How Ideas About Autism Were Shaped in the Early USSR

Pioneering psychologists Grunya Sukhareva and Lev Vygotsky make history.

Posted Jan 06, 2021

During Josef Stalin’s “Great Break,” the Soviet approach to autism, and disability as a whole, became defined by integration. Most special schools were sentenced to closure, and those with disabilities put back into normal society (except in the most extreme cases of disability) in 1929. The Soviets deemed that it was best to ‘abolish all teaching of paedology’ (the Russian word for the combination of pedagogy, psychology and medicine) resulting in a review of the schools for ‘hard to rear’ (trudnovospituemye) children and the decision to transfer most of their pupils back to mainstream schools.[1]As in the wider world of the USSR, the emphasis was on collectivisation.

Before this purge, however, the Soviets cultivated a form of child development which focused on potential more than the Western idea of actual, present signs of development. In Andrew Sutton’s (no relation to me) article ‘Backward Children of the USSR,’ he enthusiastically recounts the ideas of Soviet psychologist and paedologist Lev Vygotsky, one of the most prominent figures of child developmental psychology in Russia during the early days of its socialist experiment, and a pioneering voice in the education of disabled children in particular.

Vygotsky’s ideas embody many of the more positive sides of socialism, advocating a caring, paternal form of development which Sutton sees as a far-cry from the academic competitiveness of the West. ‘The psychology founded by Vygotsky maintains that to teach a child at the level determined by the use of intelligence tests (i.e. at his level of actual or present development) does nothing to accelerate the process of his actual development, but rather impedes it, by reinforcing his present level and failing to improve him with new tools of mental production,’ says Sutton. ‘In contrast to this, the zone of next development provides an indication of the upper limits of the child’s teachability (obuchaemost) and permits teaching to be regulated to create maximal growth and development.’[2]This approach is extremely beneficial for children with disabilities, particularly autism, showing a degree of patience unique to a nurturing culture which looks after its people.

While Vygotsky propounded his educational theories, Soviet child psychologist Grunya Sukhareva was coming up with a set of theories surrounding schizophrenia that eventually led to some of the earliest diagnoses of autism (diagnoses that precede figures such as Hans Asperger).

Much of Sukhareva’s research took place at the Psycho-Neurological and Pedagogical Sanatorium School of the Institute of Physical Training and Medical Paedology in Moscow, a sanatorium for children with issues such as trauma and schizophrenia. The Soviet government, seeing child-rearing as vital to society, put copious amounts of money into the sanatorium, allowing Sukhareva to carry out her research with the resources she needed. [3]This, if nothing else, does suggest that socialism is not without its benefits to people with autism. Sukhareva’s definitions of autism – surrounding unsocial children, especially boys, who, despite fiercely developed intelligence, preferred their own company and liked living in their own worlds – developed from contemporary Soviet research surrounding schizophrenia but soon became something else entirely.

Sukhareva ideas were proceeded by the research of men such as Eugen Bleuler and Lev Rozenshtein on schizophrenia. Sometimes called schizoid psychopathy, the research on forms of “mild schizophrenia,” defined it as represented by those who were inwardly focused, poor at social interactions, and emotionally flat, yet with an intact intellect:[4]characteristics which foresaw the widely agreed traits of mild autism. 

Sukhareva built upon these ideas with her concept of “sluggish schizophrenia.” She argued that this was defined by ‘an odd type of thinking’, an inclination to ‘rationalization and absurd rumination’, a ‘tendency toward solitude’, and a ‘certain flatness and superficiality of emotions’ . . . Furthermore, her patients were intelligent, and showed none of the ‘intellectual decline’ thought typical of schizophrenia. [5]She eventually concluded that the children did not have a developing disease process, but instead a distinct inborn condition which she described as ‘schizoid psychopathy in children.’[6]Her ideas were later correlated with Hans Asperger’s eponymous syndrome,[7]showing just how revolutionary Sukhareva’s ideas were at the time. (Her current obscurity may be due to Asperger’s decision not to cite her work, due to her Jewish heritage and his links to the Nazi party.)

Sukhareva’s work, and that like it, was shut down during Stalin’s “Great Break” because of health care policy’s shift from preventive medicine and social hygiene to a more pragmatic approach which prioritised factory workers.[8]Soviet psychologist V.P. Osipov, the head of the Military Medical Academy in Leningrad, argued that the research of people like Bleuler, Rozenshtein and Sukhareva had given introversion to the status of a disease, resulting in an influx of psychiatrists ‘frivolously’ over-diagnosing Soviet citizens with schizophrenia.

Yet Sukhavera’s legacy persists. As well as being a pioneering voice in her field, she is remembered for her compassionate attitude towards research. While their perspectives on the treatment are hard to know, academia on the subject is favourable. In their short article on Sukhareva, Irina Manouilenko and Susanne Bejorot write that ‘the children in Sukhareva’s case series were admitted to a therapeutic school, and received both social and motor skills training during woodwork, painting and gymnastics classes. This specific training facilitated their progression into an ordinary school and is illustrating how modern Sukhareva was in her ideas of how these children should be helped.’[9]An article in Scientific American magazine describes Sukhareva’s writing as ‘official in tone but always warm, and it shows how much she cared for the clinic’s children,’ as well as the ‘sensitivity and intuition’ of the woman herself.[10]Because it was only just being defined as a condition, it’s difficult to discover much about the lives of ordinary autistic people in the period, undiagnosed as they were. But in this depiction of Sukhareva’s nurturing attitude towards her patients, we see a woman who was a product of a society that cared for its children’s wellbeing, even if they were strange, introverted or unable to connect with others.

In all, while Stalin’s radical changes to how society was structured likely harmed child development, particularly among the autistic, the country’s early experiments with a more nurturing approach to developmental child psychology, as well as its pioneering early research into high functioning autism, prove that life for autistics in socialist countries doesn’t necessarily have to be a negative experience.


[1]Sutton, A. (1980) Backward Children of the USSR: An Unfamiliar Approach to a Familiar Problem, in: Brine, J, Petrie, M and Sutton, A. ed. Home, School and Leisure in the Soviet Union, London: George Allen & Unwin Ltd. pp. 166

[2]Sutton, pp. 171

[3]Zeldovich, L. (2018) How History Forgot the Woman Who Defined Autism, Scientific American, 

[4]Zajicek, B. (2018) Soviet psychiatry and the origins of the sluggish schizophrenia concept 1912–1936, History of the Human Sciences, 3.2, pp. 94-5

[5]Zajiceck, pp. 96

[6]Zajiceck, pp. 96

[7]Zajiceck, pp. 96

[8]Zajiceck, pp. 97

[9]Manouilenko, I. and Bejorot, S., (2015) Sukhareva—Prior to Asperger and Kanner,Nordic Journal of Psychiatry,  pp. 2

[10]Zeldovich, L. (2018) How History Forgot the Woman Who Defined Autism, Scientific American,