“What benefit does Russia derive from this Institute?” Tsar Nicholas II on the Psycho-Neurological Institute (2021)

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The last Emperor of Russia and Vladimir Bekhterev’s Psycho-Neurological Institute revolutionaries

by Federico Soldani – 29th Oct 2021

“The Institute offered medical training of the highest order, but its students’ revolutionary tendencies were becoming a concern for the government. In 1912, the mayor of Saint Petersburg had reported on political activity among the capital’s students. In margin of the section on the Psycho-Neurological Institute, Tsar Nicholas II had written, “What benefit does Russia derive from this Institute? I wish to have a well-founded answer”. In the spring of 1914 the minister of public education presented an additional report on the anti-governmental attitudes of Bekhterev’s students and recommended the Institute’s closure.”

The above passage from ‘The Life of Gregory Zilboorg, 1890-1940. Psyche, Psychiatry, and Psychoanalysis’ by Caroline Zilboorg, daughter of Gregory, just released by Routledge talks about the Psycho-Neurological Institute as having a “reputation as a hotbed of revolutionary ideas”.


Tsar Nicholas II was the cousin of King George V of the United Kingdom. They are together in the 1913 photo above, at the time leading to the Great War, what we usually refer to as World War I. Nicholas II ended up being the last Emperor of Russia.

George V ancestor was of course George III, known as “the mad king”. As written in a previous article in PsyPolitics “according to biographer Desmond King-Hele, after the events of the American Revolution started in 1773, “the Lunar circle’s father-figure, Benjamin Franklin was still in England in 1774, acting virtually as American ambassador: King George III [who came to be known in history for his madness, ed.] was to call him the evil genius behind the Revolution, and Lord North branded him as ‘the great fomenter of the opposition in America.’


The capital of the Russian Empire changed name from Saint Petersburg – which sounded German – to Petrograd officially in 1914 at the start of the Great War. Then, in the period after the Revolutions of February and of October 1917, the name was changed after Lenin’s death in 1924 to Leningrad. In 1992 after the collapse of the Soviet Union it was changed back to the old St. Petersburg.

According to the Encyclopaedia Britannica online (emphasis and links added, including in further quotes below from different sources): “Vladimir Mikhaylovich Bekhterev, (born Jan. 20 [Feb 1, New Style], 1857, Sorali, Vyatka [now Kirov], Russia—died Dec. 24, 1927, Moscow, Russia, U.S.S.R.), Russian neurophysiologist and psychiatrist who studied the formations of the brain and investigated conditioned reflexes.

Bekhterev received a doctorate from the Medical-Surgical Academy of St. Petersburg in 1881 and then studied abroad for four years. He returned to Russia in 1885 to become professor of psychiatric diseases at the University of Kazan, where he established the first laboratory of experimental psychology in Russia the next year. He became professor of psychiatry at the Military Medical Academy in St. Petersburg in 1893 and founded a psychoneurological institute there in 1907, though he was forced to resign his professorship in 1913. He was restored following the Russian Revolution of 1917 and chaired the department of psychology and reflexology at the University of Petrograd (i.e., St. Petersburg) from 1918 until his death.

Bekhterev founded the Nevrologichesky Vestnik (“Neurology Journal”), the first Russian journal on nervous diseases, in 1896. His insistence on a purely objective approach to the study of behaviour and his conviction that complex behaviours could be explained through the study of reflexes influenced the growing behaviourist movement of psychology in the United States. Among his more significant writings are Conduction Paths in the Brain and Spinal Cord (1882; 2nd ed., 1896) and Objective Psychology (1907).”

The Psycho-Neurological Institute created in 1907 was meant, in Bekhterev’s words reported in Holl 2017, as a private institute “with a whole series of scientific disciplines for general research on the personality, the training and hygiene of the mental sphere, and also to set up courses to study the prophylaxis and cure of nervous and mental diseases.” The institute had to attend to a serious lack in tsarist society. “Due to the enormous number of attendees, it was necessary after a few years to transform the courses of the Psychoneurological Institute into a large private university (the first in Russia at the time), already accredited, which comprised up to 8,000 students and was not inferior in either the quantity nor the quality of the teaching staff to any Russian state university.”


