A SOVIET PSYCHIATRIST DISCUSSES The Russian Mind
Does the party line meddle in medicine? Do Russian teen-agers do what they’re told? Would a cowboy movie draw crowds in Moscow? Are Soviet women really free and equal?
MACLEAN’S ASKED THESE AND OTHER QUESTIONS. HERE ARE SOME OF THE REPLIES OFFERED
-BY DR. NICOL OZERETSKY Chief of the Psychiatric Division, First Medical Institute, Leningrad
TO everyone’s astonishment, the four Soviet psychiatrists who attended the Fifth International Congress on Mental Health in Toronto last August turned out to be a remarkably friendly and affable group of scientists, constantly smiling, shaking hands and passing around cigarettes to Western colleagues. They even cracked jokes through their interpreter, Boris Ivanov, who is an attaché at the Russian Embassy in Ottawa.
Assistant Editor Sidney Katz, who attended the congress for Maclean's, was so impressed by this display of friendliness that he asked Dr. Nicol Ozeretsky if he would answer a number of questions for Maclean's readers about Russian living and thinking. The professor said he certainly would, and the answers, which range all the way from comic books and cowboy movies to the pros and cons of spanking children, are given below.
Sometimes they tell more about politics than about science and as much about Ozeretsky and his skilful ability to parry direct questions as they do about the Russian people.
WOULD YOU SAY THAT THERE ARE GREAT DIFFERENCES BETWEEN A RUSSIAN AND A CANADIAN?
I haven’t noticed too much difference between the temperament of Canadians and Russians. What has impressed me, though, is that we sometimes react very differently to the same stimuli.
For example, while in Toronto I went to a cinema house to see my first so-called “cowboy movie.” This movie did not touch me emotionally. Everybody in the picture seemed to be shouting, shooting, yelling and singing at the same time. The plot lacked purpose. The main characters were obviously trivial people and they were concerned with personal and unimportant matters.
Yet, to my amazement, the people in the audience seemed to be enjoying the picture. They were laughing and cheering and at times they were sad. I admit that I couldn’t follow their reactions to what was shown on the screen. I only know that such a picture would have absolutely no appeal for a Russian audience. That’s why we don’t have “cowboy movies.”
DO YOU BELIEVE THAT RACIAL OR NATIONAL ORIGINS DETERMINE THE CHARACTER OF THE INDIVIDUAL?
I find myself in complete agreement with I. M. Sechenov, our greatest physiologist, who stated back in the 1870s that the individual character of a man depends 99.9 percent on the social conditions of his life and his education and only .1 percent on his national characteristics.
He pointed out that if a Negro or Malayan lived under the same conditions as a European, his mental and social development would be identical. One of our anthropologists actually compared European and Malayan brains and found them exactly the same.
Or take a look at the Kirgizs and the Uzbeks —two races of people in our country. Under the czar, they were a primitive, backward people. But today they are on the same level as the other racial groups in the USSR. They have their own scientists, writers, artists, theatres and universities.
It is true that each country has its own national character. This is determined by the country’s past history, geography, economy and language. But the national character of a country does not limit in any way the possible social and mental development of any member of that country.
ARE PSYCHIATRY OR PSYCHIATRIC TECHNIQUES USED IN RUSSIA TO PROMOTE OR DISCOURAGE CERTAIN POLITICAL IDEAS OR ATTITUDES?
Political attitudes are not within the realm of the psychiatrist’s interest. It is not his business. We deal only with sick people. To encourage them or discourage them in their political beliefs is not our job.
DO YOU KNOW ANYTHING ABOUT “BRAIN-WASHING” — A PROCESS OF MENTAL CONDITIONING REPORTED TO HAVE BEEN USED BY COMMUNISTS ON POLITICAL PRISONERS?
My colleagues and I have never heard of such a process. Anyone who would do a thing like that to a healthy mind would be a case for a psychiatrist himself.
HAS THE MENTAL HEALTH OF THE RUSSIAN PEOPLE IMPROVED OR BECOME WORSE SINCE THE 1917 REVOLUTION?
It has improved greatly. As a matter of fact, I sometimes jokingly tell my medical students not to choose psychiatry as a career because soon there will be nothing for them to do! Actually, at present, there is plenty for them to do. Our greatest unsolved problems in mental health are epilepsy, schizophrenia and mental disturbances due to the shock of war injuries.
