AUGUST 20, 2017
THE ENGLISH TRANSLATION of Wladimir Velminski’s Homo Sovieticus: Brain Waves, Mind Control, and Telepathic Destiny, originally published in German in 2013, comes at a fitting moment, as old paranoias about Russian psychological manipulation are being repurposed in the American political sphere. Velminski is a media historian, and his stated goal in Homo Sovieticus is “to outline a new picture of the thinking that shaped the [Soviet] age.” The impulse that would drive decades of Soviet experiments in mind control was present at the very origins of the Bolshevik era. The Soviet New Man, Leon Trotsky wrote in his 1924 treatise Literature and Revolution, would “make it his purpose to master his own feelings, to raise his instincts to the heights of consciousness, to make them transparent, to extend the wires of his will into hidden recesses.” This materialist insistence on the malleability of thoughts and emotions interacted with a recrudescence of pre-Soviet superstition, a form of political sorcery owing more to Rasputin than Lenin.
From the very beginning the Bolshevik revolution cultivated a passionate yet ambivalent affair with the forces of progress. Industrialization and the machine were seen as tools of emancipation rather than oppression. As long as the workers were in power, work would not be exploitative and alienating, or so a simplistic application of Marxism-Leninism had it. Inspired by the scientific management of labor devised by the mechanical engineer F. W. Taylor, Bolsheviks championed the “selfless devotion” and “organic fusion” of the soviet worker with the factory as a whole. A prominent encomiast of Soviet Taylorism was Aleksei Kapitonovich Gastev, a poet, worker, activist, revolutionary, scientist, and eventual victim of Stalin’s purges. Operating at various intersections of the interdisciplinary conditions that the October Revolution had created, Gastev worked on the “training-agitation” of the new worker with a particular emphasis on the thought process that went into labor. Unlike Taylor, Gastev stressed the importance of workers’ involvement, calling for a work discipline driven by passion, not duty. In his 1921 Program for Cultural Settings, Gastev notes that “[self-]observation automatically gives rise to the need for an exact art of representation,” which on the assembly line meant that the worker would be both the supervisor and enforcer of his own actions. “In this vision,” Velminski observes, “labor, as creative-dynamic-energetic-switching, constituted the basis for a system of self-monitoring circuitry.”
The scientific management of labor was the prelude to the attempts to manage and control thoughts. Just as the New Man’s actions could be perfected, so could his thoughts — or so a number of Soviet scientists believed. The assumption that thoughts can be monitored and controlled just as physical actions can was based on the groundless assumption that thoughts could be detected and transmitted like radio waves. This idea emerged first out of research on animals: the animal trainer Vladimir Durov, who made his name as a circus clown, was the first to “successfully” test telepathy on animals. In 1919 during a conference hosted by the Institute of Brain Research on “Mental Influence on the Behavior of Animals,” the neurologist and psychiatrist Vladimir Mikhailovich Bekhterev presented Durov’s dubious research to his colleagues, and subsequently conducted similar experiments on human beings. Their results, which were never replicated, led Bekhterev to think that “the mental effect of one individual on another is possible at a distance through some kind of living matter […] most likely through Hertz waves.”
Bekhterev’s “wave theory” was further corroborated by a third man of science, an electrical engineer named Bernard Kazhinsky. Kazhinsky claimed that “the transmission of mental information at a distance is the same (electromagnetic) as in ordinary radio communication,” thus giving telepathy a supposedly dependable scientific foundation. A Soviet engineer named Kachinsky, whose name differs by only one letter from that of his nonfictional counterpart, appears in The Ruler of the World, a novel by Aleksandr Romanovich Belyaev, one of the pioneers of Soviet science fiction, which appeared in 1929. Belyaev, according to Velminski “took up the theories and practices of contemporary research on telepathy and put them to work in his novel.” In The Ruler of the World, Ludwig Stirner, a frustrated and unsuccessful scientist, abuses his inventions in order to control the minds of others. (In an ironic turn, it is fiction that offers a skeptical reality check to the scientific community and its flights of utopian fancy: “I’m no scientist,” Stirner’s rival claims at one point, “but I think his power is limited to his circle of acquaintances.”)
If radio technology had given mind control spurious credentials, television was seen as the conduit by which it would reach the Russian masses. (Indeed, there was considerable confusion at the time about the distinction between the two technologies, as the transmission of images from a distance was perceived to be photographic evidence of telepathy’s verisimilitude.) The Soviet government had grand hopes for the dissemination of telepathic propaganda via television; “news and propaganda were routinely broadcast starting in 1931,” Velminski notes, even though “the Soviet industry of the time had not yet produced a single television set.” The only devices in circulation were built by amateurs and hobbyists on the basis of plans that were made freely available to the population.
The implementation of televisual mind control would thus need to wait a few decades. Indeed, it occurred just as the Eastern Bloc started to crumble. On October 8, 1989, a month before the Berlin Wall came down, the Soviet viewing audience was confronted by a singular televised event. At 8:30 p.m. on Channel One, immediately after the evening news, a curious character appeared and declaimed in psalmodic tones: “Relax, let your thoughts wander free.” The man, Anatoly Mikhailovich Kashpirovsky, was a licensed physician; prior to TV debut he had provided his psychotherapeutic services to the national weightlifting team, which, at the 1988 Olympic Games in Seoul, carried away six gold medals. Kashpirovsky’s aim now was to “calm a land beset by turbulence and heal the body politic by setting viewers’ minds to the state’s new goals.” Where the political reformism of Perestroika and Glasnost had failed, televisual mind control would step in and save the day.
Yet the day after Kashpirovsky’s first psychic healing aired, 70,000 people took to the streets in Leipzig to protest. Though history was clearly heading a different way as checkpoints between socialist nations were left open for the first time in decades, the Soviet state broadcaster decided to continue airing Kashpirovsky’s séances, four in total. In each, the host, in close-up, would begin by uttering the following words: “You can leave your eyes open for a while. Have a look at your surroundings. There should be no pointed objects, and no fire. Your posture should be stable. If anyone is seriously ill — for example, suffering from epilepsy — please do not participate in our séance; simply turn off the television.” The camera would then pan to the audience in the TV studio, with Kashpirovsky’s head superimposed. Spectators at home were reassured that by “imbibing ‘charged’ water, they would feel the effects of the therapeutic session until the next transmission.” (Jokes about “charged water” still abound in contemporary Russia, especially when the president addresses the nation in his annual televised Q-and-A.)
Kashpirovsky’s séances brought decades of state-sponsored Soviet telepathic experiments to an unceremonious end. What scientists believed possible within the confines of an experimental laboratory failed decisively in the public arena of television. At a time when fears about the insidious capabilities of the Russian state is once again ascendant, Velminski’s book helps us to recognize the limits of the supposed influence the “Empire of Evil,” even at its height, was able to exert on its own citizens, let alone foreign subjects. What the Soviet Union’s telepathic experiments ended up proving is that no apparatus of repression, however pervasive, can ultimately control a skeptical population.