According to an article about his life in the Lancet Neurology published in 2018 ”the amount of work he has done seems impossible”, “his father, a district police officer, died of tuberculosis when Bekhterev was just 9 years old, leaving his mother, a daughter of a civil servant, alone with three boys. At a young age, Bekhterev spent his nights reading and taking notes on books about natural science. In 1873, at the age of 16, Bekhterev enrolled at the Imperial Medical and Surgical Academy in St Petersburg” – the Military Medical Academy according to a 2005 article in the American Journal of Psychiatry.

Within 3 months he diagnosed himself with “acute neurasthenia” and spent 28 days at the local Balinsky Clinic. Anatoliy Nikiforov, one of Bekhterev’s biographers, believes that his time in the Clinic was the reason he later chose to study neuropathy. In his autobiography, Bekhterev wrote that this specialty, “nervous and mental diseases”, would allow him to help more people.”

“That time the old expression ‘textura obscura, functiones obscurissimae [an obscure texture, and the most obscure functions]’ could be fully applied to our knowledge of the brain. My desire to lit this darkness was the reason to study the brain structure and functioning”, Bekhterev wrote in his autobiography.”

He “went to Europe in 1884–85 for further training. Bekhterev worked with notable neurologists including Paul Emil Flechsig, Wilhelm Wundt, and Jean-Martin Charcot.” According to a 2005 article in History of Psychiatry also with Meynert and Westphal: “Their influence may have led him to branch out from neurophysiology to the field of psychology and eventually to psychiatry, in which he became famous (Brazier, 1987).” According to other sources, like his teacher Sechenov and his rival Pavlov, had worked in the psychological laboratory of Carl Ludwig.

According to Holl in ‘Cinema, trance and cybernetics’ (Amsterdam University Press 2017), “in 1884, when Bekhterev was Flechsig’s associate at the University Nerve Clinic, the lawyer Dr. Daniel Paul Schreber had just been admitted, whose Memoirs of My Nervous Illness appeared in German in 1906, which formed the basis for Freud’s Psychoanalytic Comments on an Autobiographical Account of a Case of Paranoia (Dementia paranoides). [1911, ed.]. Schreber’s memoirs as “Iatrogenic (i.e., professional) psychosis” made it possible to see the mirror inversion, the feedback between the systematic delusions of psychiatrists and patients, and Bekhterev’s later misjudgement of this is thought to have laid the groundwork for his abrupt end.”

“Bekhterev” – the Lancet Neurology article continued – “was remarkably productive during this time publishing some of the scientific material in the first edition of Conduction Paths in the Spinal Cord and Brain in 1893, followed by the second edition in 1896, which contained the most comprehensive description of the structure of the human brain at the time. The book made Bekhterev so famous that the German Professor of Anatomy, Friedrich Kopsch, said, “There are only two persons who know the anatomy of the brain perfectly— God and Bekhterev.”

“He founded the Psychoneurological Institute [1907, ed.], which combined research, clinical work, and academic courses. Notably, the Institute had flexible entry requirements. ‘Bekhterev cancelled the restrictions which existed in Russia for those entering universities. He accepted non-Christians, those who did not study in classic grammar schools, and women; he was the first one in Russia who allowed them to study medicine with men. He opened the doors for everybody‘.”


Members of the St. Petersburg League of Struggle for the Emancipation of the Working Class in 1897. Standing (left to right): Alexander Malchenko, P. Zaporozhets, Anatoly Vaneyev; Sitting (left to right): V. Starkov, Gleb KrzhizhanovskyVladimir Ilyich Ulyanov alias Lenin – former law student at the Imperial Kazan University – and Yuliy Osipovich Tsederbaum alias Julius Martov.
“Picture taken when they were released from prison before being sent to Siberia” according to Lenin’s 2000 biography by R. Service.

His relationships with the political sphere were numerous, as a revolutionary as well as a psychiatrist, including with Lenin and with Stalin.

Several sources, see European Journal of Neurology in 2004 or European Neurology in 2011, mention that Bekhterev was called at Lenin’s bedside and “examined Lenin at least once.” The authors in 2004 concluded that “concealment of Lenin’s incapacity during his lengthy terminal disease enabled the consequent usurpation of Soviet leadership by Stalin.”

According to an article in a 2005 issue of the American Journal of Psychiatry “on returning to Russia in 1885, he was already well known. He accepted a Chair in Psychiatry and worked in a psychiatric clinic in Kazan until 1893 and then at the Military Medical Academy in St. Petersburg. He served as a professor and director of the clinic for mental and nervous illnesses in the following years until his sudden and mysterious death in 1927. After his death, his name and works were deleted completely from the textbooks and scientific literature by Stalin’s orders.”