DOES MENTAL HEALTH THERAPY OCCUPY ANY SPECIAL POSITION IN RUSSIA?
Yes. Psychiatrists in our country are a favored group. Every person working in psychiatric clinics is paid a 30 percent salary bonus and has longer holidays. This is because the work is considered to be of great importance.
DO PATIENTS NEEDING PSYCHIATRIC TREATMENT COME FROM ANY SPECIAL GROUP?
There are no statistics on this as we don’t divide our patients according to their social position. Since medical help is free to everyone we don’t consider this division to be important.
DOES PROLONGED INTERNATIONAL TENSION CREATE NEUROTICS?
Yes, this atmosphere is not conducive to good mental health. When the leaders of a state, abetted by the press and radio, whip up a “war hysteria,” and bring into people’s life an uncertainty about their immediate future, feelings of anxiety and fear become common. This is a fertile breeding ground for a neurosis.
In this respect, we have favorable conditions in Russia. War propaganda is prohibited by law and our people believe that the forces of peace will triumph over the forces of war.
DOES THE POSSESSION OF A RELIGIOUS FAITH HELP OR HINDER THE DEVELOPMENT OF A HEALTHY MIND?
When people are sick it doesn’t matter whether they are religious or not. We don’t think that religion is necessary in therapy. Religious faith indicates a limitation of knowledge. Of course, it’s true that a person can convince himself of practically anything. Religious people especially have this power. This puts me in mind of a story by the American writer, O. Henry.
A beautiful young
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The Russian Mind
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girl lay ill in her bed. It is late autumn. She looks at the tree outside her window and watches the wind blowing the leaves to the ground. She gradually convinces herself that when the last leaf falls, she will die.
A friend of hers, a young artist, hears about this fixed belief and is determined to save the girl’s life. On a cold, windy day, while the girl is asleep, he climbs up a ladder and paints a leaf on her window pane. The girl lives.
But the artist? As a result of exposure to the weather, he catches a cold that turns into a serious infection and he dies!
BUT THINKING IN TERMS OF MENTAL HEALTH SPECIFICALLY — WHO IS MORE SUSCEPTIBLE TO MENTAL DISEASE, A RELIGIOUS PERSON OR AN ATHEIST?
In the past there was a type of mental illness caused by religious beliefs and prejudices known as klikushestvo. Translated literally it means “women possessed by the devil.” It afflicted women exclusively and it has
Rover makes his mark The floor's been waxed, The rug’s shampooed, Who’d dare track mud in? You’d. ETHEL JACOBSON
since been identified as a form of hysteria.
The elimination of this disease is due to the fact that we have inculcated the masses of our population with scientific and cultural knowledge. Only a small percentage of the people still have the prejudices and superstitions of the past.
Actually, the entire question you raise about religious faith and psychiatry is of no great interest to us. Religion is a personal matter for every Soviet citizen and we have no regulations in this respect. It is only natural, therefore, that a patient’s case history file does not show whether or not he adheres to any religion.
IN THE MATTER OF HUSBAND-WIFE RELATIONSHIPS ARE THERE ANY SOCIAL AGENCIES OR BUREAUS IN RUSSIA WHERE A HUSBAND AND WIFE CAN RECEIVE ADVICE ON THEIR MARITAL DIFFICULTIES?
No, because we don’t think marriage counselors would know how to advise married couples with their difficulties. They couldn’t appreciate the special problem of each couple. As one of Tolstoy’s characters once observed, “Every happy family resembles every other happy family but every unhappily married couple are unhappy differently.”
IS THERE A “BATTLE OF THE SEXES” IN RUSSIA?
Your suggestion that men and women are competing and struggling with each other sounds archaic to us. Women in our society have complete equality. They’re as active as men in industry and culture. For instance, fifty percent of our medical students are women.
DO RUSSIAN WOMEN WORKING OUTSIDE THE HOME FEEL GUILTY ABOUT NEGLECTING THEIR CHILDREN?
No they don’t, because they can work without neglecting their children. In our cities, working mothers can place their infants in daytime nurseries when the children are four weeks old. Excellent care is provided and the
mother can call for them each night knowing that they have received the best attention. One million children are being cared for by these nurseries.
