Homo Sovieticus: Brain Waves, Mind Control, and Telepathic Destiny, by Wladimir Velminski
It’s a long title for a small book, and the subtitle promises much. With the release of the voluminous Stargate material by the US government earlier this year, Homo Sovieticus would seem to be a timely examination of what its Soviet counterpart was up to in the same period. There is a gap in our understanding of the efforts that were made to utilise psi processes for state purposes in the Soviet Union, but unfortunately Wladimir Velminski does little to fill it. In fact, the subtitle is entirely misleading. Anyone expecting a considered update to Sheila Ostrander and Lynn Schroeder’s 1970 classic Psi: Psychic Discoveries Behind the Iron Curtain, say, will be disappointed. The use of the phrase ‘a fascinating series of anecdotes’ in the back cover blurb is an early indication that the analysis will be light, and so it proves.
Worse, the contents, translated from the German, are rather confused and often opaque, whether the fault of the author or the translator is impossible to say, though the occasional inclusion of the original German expressions is an indicator that the latter, Erik Butler, struggled to find a suitable English equivalent and threw in the towel. Velminski’s position in the Department of Media Studies at the Bauhaus University Weimar, rather than having a track record in the history of psychical research, may account for the often tortuous prose. The small format pages are heavily illustrated, though the Russian originals lack translations, reducing their usefulness.
Velminski examines Russian advances in psychology and electronics after the 1917 Revolution, showing how a strand of research saw the potential for their synergy in developing a new improved human – the New Soviet Man, to which Homo Sovieticus (1982) was an ironic riposte by Alexander Zinoviev – who would transcend the limitations imposed on the working class by capitalism in an evolutionary leap forward. The new socialist relations of production would enhance human potential, integrated into a new collective consciousness with the goal of creating a better, more efficient, society. Of course the emphasis was on collectivity, and therefore conformity to the goals of the regime. As George Orwell noted in 1984 (1949), conformity works most efficiently when the individual has internalised the state’s ideology and can conceive no alternative to it.
Unfortunately the effort to create this New Soviet Man was doomed to failure from the start because of the assumption that telepathy worked in the same way as broadcast signals using either radio or television, subject to the same electromagnetic principles, with agent and recipient analogous to broadcaster and receiver. Velminski does not mention him, but Upton Sinclair’s Mental Radio (1930) naturally springs to mind. Nor, surprisingly, does he mention Jeffrey Sconce’s influential (and by contrast very readable) Haunted Media (2000), in which Sconce tracked the ways electronic means of communication from the telegraph onward, including the networking of radio and television, were linked to the discourses of Spiritualism and psychical research.
Apart from the aforementioned anecdotes, there is little evidence presented that there was a concerted effort to put paranormal effects on a materialist basis at a government level. Given the degree of social authority attained by the Soviet regime, mind control was probably unnecessary, though had it worked it would have been more efficient than bodily control. This is rather the story of a series of entrepreneurs and eccentrics who are pulled together by Velminski to support the thesis that these individuals were building on each other’s work to achieve the reality of telepathic rapport, with an unspecified connection to the idea that such research could be co-opted by the state for the purpose of mind control.
We meet a number of individuals: Aleksei Gastev (1882-1939), who worked on the application of Taylorist methods to Soviet industry that allowed the individual to be ‘callibrated’ into a complete cybernetic system; Vladimir Bekhterev (1857-1927) ), who conducted experiments in mental control with humans, extending similar work with animals done by Vladimir Durov (1863-1934); Hovannes Adamian (1879-1932), who worked on early television experiments; Velimir Khlebnikov (1885-1922), who wrote about the transmission of taste (experiments on which had been conducted by the Society for Psychical Research’s Edmund Gurney in the 1880s); and Pavel Gulyaev, who proposed an energy field around the body – the auratic field - that could be measured by means of a device called an Aurathron, the information signal called the psikhon being a factor in the goal of controlling the population (or at least Velminski claims, but provides no evidence).
All these efforts seem to have been rather ineffectual considering the USSR’s spectacular collapse. Velminksi sees a series of television experiments by Anatoly Kashpirovsky in 1989 as ‘the last effort of Soviet power to initiate the citizenry into the mysteries of the communist apparatus that was in the course of disappearing’. Allegedly Kashpirovsky attempted to mesmerise viewers in mass therapy sessions to ‘rewire’ the citizenry, though if that really was the intention (and again we only have Velminski’s word for it) it was much too little far too late. More plausibly it was simply an attempt to project a healing influence to an enormous audience, with no additional ideological motivation. Amusingly Velminski cites approvingly Kashpirovsky’s services to the Russian weightlifting team, culminating in the 1988 Seoul games which were dominated by the Soviet Union, suggesting their success was due in part to his ‘psychic tunings’. Maybe, but possibly the industrial quantities of steroids the athletes downed played a part as well.
The exception to these ad-hoc experimenters is a discussion of the 1926 novel The Ruler of the World, by Alexander Belyaev (1884-1942), dealing in fictional form with the transmission of emotion by radio, and as Velminski notes, raises the issue of the loss of privacy when thoughts are accessible by others telepathically in a transparent society (echoing the transparency in Yevgeny Zamyatin’s We, completed in 1921). It’s the ultimate collectivisation, and hence, unlike Zamyatin’s novel, posited in utopian rather than dystopian terms.
Velminski implies that early debates on the use of enhanced psychic powers translated into an officially sanctioned programme of research, but presents no evidence that this was the case, and it seems unlikely. The suggestion that the dying regime would attempt to reprogramme the populace psychically in 1989 would have been surprising given the generally negative official attitude to parapsychology. The work of Leonid Vasiliev (1891-1966, also not mentioned) in Leningrad had been stopped as a result of official disapproval, and Kashpirovsky’s transmissions implies rather that a regime losing its grip was unable to keep the lid on a widespread predilection for the paranormal and mystical which had always been there but submerged beneath the Marxist-Leninist facade.
With the Soviet Union gone, what next for mind control? Velminski doesn’t seem to know because he concludes with an account of Pavel Pepperstein’s film Hypnosis (2004), which is not suitable for family viewing, consisting of women staring at penises in close-up until they manage an erection, Velminski’s analysis is pretentiously dressed up in psychoanalytic and semiological waffle. He might more suitably have tried to find linkages with methods of psychological mastery currently being utilised in the Russian Federation which are somewhat more robust than a man beaming healing thoughts on the tele. There is a fascinating story to be told of how the early optimism of the Russian Revolution found expression in the efforts of art and technology to theorise and facilitate the expansion of innate capacities, stunted under capitalism, into the full flowering of human potential that would occur under communism; but Velminski has merely dipped his toe and failed to provide anything like a coherent analysis.