In an article in History of Psychiatry (2005) is reported how “Bekhterev planned to participate in the First Congress of Neurologists and Psychiatrists of Soviet Russia to be held in Moscow in December 1927, and had been nominated as an honorary chairman of this congress. Before he left Leningrad (St Petersburg), he received a telegram from the Medical Department of the Kremlin with an urgent request to travel to Moscow (Demin, 2002; Domil, 2003; Topolyansky, 1989). In the course of the congress, Bekhterev was late for one of the important meetings and, when asked why, he answered, ‘I examined a paranoiac with a dry hand’ (Antonov-Ovseyenko, 1981; Demin, 2002; Domil, 2003; Topolyansky, 1989). It appears that somebody reported this remark to the authorities.”

Bekhterev served as a member of Leningrad Soviet, and he was a friend of Stalin’s old foe – Zinov’ev. It seems likely that Stalin could not tolerate the possibility of a world famous professor of psychiatry and neurology spreading rumours that he was suffering from paranoia (Topolyansky, 1989).

“It is thought that the OGPU poisoned Bekhterev because, shortly before, he had examined Stalin” – Lenin’s successor after the October 2017 Revolution and Lenin’s death, ed. – “and diagnosed him as paranoid (Clarfield, 2002; Hachinski, 1999; Keitel, 2002; Topolyansky, 1989; Volkov, 1979).”

Stalin (right) confers with an ailing Lenin at Gorky, Lenin’s estate just south of Moscow, in September 1922.
According to the Metropolitan Museum, New York website: “Although Stalin did visit Lenin there frequently, the photograph has been heavily reworked: retouchers smoothed Stalin’s pockmarked complexion, lengthened his shriveled left arm, and increased his stature so that Lenin seems to recede benignly beside his trusted heir apparent. The reality was quite different: in a letter dictated around the time the picture was taken, Lenin described Stalin as intolerably rude and capricious and recommended that he be removed from his position as the Communist Party’s secretary general.”

In the previously cited 2005 article in History of Psychiatry, the authors reported that “Stalin was especially sensitive and suspicious surrounding the subject of his health. For example, his personal physician for many years, Professor Vladimir Vinogradov, diagnosed Comrade Stalin to be at risk of a stroke and was foolhardy enough to recommend, ‘Complete rest, freedom from all work.’ Stalin, seeing a conspiracy to remove him from power, furiously demanded Vinogradov’s arrest.” Vinogradov was accused of being part of what came to be known as “the doctor’s plot” between 1952 and 1953. According to the New York Times, “Dr. Vinogradov shared the responsibility of treating the leaders of the Soviet Communist party, the heads of the Soviet Government, and foreign Communist chiefs who came to Moscow for medical care” and “was one of 15 leading Soviet physicians arrested in November, 1952, on charges of plotting to kill Soviet Government and military figures by improper medical treatment.”


“Bekhterev was extremely versatile in his academic interests and fields of research, which embraced hypnosis and even psychosurgery. […] Independently of Pavlov, Bekhterev” – the 2005 article in the American Journal of Psychiatry continued – “developed a theory of conditioned reflexes and invented the term reflexology, which he defined as a scientific discipline that studies the response to external or internal stimuli. Bekhterev assumed the existence of two psychological systems: subjective, whose basic method of study is introspection, and objective (conditioned reflex). Thus, before Watson, Bekhterev had founded an objective psychology“.

Ivan Pavlov, his lifelong rival and the other great Russian behavioural scientist at the time, was also a significant influence for the behaviorists in the U.S.A.. “During fifty years, the lives of Bekhterev and Pavlov ran parallel, and their paths frequently crossed; Bekhterev was the younger of the two by eight years” (History of Psychiatry, 2005).

Bekhterev also authored “About neuro-psychic disorders in chronic ergotism” (1892), “Suggestion and its Role in Social Life” (1899), “Consciousness and its Borders” (1888), “Psyche and Life” (1902), “Personality and the Social Conditions of its Development and Health” (1906), “Objective Psychology” (1907), “Subject Matter and Tasks of Social Psychology as an Objective Science” (1911), “Collective Reflexology” (1921) and his magnum opus “General Principles of Human Reflexology” (1917-1928).