About four million children are cared for in our rural nurseries on collective farms while the work goes on in the fields. Another four million children are cared for in nurseries and kindergartens attached to specific industrial plants and housing projects. Children may be put into them at the age of three.
DO YOU FEEL IT HARMFUL TO HAVE SO MANY CHILDREN SEPARATED FROM THEIR MOTHERS SO MUCH OF THE TIME?
No. In this regard we follow the method of child training set forth by Prof. A. S. Makarenko, one of our famous Soviet educators. The individual, according to Makarenko, must be brought up in a collective, by a collective and for the collective.
The child collective in the Soviet system of ed ucation is not only the object but the subject of education as well. It is oaly the collective that ensures the fuE development of healthy and brilliant personalities.
DO YOU BELIEVE IN SPANKING AS A METHOD CF DISCIPLINING CHILDREN?
I do not. My colleagues and I are trying Go educate the public about the folly and danger of using corporal punishment on children. Some parents still use it ün Russia but we are trying to discourage it. The parent who spanks 'is generally one who doesn’t know any better or who hasn’t the patience or time to explain fully to children what he wants done.
I myself have spanked my child only once. He was about seven or eight years old at the time. 1 had always felt badly about it but it was only last year that I got. around to asking him for his forgiveness for this outburst on my part. He laughed at my apology and told me that he had completely forgotten the incident. My son is now thirty-eight.
In speaking to parents about spanking, 1 often remind them that Dourov, our most famous animal trainer, gets his pets to perform all kinds of intricate tricks through the use of love and kindness alone. 1 also try to point out that physical punishment is degrading to the man who applies it.
MANY PEOPLE HERE BELIEVE WE GIVE OUR CHILDREN TOO MUCH FREEDOM. IS THE SAME VIEW HELD BY MANY IN RUSSIA ABOUT RUSSIAN CHILDREN?
I would say not. I don’t think we have gone as far as you have in emancipating our children. We believe that children must be taught discipline. Obedience must he obedience. If told to do a thing a child must do it.
DO TEEN-AGERS PRESENT A SPECIAL PROBLEM FOR PARENTS?
There are no serious differences between teen-agers and their parents. Teen-agers are off by themselves a good deal, leading a life of their own. Teen-
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agers obey their parents. If parents point out to them that they are doing something wrong, it is assumed that they will mend their ways immediately.
We do have individual rowdy teenagers as well as rough teen-age gangs, but these are very few.
WHAT DO YOU THINK ARE THE MOST HARMFUL CULTURAL INFLUENCES ON WESTERN CHILDREN?
I can think of a number but one I would like to mention are your children’s comic books. They are disgusting. I w'ould no more think of
giving a Russian child one of your comic books than I would of giving him a strong glass of vodka to drink. Both would harm him. The heroes of these comic hooks are despicable charactere with low instincts. This type of literature can only develop the animal instincts in children.
DO YOU HAVE ANY KIND OF COMIC BOOKS IN RUSSIA?
No. We have neither comic hooks nor comic strips in our daily newspapers. What we do provide for our children are illustrated hooks with
worthwhile themes. The hero is usually a man or woman who has struggled and made sacrifices for the benefit of the country and mankind. Doctors, research workers, teachers, engineers, laborers and collective farm workers are often the heroes of Soviet children’s fiction.
IS ALCOHOLISM A SERIOUS PROBLEM IN RUSSIA?
It is not, judging by the standards of other counlries. For example, in Russia you will seldom if ever meet a drunken woman. Yet in the short
time I was in the city of Toronto I met several drunken women.
BUT IS IT NOT TRUE THAT IN RECENT MONTHS THE SOVIET PRESS HAS CONTAINED A GREAT MANY ARTICLES ABOUT THE SCOURGE OF DRUNKENNESS?
Yes. It’s true that our various
periodicals have been campaigning for sobriety. But this is wholly coincidental. We are always conducting
offensives against bad habits. The spotlight, currently, happens to rest on the overindulgence in alcohol—a habit which harms both the body and the mind.
HOW DO YOU ACCOUNT FOR THE PRESENCE OF ALCOHOLISM IN RUSSIA?
