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WHILE the recent extraordinary conference of the Soviet Communist Party can be credited with the introduction of the Western-style cut-and-thrust debate into a hitherto moribund political arena, a less-noticed revolution in thinking has been proceeding apace in some Soviet publications.

The June 1 issue of Literaturnya Gazeta has fired the first salvo in a battle to rehabilitate and make respectable the much-maligned subject of psychoanalysis and its founder, Sigmund Freud. It published an article by a leading Soviet expert on psychiatry, Professor Aron Belkin, as well as the text of Jean-Paul Sartre's obscure but fascinating play about the life of Freud.

In Belkin's article, Freud is hailed as one of the most original and influential thinkers of the century.

His indirect contribution to behavioural medicine, neurobiology, psychiatric endocrinology, ethnography and even sociology is acknowledged. This is a far cry from the usual denunciation of the father of psychoanalysis as an idealistic, bourgeois, reactionary figure.

I recall the extraordinary difficulties I had to tackle in the early 1960s to procure copies of Freud's books in the USSR. True, there were plenty of books about Freud and "Freudianism", but they contained little more than carefully chosen quotations wrapped in the most turgid prose imaginable, attempting to persuade the reader that the Viennese psychiatrist was a little batty himself and a stalwart defender of capitalist values and morality.

To be able to judge for oneself, one had to undergo an ordeal of bribing or otherwise seducing the usually forbidding custodians of the "closed archives" in the institutes of higher learning.

This was despite the fact that all Freud's major works were available in Russian translation in the 1920s.

It was not only the Establishment that debunked Freud; I remember the reaction of my brother, a fairly typical member of the educated working class, to the precious volumes that I would excitedly display upon procurement. "But this is all based on crap," he would exclaim after leafing cursorily through Freud's Introductory Lectures.

Well, if so, crap is in in the Soviet Union. It has not only hit the fan in the process of glasnost and perestroika - even the dismal state of Soviet public toilets, previously a taboo subject, is now being written about in the Soviet press - it is finding supporters in some pretty high places.

In Sartre's play, apparently only recently published in France, Freud is exhorted by the dying Meynert, his erstwhile conservative mentor and adversary, to "look for secrets in the filth". He acknowledges the fact that his earlier dismissal of Freud as a young innovator was due to his fear of disclosing the depth of his own degradation. Meynert admits that he has refused to undergo self-search and analysis and has thus lived a "wasted life".

Why? For the same reason, he tells Freud, that Noah punished his youngest son for having observed his nudity.

The implications are curious and fairly obvious.

One only has to recall the stern admonition to the party faithful by the formidable Yegor Ligachev, the widely acknowledged Politburo conservative, that even the reformist vanguard, including Gorbachev, came to power at the sufferance of the "old guard" exemplified by people like him and Gromyko, who held the balance of power.

It is one thing to say the king has no clothes; it is quite another to physically try to strip him of his remaining mantle of power, no matter how scanty.

Curiously, Ligachev's denunciations of the "excesses of glasnost" often harp on the putative desire of the investigative journalists to "dig in the filth".

Freud, of course, could have had a good old chuckle listening to the rhetoric of perestroika and glasnost.

What do these two phenomena exemplify, he would have said, if not the throwing off of repression and the return to "reality" after decades of neurotic self-delusion and aggrandisement?

Professor Belkin certainly goes this far, if not further. He implies, for example, that suppression of Freud and the whole field of depth psychology made it more difficult for the masses to understand the origin of fear and their "blind faith in the infallibility and wisdom of the powers that be".

In the play, Freud talks about a member of the elite "supreme council" who committed incest with his daughter. His colleague Breuer refuses to attribute guilt to a person of such a high standing.

Freud counters him: "Vienna is rotten through and through. We will either clean it up or demolish it. I cannot imagine a healthy society which is based on a lie."

If history is anything to go by, such a process of purging the societal consciousness of past delusions and outright villainry is seldom straightforward.

Professor Belkin admits this when he says, towards the end of the article, it much easier to get sick than to recover.

One need only recall how some practical attempts to apply psychoanalytic methods in the past in the Soviet Union (by, for example, I.S. Sumbayev) have led to rapid demotion and ostracism.

While there were definite ups and downs in the degree of vilification to which psychoanalytical theories were subjected (with the nadir during the infamous Stalinist 1950s) orthodoxy's dislike for the "uncovering of the unconscious" has been steady and relentless.

At least one other aspect of psychoanalysis was not mentioned in polite company until recently. In Sartre's play, the obedient Claquers, who dismissed Freud after his rejection by the authorities, said pointedly that he was, aside from everything else, a Jew; only a Jew, they implied, "would go to Paris to learn theories which have been well-known and disproved in Vienna".

Freud was admonished to limit his treatment to the accepted "physiotherapy, massage and cold showers", just as generations of Soviet psychiatrists were encouraged to rely on Pavlovian psychology augmented by electric and insulin shocks, with an occasional, painful injection of Sulphazin into the quivering buttocks of their recalcitrant charges.

Is it enough, as the Freud of the play asks, to "allow the cockerel to crow in order to banish the vampires who are afraid of the daylight"?

Certainly, the bureaucratic vampires are much better entrenched and organised than in Freud's time. But there is no doubt that they are at least making a temporary retreat in Gorbachev's Soviet Union.

If the former "charlatan and obscurantist" has now been called "an honest scientist, a noble man and a courageous seeker of truth", well, even the skeptical old man himself would have had to admit that not all changes in the social order are an illusion in the civilised man's discontented eye.



 Editor: Pyotr Patrushev’s books and articles can be found on his website,


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