He was interested in psychic epidemics and collective phenomena related to the psyche.


At the Psycho-Neurological Institute there were also students who later worked as pioneers in filmmaking, see for example, Anniversary of the Revolution (1918), Man with a Movie Camera (1929) or Three Songs about Lenin (1934) by David Abelevich Kaufman alias Dziga Vertov who was experimenting with “sound collages” while studying at the Institute during 1916-1917. “In his Man with a Movie Camera collective reflexology is realized in film” according to Holl.

The chapter about ‘Psycho-reflexology’ in Holl’s ‘Cinema, trance and cybernetics’ (Amsterdam University Press 2017) begins with the following episode: “In October 1927 at Wittenberg College in Springfield, Ohio a symposium was held under the title “Feelings and Emotions.” The occasion was the inauguration of a new psychological laboratory, which, as a brand new institution, was being housed together in one building with the chemists. The lists of those lecturing was impressive. In the volume that was published shortly thereafter of the lectures, all the great men – and Margaret Washburn as the only woman – of experimental psychology were represented, including Pierre Janet from Paris, Alfred Adler from Vienna, Edouard Claparède from Geneva, the Hamburg institutional director William Stern, the physiologist Walter Bradford Cannon from the Harvard University Medical School, and from Leningrad the old reflexologist Vladimir Makhailovich Bekhterev.

On the program were 34 lectures by scientists who belonged to the avant-garde of psychology and who represented the second generation of the classic school: Karl Bühler as a student of Ebbinghaus, David Katz as a student of Georg Elias Müller, Adler as the fallen student of Freud. The whole was under the auspices of James McKeen Cattell, Wilhelm Wundt’s very first assistant in Leipzig.”

“There are contradictory reports of who exactly was in Ohio. […] Bekhterev, whose visit Ellenberger seeks to authenticate, was in the process of being politically sidelined at the time, and in 1927 in the Soviet Union this meant much more than a travel ban.”

“Shortly before the lights had gone out in Europe – to borrow a documentary film title from Alexander Hammid – before the various fascist systems could practically demonstrate that they could stabilize their power in a targeted manner through mass mobilization of certain feelings, the scientists were attempting to find their way in the darkness of “feelings and emotions.”

What is certain is that the Wittenberg Symposium in 1927 was one of the last great international psychological congresses before the Second World War. It is also clear that the topic “Feelings and Emotions” was so explosive that the National Research Council in Washington supported the symposium. The invitations and the interest of the speakers show that the problem of feelings and sensations was the focus of neurological and psychological research all over the world. What we can see from the contributions is that the theories of how to explain, measure, control, and regulate emotions were still quite diffuse. It is clear that there were certain convergences in the discussions in Ohio. It is also clear that one person was definitively not invited: the inconvenient Sigmund Freud. “Feelings and emotions” were no longer available to simple therapeutic or cultural critical work. At the time, Freud was writing Civilization and its Discontents, expressing doubt that a strictly physiological description could do justice to the historical and cultural networks in which emotions are differentiated.”

“It is possible that Bekhterev was not in Ohio in October, 1927, but his lecture was definitely given. In it he presented a proposal for a linked system in which nerves and apparatuses, metabolism and chemistry would be amalgamated beyond the individual body. Feelings are the measurable signs of this interconnection. Bekhterev’s proposal, which he had worked out in parallel to the first effective mass use of the press in the second half of the nineteenth century and the significant use of the press and film in the First World War, marked the aesthetic concepts of many avant-garde artists in Russia, then in the Soviet Union, during the tens and twenties. Meyerhold’s theater of biomechanics, in which bodily expression simulated and induced mental activities as the primacy of the “external”, Eisenstein’s montage of attractions, Kuleshov’s coordinate system of feelings for film, or Vertov’s kinoki concept are directly or indirectly based on Bekhterev’s research and are inconceivable without his medial turn in reflexology.

With his lecture in Ohio Bekhterev was attempting to establish transatlantic contact. He directed his message at those to whom it would concern, due to their own research: the physicians surrounding Walter B. Cannon from Harvard, this “shadow community” who had also begun to examine not only individual organs, but connections and relations between physiological circumstances and homeostasis within complex physiological systems.

Emotions, which had always been considered an infraction into the controlled experiment in laboratory medicine, were now to be seen as signs and signals of an affective interaction, as information about the states of the body!