It is largely an unpleasant inheritance from the past. It’s a remnant from the pre-Revolutionary days which has not yet been exterminated. It is not easy to get rid of bad habits.
DOES THE RUSSIAN PSYCHIATRIST BELIEVE THERE IS SUCH A THING AS AN “ALCOHOLIC PERSONALITY”?
No. My experience tells me that each alcoholic has his own reason for drinking. One man tells me he drinks because he’s sad and wants to he glad; another, that he’s glad and wants to celebrate; still another, that drinking helps put him to sleep. Furthermore, the effect of drinking on different people is different, thus suggesting that there is no uniform “alcoholic type” of personality.
DO YOU HAVE SPECIAL CLINICS WHERE ALCOHOLICS MAY GO FOR TREATMENT?
No. They are treated at our regular psychiatric clinics. We make extensive use of drugs like antabuse which create an unpleasant physical association with drinking.
BESIDES ALCOHOL, THE IMMODERATE USE OF TOBACCO, FOOD AND SEDATIVES IS SOMETIMES REGARDED AS SYMPTOMATIC OF A NEUROSIS. IS THIS VIEW SHARED BY THE SOVIET PSYCHIATRISTS? ARE THESE PROBLEMS COMMON IN RUSSIA?
I would say that excessive smoking is less of a problem in Russia than in other countries. I am certain that there are fewer youthful and female smokers in Russia than elsewhere. In Toronto, as soon as I took out my package of cigarettes I was surrounded by women. I think that heavy smoking is simply a bad habit.
I have no way of knowing whether there are more fat people in the Soviet Union than in North America. But I do feel that obesity is not a symptom of maladjustment or neurosis. As for the addiction to drugs, cases are so rare that in our lectures to psychiatry students we don't even bother mentioning the subject.
DO RUSSIAN BUSINESS AND GOVERNMENT EXECUTIVES FREQUENTLY SUFFER WITH DISEASES COMMONLY ASSOCIATED WITH PROLONGED STRESS AND STRAIN, FOR EXAMPLE STOMACH ULCERS?
We see no connection between the so-called “stress” diseases and the different types of occupation.
The “stress” diseases are receiving considerable attention from our medical men. It was Soviet scientists G. F. Lang and K. M. Bykov who showed that prolonged and oppressive mental experiences play an important role in the outbreak of these diseases. There was an increase in the “stress” diseases during the war and immediately following it. But we are certain that the number of new cases is falling off now.
Health centres and sanatoria have been set up on factory premises to detect and treat these diseases at the first possible moment. They are open night and day. Thus, workers and officials who experience an uncomfortable change in blood pressure or an
increased stomach acidity can report for treatment without losing much time from work.
IS THE CRIME RATE IN RUSSIA GOING UP OR DOWN?
Criminal delinquency is on the decrease in Russia, although unfortunately we have not yet eliminated it. Why is this so? The answer, in part, is that we have inherited some criminal behavior from the past. Another reason is that, I am sorry to say, we do not live in a vacuum and some anti-social elements from capitalist countries ooze through into Russia.
WHO HAS MADE THE GREATEST CONTRIBUTION TO MODERN PSYCHIATRY?
Without doubt, the Russian physiologist I. P. Pavlov who lived from 1849 until 1936. Pavlov’s teachings are the basis of all Soviet psychiatry.
Pavlov is also important from the mental health point of view. He has shown that the neurosis is not a fatal thing arising from the depths of the subconscious but a material phenomenon that can be explained by science. Freud and his theories of the subconscious are of little value to us. They lead the physician away from reality. They don’t help the patient get better.
(EDITORS’ NOTE: Pavlov formulated the theory of the conditioned reflex after wide experiment with animals. He claimed that behavior is solely the result of conditioning; that by training and conditioning one should be able to develop any kind of infant into any kind of adult.)
SOME PSYCHIATRISTS HAVE SUGGESTED THAT THE MENTAL HEALTH OF ALL GOVERNMENT LEADERS BE INVESTIGATED TO DETERMINE THEIR FITNESS TO RULE. WHAT DO YOU THINK OF THIS SUGGESTION?
Any psychiatrist making such a suggestion would certainly not be a suitable person to examine anybody. -fc