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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.