At the time “brain specialists hoped “to provide a physiological foundation for ethics […] in order to be able to base law on this whenever possible”, as Flechsig suggested in his rector’s speech in 1894. At the end of the nineteenth century neurology was asserting itself directly as a science of power.”


“Here, however, it must be emphasized that in our use of the term ‘energy’” – Bekhterev wrote in 1902 – “we are in no way associating this with the common usage of ‘physical energy,’ as is currently assumed. In our view, the energy or force for the being is nothing other than an active principle disseminated in the nature of the universe. We know nothing more of the essence of this active principle, which appears as the milieu of the global aether, but we see the expressions themselves in the constant conversion of substance all around us.” This theory of a universal transformability of the world was Bekhterev’s answer to Herbert Spencer [who coined the “survival of the fittest” expression, ed.] as well, whose theses were being fiercely debated in Russia around the turn of the century. Bekhterev extended Spencer’s neo-Darwinian thesis, that the activity of the nervous system was an adjustment of internal circumstances to external ones, by inverting it.”

“In his book about suggestion, Bekhterev distinguishes between an accessible consciousness and an inaccessible one, which he assumed to be collective. […] it remained unconscious only for the subject itself, but not for objective psychology with its apparatuses, measuring devices, and observations.”

“The mixture of nerve physiology and research on possession, which was only socially acceptable under the term “psychic infection”, the numerous transdisciplinary and interdisciplinary experiments, and also the medical self-reflection of reflexology seem to have made Bekhterev suspect for all time and under all regimes.”

“The concept “collective consciousness” is the basis for a psychological model that assumes a connection among subjects in which, alongside pure language and conscious communication – as is evident in the model of the telephone – all sorts of roaring is transmitted that no one understands. These transmissions connect every individual personally and directly with the “collective consciousness.” The individual is distracted and scattered by it, but also socialized and cultivated or subjected to suggestions:

“In such cases the external impression passes by our personal consciousness, thus managing to reach the sphere of the psyche without our ‘ego.’ In this case it is not through the main entrance, but through the backdoor, so to speak, that it lands directly in the inner chambers of the mind. […] Suggestion is thus the direct over-inoculation of certain mental states from person to person.”

“In the “psychic waves” and “electrical charges” are the electrified media nets without which the leaders of the uprisings of 1905 and 1917 could not have brought their commands to the masses, presented as an ideal revolutionary model from the control room of brain physiology. Bekhterev’s scientifically defined agitation lends the artistic and dramaturgical metaphors of the revolution a neurological foundation.”

The Bolsheviks, inspired by thoughts of a mass empire that could be uniformly governed by general electrification, welcomed the attempt to research the nervous system as the state basis in regulatable personality. In the model of the neurologists who conceived the nervous circuitry according to the idea of the telegraph system, they saw their own strategies in good hands. [..] After the Revolution Bekhterev even subsumed Marxism into reflexological knowledge: “Existence which determines consciousness” is the activity of associative reflexes that can become visible as “(in reflexological terminology) human behavior.”

“Unlike Pavlov, who reduced the processes of perception to a pattern of stimulus and reaction, Bekhterev researched the combinations of neuronal microprocesses in order also to be able to understand thinking, speaking, and remembering using the methodology of objective psychology.”

“Anyone who spends a lot of time with the people and has his own experiences knows what the value of logical persuasion is. In the best case it only has a very slow effect, while suggestion through encouragement or command almost always leads quickly and surely to the goal“, Bekhterev wrote in Suggestion and Its Role in Social Life (1905).

Bekhterev’s hypothesis that “consciousness”, “ego”, and all personal activity were made up of reflex combinations, which could be completely explained through biochemical processes, was not entirely original. Bekhterev would have been able to draw on, for example, the teachers of Freud as predecessors of reflexology: even Brücke, Meynert, and Exner had seen the foundations of the ego as a thinking subject in the reflexes and their connections in a system of cortical tracts.”

Bekhterev wrote: “But if matter is a fiction, and only energy is real, there is no ground for the contraposition of the psychic to the material, and vice versa, and we have ask ourselves: Is it not possible to reduce psychic activity, too, to physical energy?” “In this way, also, the external world – of course, not that which we perceive and imagine, but that which exists in reality –is subject to the law of causality or, more accurately, to the laws of relations. And when we prosecute our analysis to the end, we must acknowledge one fundamental and first principle of all being, and this we call energy. In the concept of energy we have the idea of various manifestations of movement under the form of great masses […]. To the basis of this movement, a basis which must be common to all phenomena of nature, including ourselves as a part of the universe, we give the name universal energy.”

