Book review: ‘Homo Sovieticus’ by Wladimir Velminski
Image credit: Alamy
How a succession of Soviet governments tried to use technology to influence public opinion and stifle dissent.
In autumn 1989, when the Berlin Wall was already crumbling and the Soviet Union was in the throes of perestroika, with all the chaos and shortages it entailed, an extraordinary event could be seen on TV screens throughout the Soviet Empire. I was living in Moscow and remember only too well a composed middle-aged man with piercing eyes popping up on Channel One straight after the evening Vremia (‘Time’) news show – the prime slot. He was Anatoly Mikhailovich Kashpirovsky, a licensed psychotherapist shown in the photograph above conducting a mass hypnosis ‘seance’ at around the same time. For the first time in the history of the USSR, he offered millions of disgruntled viewers a 30-minute-long session of direct TV hypnosis. “Relax and let your thoughts wander free,” he began.
The following day, Kashpirovsky was the talk of the country. Five more TV sessions were to follow during which the hypnotist, among other things, encouraged each viewer to place a glass of water in front of the TV screen and then claimed to have charged the water with his own energy, so that drinking it could provide the ultimate healing experience.
On another occasion, he ‘charged’ a copy of that day’s newspaper which made the whole nation wonder what one was supposed to do with it afterwards: put it up on the wall and stare at it or gobble it up for breakfast? The latter would have been more appropriate, for in most Soviet households, there was not much food on offer.
The main purpose of these excursions into the paranormal – which were somewhat unexpected for the rampantly atheist Soviet television – was obvious: to distract the long-suffering people of the collapsing Soviet Union from the vicissitudes of their miserable lives.
Also, as Wladimir Velminski correctly points out in this revealing and highly unusual book, “Kashpirovsky’s transmission represents the last effort of Soviet power to initiate the citizenry into the mysteries of the Communist apparatus that was in the course of disappearing.” It was indeed the last of the very many efforts to mind-control the submissive Soviet crowd, efforts that began straight after the Bolshevik coup d’etat of 1917 and continued up to the USSR’s spectacular collapse in 1991.
‘Homo Sovieticus: Brain Waves, Mind Control, and Telepathic Destiny’ (MIT Press, £14.95, ISBN 9780262035699) chronicles and describes the technologies behind them all. Reading this book, I remembered my Moscow 1980s neighbour Misha, a doctor of psychology, who bragged about working at a top-secret military facility developing means and methods for manipulating large crowds of people.
“The question is how to educate and control the human being,” Leon Trotsky infamously wrote. Constant fear of repression and purges was one way of such control. From the Soviet tyrants’ point of view, fear was not enough on its own. To achieve full control, they tried to mobilise science and technology.
They recruited a number of talented engineers and inventors. Some of these like Aleksei Gastev, began as idealistic believers in the construction, or ‘calibration’ as Gastev himself would put it, of ‘the New Man’. He invented and patented a device using which supposedly caused the worker “to be calibrated in such a way that he operates as part of an organic system without outside intervention”. The sketch of that peculiar appliance “for exercising the joint of the elbow or wrist in teaching work with a hammer” is reproduced in the book.
Like many of his ilk, Gastev’s story ended badly. His passion for early cybernetics and computer technologies, both declared ‘pseudo sciences’ by the Soviet officialdom, led to his arrest for ‘counter-revolutionary terrorist activities’ in 1938 and execution in 1939.
Current developments in robotics and artificial intelligence make this compact paperback, with lots of scientific, political and literary references, particularly topical now. Where do we stop before we all end up being manipulated by new financial and political tyrants? Lots to think about and to discuss.
[One small aside: The term ‘Homo Sovieticus’ was coined not by Velminski himself, but by a distinguished Russian writer and philosopher Alexander Zinoviev (1922-2006), who deserves to be credited.]