Psychology and the Soviet

Psychology and the Soviet

By Katie Kelly


The twentieth century was a time for great developments in the field of psychology.  Sometimes movements in schools of psychology were present across many countries and others were limited to a singular state.  The Cold War began in the later half of the 1900s and competition between US and USSR was fierce, even in the field of psychology.  A new desire to learn more about how these Soviets thought developed and many western psychologists searched for this answer.  Yet, the best information they found was straight from the Soviet psychologists’ works.  Theories like Ivan Pavlov’s one concerning higher nervous functioning directly attacked the western ideas of physiology.  This gave many American psychologists reason to study Pavlov’s experiments and publish their own rebuttals in scholarly works.

To aid in the clarification of Soviet psychology, the sources below contain a general history of psychology in the Soviet Union to primary sources of distinguished Soviet psychologists.  A great website pertaining to Soviet psychology has yet to be created, but websites and online archives are abundant with knowledge about certain key players like Lev Vgotsky and Ivan Pavlov.  Because of the popularity of this subject due to the Cold War, there was a desire for formal publication of information in books rather than posting it online.  The need to understand Soviet psychology also sparked before the internet was even popular (see publication dates of sources) and by the time it was popular, the need to understand it declined along with the Soviet Union.

1. General Overview:

  • Murphy, Gardner, and Joseph K. Kovach.  Historical Introduction to Modern Psychology. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1972.

Murphy and Kovach show the history of psychology from Ancient Greece to modern day.  One of the last chapters (Chapter 23) is about Soviet Psychology.  It demonstrates the major events in Soviet psychology that have influenced the whole field of psychology.  It also discusses Marx’s effect on Soviet psychology.

  • Ash, Mitchell G., and William R. Woodward.  Psychology in Twentieth-Century Thought and Society. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987.

Ash and Woodward give an overview of the field of psychology during the 1900s.  It also shows the beginning of experimental psychology, before Ivan Pavlov became famous following their design.  It has a chapter designated for psychology in many different countries, one being the Soviet Union.  The author of that chapter, David Joravsky, discusses Vgotsky’s impact on Soviet psychology.  At the end of the chapter, he lists multiple sources which would be good for further investigation.

  • Zusne, Leonard. Names in the History of Psychology: A Biographical Sourcebook. Washington, D.C.: Hemisphere Publishing, 1975.

This is an encyclopedia containing all of the famous psychologists in history until 1975.  It contains Ivan Pavlov and “Leon” Vgotsky and provides data such as demographics, education, and various positions held, along with the experiments and theories which made them famous.  It is a good source to get background and basic information about these two Soviet psychologists.


2. Thematic Sections:

  • Simon, Brian (ed.).  Psychology in the Soviet Union. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1957.

Brian Simon wrote the introduction of the book and states that “Soviet psychology is dialectical materialism.”  He discusses that “materialist philosophy” is even present in the psychology of the Soviet Union and links it to Marx, Engels, and Lenin.  Besides the introduction, this book is a collection of secondary viewpoints of works such as Pavlov’s theory of higher nervous function (also see Primary Sources).  It is pertinent, because the commentators are members of the Institute of Psychology in Moscow (or other closely linked institutions in the Soviet Union or Ukraine), which gives it a unique perspective from Western thought.

  • Valsiner, Jaan.  Developmental Psychology in the Soviety Union. Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1988.

This is a good source to understand the Soviet’s view of child development and has a more recent publication date which allows it to cover most of the history of psychology in the Soviet Union (except for the last few years).  It discuses the influential Lev Vygotsky and other cultural concepts of developmental psychology.  Valsiner attributes the interest of Soviet psychology to not only political but also natural interest in the field of psychology.  He also writes that developmental psychology is important to understand the social processes occurring in the Soviet Union.

  • Kozulin, Alex.  Psychology in Utopia: Toward a Social History of Soviet Psychology. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1984.

This book discusses the history of psychology specifically in the Soviet Union.  Naturally it mentions the works or Ivan Pavlov and Lev Vgotsky, but it also mentions Nikolai Bernstein and the backlash against Pavlovianism.  One of the most interesting and useful parts of this book is the Chronological Table from 1885 when the Moscow Psychological Society was formed to 1980 when the Psychology Journal was created.

  • Sexton, Virginia Staudt, and Henry Misiak.  Historical Perspectives in Psychology: Readings. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth Publishing, 1971.

This book is mainly about American psychology, but it does contain a chapter about psychology in other countries, with an except about Soviet psychology.  The author of that section, Gregory Razran, at first discusses Ivan Pavlov’s experimental psychology and his contemporary Vladimir Bekhterev’s further studies.  He also shows the division between Pavlov’s Soviet psychology and American psychology.


3. Primary Sources:

  • Vgotsky, Lev.  Thought and Language. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1962.

Lev Vgostsky was one of the distinguished psychologists in the Soviet Union.  While Vgotsky does discuss his theories about thought and language, he also a major development in intellectual development.  He unexpectedley died (28 years before this book was published), but he had a major influence on Soviet psychology and those who came after him.

  • Pavlov, Ivan P.   Lecture on Human Reflexes, Vol. II, Conditioned Reflexes and Psychiatry. New York, NY: International Publishers, 1941.

In this lecture series, Ivan Pavlov, another prominent psychologist in the Soviet Union, discusses cortical funtion and his famous conditioning theory.  In one of the lectures, he also proposes his theory of higher nervous functioning, which supposedly takes aim at diminishing Western ideas of physiology.  Because this book was published before the Cold War, it probably had some influence on the divide between the US and USSR.  Pavlov also includes details about his famous experiments on conditioning (Pavlov’s dogs, etc.).

  • Wertsch, James V. (ed.).  The Concept of Activity in Soviet Psychology. Armonk, NY: M.E. Sharpe, 1981.

Due it its publication towards the end of the Soviet Union, the editor gathered a vast collection of primary papers covering a large time period.  He includes writings from the notable Vgotsky among others like A. N. Leont’ev, R. E. Levina, and P.I. Zinchenko.  This book is a great resource for primary sources, but it does include commentary about Soviet psychologists’ work.

  • Slobin, Dan I. (ed.).  Handbook of Soviet Psychology. Moscow: International Arts and Sciences Press, Spring-Summer 1966.

This book is actually an issue of Soviet Psychology and Psychiatry prepared for the XVIII International Congress of Psychology in Moscow but has since been translated into English.  One of the best parts of this book is its “Glossary of Terms Frequently Encountered in Soviet Psychology.”  Many papers from lesser-known psychologists are present.


4. Related Research Guides & Other Electronic Sources:

This is a good website for further studies in Soviet psychology.  It contain Marxist works, reference works, and commentary about Soviet psychology.  It also has links for further reading.


5. Libraries & Archives:

This is a great online archive for everything related to Lev Vygotsky.  It contains many of Vygotsky’s works and suggestions for further reading.