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From Russia, With Soul

Discusses that all psychology in Russia should be viewed with three factors in mind: the nature of the Russian soul, the current state of the Russian economy, and the incredible number of losses in Russian families due to Stalin's purges. Difficulty in understanding Russian soul; The cataclysmic shift; Healing exchange; Notes from Elena's presentation; New problems; Loss; More.

Only the depth of human contact here can carry them through now.

I shared a train compartment with Mongolian Black Marketeers, shared a room on Lake Baikal with a young Russian woman living in Siberia whose family had been "successful" communists in the "businessman" sense, and shared a day or so of the four-day train ride to Moscow with an older Russian woman living in Paris whose father had been exiled to Siberia in 1937 by Stalin because he was a real communist." All this is before I even arrived in Moscow, where I was to meet with Russian psychotherapists, but it certainly added depth to my picture of what people from that part of the world are like.

One point jumped out at me immediately: Russia is in no position not to be pragmatic. The collapse of the Russian economy in the wake of the overnight switch to a market economy colors everything and deeply impacts everybody.

All psychology in Russia should be - must be - viewed with three factors in mind: The nature of the Russian soul, the current state of the Russian economy, and the incredible number of losses in Russian families due to Stalin's purges. There is unresolved bereavement on a massive scale.

I wish I could find a way to talk about the Russian soul: I almost think it is better not to even try. It is very difficult for an American who has not experienced Russians in Russia to understand. You almost have to be there; maybe you do have to be there.

The Nature of the Russian Soul

It is something that just does not exist in this country on the scale it exists there. I am not as articulate nor as clear on this subject as I would like. I am not sure the world has much of a language for it anyway - or, at least, the English-speaking world. I find that the clarity of my own sense of that soul fades when I get back home, where I am drowned in our familiar market mentality, consumer crush, the measuring of everything in dollars and cents - "is it cost effective" -and our starkly contrasting individualism. To try to talk about soul here in the United States makes me feel like it might just get people looking at me like I am a displaced sixties hippie or solipsistic, latter-day New Ager.

This much is for sure. There is a consensus among all the Americans we have brought to Russia for these three years of conferences: Being there is a deeply nurturing experience; we feel that which "Russians have to offer Americans." It is a depth of human contact in the ordinary course of life's events that they maintain.

The Russians have a sense of connectedness to themselves and to other human beings that is just not a part of American reality. It isn't that competitiveness does not exist; it is just that there always seems to be more consideration and respect for others in any given situation. And it may be that feeling of connectedness that will bring them through these terrible economic trials they have now entered.

Elena, the Russian economist who is part of our meeting group, thinks it will. The Russians seem not to make the divorce between "hard" science and heart and soul that we do in the United States. Elena is probably a classic example. In her position as a part of the Academy of National Economy, a division of the Academy of Science, she works in facts and statistics all day long; when you ask her how (how in the world!) she thinks they will make it, she gives you a metaphysical answer. The scientist part of her gave a presentation that showed us how it was absolutely impossible for the economy to begin to work. Yet, she says, "I am not pessimistic."

None of the known resources of the modern world are in place. Pushed to the wall of reality, the economic structure of their country collapsing around them - nothing in anybody's theory of economics to provide any basis for hope, let alone comfort - still they hope. For what, I had asked.

What she hopes in is the Russian people's resilience and will to save themselves. Her own 67-year-old mother laughs at her when she talks of her anxiety about the coming winter. These new hardships are nothing compared to the hardships endured in the Russia of her memory - after all, there are no wholesale murders going on, armies are not marching on Moscow, people are not starving in the streets. It is such endurance that gives Elena hope. That endurance coupled with faith in the very generative force of Life itself to sweep her people up into cooperative ventures with one another at the grass-roots level. Even though she, as an expert in economics, sees no objective hope, in her heart she bears the faith of her forefathers and foremothers who had literally given their lives to see freedom for the people of Russia.

The Russians used a word, sovest, which seemed not easily translated, but may correspond roughly to the Jungian concept of a higher self. It is on the sovest in each of the people of Russia that Elena pins her hope for the future of her country.

In these people, who have been so bludgeoned by czars and dictators and KGB for a 1,000 years, that faith is more than inspirational; it is awe-inspiring. No family was left untouched by the bloody hand of Stalin. Forced into an existential position of feeling like it is useless to make plans, they rely on the now - the new possibility in each new moment and in the awareness that they can address themselves to being responsible and "making the right choices" as the moment reveals a time for choice. It seems to be like trusting in the Tao, although they did not use those words.

The Cataclysmic Shift

When I crossed the border from Mongolia into Siberia at the beginning of the month, I got 150 rubles for one of my American dollars. By the end of the month, the same dollar was worth 200 rubles. They were experiencing a 500 percent annual inflation rate during the month of August. You can imagine how anxious that might make any one of us were it reversed.

