather as a derivative function of verbal signs'” (p.45). 
A.N. Leontiev was a colleague and student of Vygotsky’s, but by the time he completed his doctoral dissertation in 1940, Vygotsky was dead; Rubinshtein sat on his dissertation committee.

His major thesis was that psychical processes represent a particular form of activity and derive from people’s concern with external objects. Psyche is a result of the transformation of the external, material activity, into an internal activity during the course of man’s historical development. In this, Leontiev, while following Vygotskii’s thinking, was at variance with his teacher’s approach—which was regarded as intellectualistic—when he postulated that the child’s meaningful activity was determined by the level of his mental growth and not by the interaction between his consciousness and that of the adult. Leontiev also disagreed with Vygotskii’s view of the role played by the development of concepts for the child’s mental growth. (p.47)

Leontiev developed these ideas in his 1940 doctoral dissertation, a 1945 article on children’s mental growth, and his 1947 monograph (perhaps his An Outline of Mental Development, though Rahmani does not specify) (p.47). He believed that Soviet psychology had two major tasks: “to define the structure of man’s activity through an analysis of the relationships between activity as a whole, actions and operations” and “to clarify the concept of meaning” (p.47). (Notice that the first task implies a sociology, not just a psychology.) In terms of the second task, Leontiev argued that historically “meaning and significance became separated with the disintegration of the homogeneous primitive society and the occurrence of social classes” (p.48).

In 1948, Leontiev and Rubinshtein were both singled out for criticism, coinciding with Lysenko’s 1948 “victory” (p.51). (The author is referring to the critiques reproduced in the appendix of Wortis’ 1950 Soviet Psychiatry.) Specifically, Maslina (1948) criticizes Leontiev for being apolitical, vague, and overly focused on technical division of labor—and insufficiently appreciative of the high moral quality of Soviet man (p.52).

Now we get more context about Pavlov’s elevation. Up to 1950, Pavlov’s theory was revered but deviations were tolerated. But “In June 1950, the Joint Session of the Academy of Sciences of the USSR and of the Academy of Medical Sciences of the USSR Dedicated to the Development of I.P. Pavlov’s Teaching, put an end to this situation” (p.59). “Pavlov’s theory was to become the only scientific approach” (p.60). Rahmani argues that the session was apparently inspired by Stalin himself, coinciding with his work on Marxism and linguistics published the same year. The session was anticosmopolitan, anti-Western, and aimed at developing “pure” Marxist science (p.60).

Chapter 2 gets into the nature of psyche. Rahmani notes that “Although Soviet psychologists had essentially accepted Lenin’s proposition that the psyche is a reflection of external reality, they, naturally, disagreed when it came to elaborating specific definitions” (p.63). This concept of reflection comes from Lenin’s 1908 proposition in Materialism and Empirio-criticism (p.64). Rahmani discusses how psychologists picked up this idea and applied it in different ways. Leontiev, for instance, regarded “the capacity to signal as the most relevant feature of the psyche. The psyche has a role in the organism’s adaption, and this consists in the reflection of those objects and phenomena, acting as signals, which help the organism to deal with the vital phenomena, without participating directly in the metabolic process” (p.69).

Later in this chapter, we return to the fallout of the 1950 Pavlov conference. “Fortunately, the rigid approach imposed by the conference did not last for long.” By the late 1950s, Pavlov’s authority had weakened—Rahmani does not explicitly tie this change to Stalin’s death in 1953—and by the time of a 1962 conference, a diversity of views was tolerated (p.95).

Let’s skip to Ch.4, on thought and language. Rahmani notes that “the proposition that thoughts exist only in the form of language remains basic to Soviet psychology (p.208), grounded in Engels’ “proposition that work and speech are the two main stimuli in the development of the human brain” (p.209). Interestingly, “Until 1950 the theory of the Georgian linguist Marr was considered the only Marxist theory of language” (p.209). Marr argued that “there was a stage in the development of man when he used a language of gestures which served not only as a means of communication but as an instrument of thought as well” (p.209). Readers of this blog may recall that in her January 1937 criticism of Vygotsky, Rudneva criticized him for not following the Japhetic theory of language; she is referring to Marr’s work. Unfortunately for Marr, Rudneva et al., in 1950 Stalin published the article Marxism and Questions of Linguistics, declaring Marr’s theory anti-Marxist: thinking was inconceivable without language, specifically sonic language (p.210). (See also Rosenthal.)

The book is much larger and more comprehensive than this review, covering Soviet work in sensory cognition, memory, emotions and feelings, will and voluntary activity, and the psychology of personality. But let’s leave it there, since we have covered the topics that are currently most applicable to my current project. If you’re interested in the history and development of Soviet psychology, as I am, this book features a solid overview up to the early 1970s. But it’s also overly ecumenical; like Joravsky, I’d like to see it be more critically reflective. Nevertheless, see what you think.

Reading :: Psychology in the USSR: An Historical Perspective

Posted by: on 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.