In this universality energy is reminiscent of Schreber’s rays. Paranoia and science always lay side by side,” Holl comments.

Freud’s first neuron-machine model for the psyche, as he describes it in Project for a Scientific Psychology, also runs with an energy that he initially calls “quantity.” C.G. Jung’s somewhat later reform of the libido as a form of energy also belong to these models. […] “But people are, i.e., they must be regarded as energy accumulators resulting from their past individual experience and hereditary influences”, is written in [Bekhterev‘s] Collective Reflexology […] the second volume in the series “Contributions to Mass Psychology”.

“In the twenties this research was still “questions that had not been examined much”, and there were not many centers in the world where they were so intensively examined than at the Medical School at Harvard or at MIT. And there was hardly anywhere that this research was so systematically pursued in clinical practice than at the Psychoneurological Institute in Leningrad. Alongside a few attempts with psycho-pharmaceuticals Bekhterev’s practice primarily focused on hypnotic group therapy, which was meant to initiate intersubjective homeostasis – similar forms of therapy, following systematic, cybernetic models, were developed for schizophrenia patients in the USA only in the sixties by Gregory Bateson and his colleagues.”

Bekhterev was very familiar with Cannon’s research. […] In Ohio in 1927 Bekhterev wanted to make contact with those whose research was the most advanced at the time, and to speak about the science that – as the significance of the Macy Conferences would show in the forties – was to be the science of the future. […] His lecture in Ohio was obviously an attempt to consolidate neuronal and biochemical homeostasis into a theory of the biosocial – or at least to discuss the possibility of such a “fundamental basis for everything that exists.” World energy, according to Bekhterev’s wish, was meant to be a scientific fusion of east and west, a homeostatic force. Cannon took the call from the Soviet Union seriously and posed two questions following Bekhterev’s lecture that show that he had clearly carried out similar experiments with different results. [… an] historical encounter between the two proto-cyberneticists.

“Bekhterev’s last work, Collective Reflexology, is an elegant synthesis of all his research, at once mass psychology, war psychology, psycho-history, political theory, and – social critique from the perspective of objective psychology. What Bekhterev opposes to Flechsig’s “ethics grounded in physiology” as the coming project of a biosocial society are accumulator bodies, linked to one another but at the same time freely developing, which learn and learn to learn in exchange with their surroundings, much like anti-authoritarian cyberneticists like Bateson and von Foerster will imagine and try out much later.”

The utopia of a society mediated by feelings and emotions remained Bekhterev’s dream: “Like a living organism, society represents a dynamic equilibrium rather than something static.”

The “proto-cyberneticist” – along with Harvard’s Cannon – Bekhterev also wrote in 1892 about “chronic ergotism.” “Chronic ergotism has occurred in epidemic form in eastern Europe for centuries following the ingestion of bread made of ergot-infested rye.”

In the Introduction to ‘Collective Reflexology’ Bekhterev wrote: “much of the data used in this book as the basis for my postulations have been drawn from the Russian Revolution, which I, together with all Russian citizens, had to live through both in 1905 and from 1917 onward.”


“During the rule of Tsar Nicholas II, Bekhterev was a courageous social critic” according to the above mentioned 2005 article in the journal History of Psychiatry. “For example, in 1905 at a psychiatric conference in Kiev he severely criticized the Tsar’s policies on reforms in education and on alcoholism. After the speech he was arrested for a few hours and warned.”

“In his autobiography, Bekhterev reported the case of a patient who told him that a fanatic religious militia unit planned to locate the famous anarchist Kropotkin who was staying abroad and to assassinate him. Bekhterev described his dilemma as a physician: he was obliged to medical secrecy and confidentiality, but on the other hand, as a liberal and humanist, it was very difficult for him to remain silent about a plot to commit political assassination. He decided to deliver a warning message to Kropotkin, through a friend of his who was travelling to Paris. Later Bekhterev met Kropotkin, who thanked him for saving his life (Bekhterev, 1928).”