The shock of the overnight switch to a market economy has affected our friends considerably. The schoolteachers were impoverished overnight. Among the university professors, our own friends still have jobs, but others have been terminated from their positions.

To cope, our psychologist friends have developed a wide range of consultation possibilities. With the current rate of inflation, they have to work a lot to make enough money for the high-priced commodities. However, there is no point in making more than it literally takes to support the family, because the ruble is shrinking as one holds it in one's hand.

The Russians have reached a level of acceptance of the state of instability. Knowing they have no control over what happens in the economy, they seem to have adopted the philosophy of taking each day at a time. It is unrealistic to do otherwise. It is impossible to plan under such uncertainty. It is not useful to dissolve oneself in anxiety about "what is going to happen." The Russian simply "carries on" What amazes me is that they do it with such graciousness.

Healing Exchange

Misha Ivanov is a psychologist and his wife Elena Starostenkova-Ivanov is an economist. Elena is one of the members of the Academy of National Economy originally appointed by Gorbachev, now advisor to the new government. Misha is chairman of the Institute for Professional Development (IPD) in Moscow.

Elena is a part of a team of economists whose job is to help government officials understand free-market economy with all its implications for rebuilding the country. For all practical purposes, Russia has been asleep for the past 70 years.

Elena also writes articles for Moscow newspapers to help educate the Russian public about their shifting, trembling economy. Her most recent is "I, Banker, and You, User of Bank."

The institute Misha chairs is a Russian sister organization to the Institute for International Connections (IIC) in Denver, created in 1989 to facilitate exchange between Russia's new profession of clinical psychology and psychotherapists from the United States. The IIC, working alongside the IPD, sponsored this conference as well as conferences in 1990 and 1991. We are working together to find the ingredients conducive to the welfare of individual human beings in a context of community.

Since the first joint meeting in 1990, there has been a great deal of work between Russian and American schoolteachers and business consultants, as well as between Russian and American psychotherapists. Although, as anyone might imagine, there is considerable mistrust of and resistance to "government involvement" among the Russians, the school and business committees hope to take their model programs to the national councils so that what works may be applied on a national level. Ongoing work with Tahir Basarev, deputy chief for the Department of Human Resources (it includes all personnel working for the Russian government) is an example of the successful work of the business committee toward that end.

Basically, psychology as a discipline that cares about the individual and not simply the work group seems to have been born in Russia 15 years ago when Viktor Frankl came to the USSR. Until 1985, psychology was strictly an academic subject taught in universities. Only since perestroika has clinical psychotherapy - work with clients - been possible. In 1988, under the auspices of the Association of Humanistic Psychology, Virginia Satir - pioneer in family therapy and in the application of the healing principles to larger systems - came to the Soviet Union. The seeds of our two groups were planted with her arrival.

As chairperson of the Institute for Professional Development, Misha organized this third annual meeting in Moscow to bring together Russians and Americans for joint training and cultural exchange. The unique feature of the IPD and the IIC is the emphasis on joint training. We of the American organization feel the Russians have as much to offer us as we have to offer them, that very difficult-to-describe depth of soul being a major gift.

Our broadest aim is continued commitment to each other toward the healing of both our cultures. The Russians are virtually a whole nation in bereavement or post-traumatic stress; their Afghanistan veterans had experiences similar to our Vietnam veterans. Americans are suffering a narcissistic orientation to life that engenders the addiction epidemic rampant in the United States. We are committed to a long-term association.

Elena is a research fellow of the Institute for Studies of U.S. and Canadian Economies as well as a member of the Academy of National Economy and the Graduate School of international Business. This school trains ministers and deputy ministers - managers who would be in charge of state production enterprises. In Russia, business has, of course, been government-run until the very recent shifts. It is Elena's job, as research fellow in her institute and as part of the team of her academy to provide training to improve the Russian economy, to teach the people at the top what works and what doesn't.

While Elena is focused on helping her country understand and deal with the "earthquake" rumbling through the economy, Misha is trying to hone his skills in the treatment of post-traumatic stress syndrome and panic disorder. In my opinion, panic can hardly be viewed as "disorder" when the entire economy of your country is collapsing around your ears.

Elena: Notes from her Presentation

When Elena and I met again this summer, it was on the first anniversary of last year's failed coup. "Last year," said Elena, "it all seemed very simple: We must take a position. And we did. We went to the White House and took our position." The Russians deliberately refer to their new parliament building as the "White House" after our White House because they wanted it to stand as a symbol of democracy; white house, not "red" house. "I think maybe that was last occasion Russian hope for miracle. But there is no miracle. Now, we must take position, but now it is not simple. I know we must take a position, but what must it be?"

A year ago, Elena had presented a then-current economic picture of Russia. She ended the lecture with the warning that the government could not stand. Something had to give and soon.

Three days later. Elena's husband, Misha, and his professional friends were out in the streets at those barricades, "taking that position" to which Elena had referred. Mandating "egalitarianism," that everybody be "equal," had to produce violence.

The palpable difference since last year is the deregulation of prices according to guidelines of the International Monetary Fund. Everybody realizes now, too late to do anything about it, what a mistake this sudden shift was.

Now it is not so clear "what position must be taken."

Elena draws four boxes representing the Russian economy: Raw Material

Capital Land


Equipment personnel and


The "people, personnel, and organization" are not trained or organized for the modern technological world. Training them would take money, which they do not have. The "equipment" is all in need of repair; fixing or replacing it would take money, which they do not have. There is no "capital." Ninety percent of the plants that were functional before deregulation would have been forced out of business by the resulting inflation had their government not intervened. Otherwise, production would have stopped. This is a statistic, not hyperbole. It took about six months to become clear that the deregulation was not going to work.

Elena's prognosis is, there is none. From the point of view of economics there is no apparent solution. They lack the basic ingredients required to turn it around.

So Elena's psychologist husband is busy trying to learn about post - traumatic stress disorder and theories about dealing with stress and anxiety.

New Problems

The overnight shift to market economy has had a huge impact on the people. It has created brand new problems in families. Galina, the schoolteacher, was suddenly impoverished, along with most of the rest of the nation, overnight. The monthly salary of most Russians is about the equivalent of $15 American money. The rent formula has been changed so that housing as well as food is more expensive. Plus 500 percent annual inflation.

Now that everybody is free to sell whatever there is a market for, adolescents are selling black-market beer in the streets and earning several times over what their fathers have ever earned. This is, of course, reminiscent of the American problem of adolescents making thousands of dollars selling drugs. How do you stop something that is so rewarding? And what is the impact on the family of that adolescent with his big wad of money while his father is on his same less-than-$15-in-American-currency salary - and/or facing unemployment in the event his job is considered obsolete under the new market system?

One Russian therapist held a role-play family session presenting this problem. Misha had consulted on the case.


The Russian population has experienced generation after generation of situations that produce post-traumatic stress syndrome. They are experiencing bereavement on a scale hard to imagine in our country. Stalin murdered the grandfathers, great uncles as well as the grandmothers and great aunts of most of our Russian psychologist friends. No family in Russia was untouched by this slaughter. The latest government estimate is 40 million people. That is one fourth the population of the United States.

Then add the number of people the czars before him murdered and the KGB after him murdered and you see a nation of people who for centuries have been dealing with emotional loss and post-traumatic stress. When one wonders aloud how they cope with their many frustrations, the Russians have a way of saying, "We are used to it." However, therapists know that one does not "get used to" post-traumatic stress - that, in fact, it haunts until the point of resolution. Likewise, loss unacknowledged influences behavior out of awareness of the bereaved.

After getting back to the United States, I called Elena to check out that figure of 40 million to be sure what it included. it was 8:30 Sunday night in Moscow. No, Misha answered the phone; Elena was working at her office.

Of course, Misha would know: Did the 40 million include the Russians who died in WWII defending Russia against Hitler's army. No. That is another 20 million! Misha says there is now an ongoing attempt to get accurate figures about Stalin's purges and the figure is growing every time they look. It seems the first thing Stalin did was to murder the entire Census Bureau, so that makes it even harder. But the Russians are intent on getting the whole truth now that they at last have access to all the KGB files. The 40 million doesn't even count the 1917 Revolution.

Misha cautions, "Now this includes also those who died in prisons in Siberia, or froze or starved along the way." I suppose he didn't want me to get carried away and think Stalin had personally shot them all. We are talking, I know for sure, about Elena's grandfather and about the grandfather of another of our group, who had been a minister in city government.

There is still a great deal of feeling around those issues. Many Russians spoke about it in the 1990 meeting. They told us they didn't talk about these things among themselves - the presence of outsiders was almost required for the tears to be released.

In Russia today, one notices that the women can't let go of their grown children, and often they live in the same flat with them. In Moscow, one of the Russian women in our group says she wants two more children because in five to seven years hers will be gone; she would like children somewhere in her house. She had spoken previously of being afraid to be alone in her flat while her husband was gone with the children for several days. She had spoken also of the energy that comes with a new baby.

My theory is that middle-aged women may be holding on to the children in the next generation as a way of dealing with the massive losses in the past one. It is a sort of antidote to the loss, mourning, and sadness of the last lost generation.