From a political standpoint, Bekhterev political and revolutionary involvement was for instance certified – as reported in Zilboorg 2021 biography – by his presence during a critical Democratic Conference in September 1917 – only one month before the Bolshevik Revolution in October. Bekhterev shared the same box at Alexandrinsky Theatre in Petrograd during the days of the conference with Zilboorg and with Alexander Zarudny – until a few weeks earlier minster of justice in the Provisional Government – and Alexandra Kropotkin, daughter of the anarchist Prince Pyotr Kropotkin. This was a meeting of representatives from soviets all over the country in order to decide the nature of Russia’s government.

‘La Suggestione’ di W. Bechterew, Professore di Psichiatria all’Universita’ di Pietroburgo, Fratelli Bocca Editori, Torino 1909

‘General Principles of Human Reflexology’ (1917-1928) by V. M. Bechterev, English translation 1932-1933


Among the students in his newly opened Psycho-Neurological Institute there were several revolutionaries, including future members of the Provisional Government after the February 1917 Revolution.

Alexander Kerensky became the head of the Provisional Government before power was finally seized by the Bolsheviks during the coup or Revolution of 1917. Two former students of the Psycho-Neurological Institute were very close to Kerensky during the year of the two revolutions in 1917.

Gregory Zilboorg, born Girsh Moseevich Zil’burg, who “accompanied Kerensky almost everywhere during the revolution first week, event to a room on the palace’s top floor where the leader ate and slept” according to his biography just published. Zilboorg acted in the Provisional Government as personal secretary to Matvey Skobelev, mister of labor and also a key member of the Petrograd Soviet.

And Pitirim Sorokin, who became Kerensky’s personal secretary. Kerensky acted as minister of justice, then minister of war before becoming prime minister.


Zilboorg went on later in life to become the first translator into English of “We” by Yevgeny Zamyatin – by request of E.P. Dutton publishing. An “anti-utopian political novel”, as historian of psychiatry Roy Porter described it, which we might call nowadays a dystopia, a term coined by the English utilitarian philosopher Stuart Mill.

This novel has been mentioned by several authors as anticipating and inspiring more famous later works by English writer Aldous Leonard Huxley (‘Brave New World’ 1932), Russian-American writer Alisa Zinovyevna Rosenbaum alias Ayn Rand (‘Anthem’ 1938), and English writer Eric Arthur Blair alias George Orwell (‘Nineteen Eighty-Four’ 1949). The anti-utopia by Zamyatin has “psychology as the novel’s primary subject” according to Caroline Zilboorg’s biography of her father just released.

According to the most prominent historian of psychiatry of the late 20th century Roy Porter, one of the first historians of psychiatry was indeed Gregory Zilboorg with his 1935 “The Medical Man and the Witch During the Renaissance” and especially with his major historical work “A history of medical psychology” (1941). He also wrote “The passing of the old order in Europe” (1920).

After the October Revolution or Bolshevik coup, Zilboorg moved to New York City where he became a famous psychoanalyst. His patients or clients included a number of members of the Warburg family. According to Zilboorg’s biography by his daughter, Ron Chernow in ‘The Warburgs’ concluded that Zilboorg ‘mesmerized’ the Warburg family, extracting his patients secrets in order to control them.”

‘A History of Medical Psychology’ (1941), by Gregory Zilboorg, W. W. Norton, New York 1967


One year after the October Revolution, in 1918, Lenin published in the Pravda the article: “The Valuable Admissions Of Pitirim Sorokin”. By itself this writing by Lenin (Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov alias Lenin or Nikolai Lenin) about Sorokin shows the importance of the former personal secretary of Kerensky.

Pitirim Sorokin” – Lenin wrote – ” announces that he is leaving the Right Socialist-Revolutionary Party and relinquishing his seat in the Constituent Assembly. His motives are that he finds it difficult to provide effective political recipes, not only for others, but even for himself, and that therefore he “is withdrawing completely from politics”.

Lenin continued: “He writes: “The past year of revolution has taught me one truth: politicians may make mistakes, politics may be socially useful, but may also be socially harmful, whereas scientific and educational work is always useful and is always needed by the people. . . .” The letter is signed: “Pitirim Sorokin, lecturer at St. Petersburg University and the Psycho-Neurological Institute, former member of the Constituent Assembly and former member of the Socialist-Revolutionary Party”.

“Pitirim Sorokin is wrong when he says that scientific work “is always useful”. For mistakes are made in this sphere too” Lenin stated. “On the other hand, a frank declaration by a prominent person—i.e., a person who has occupied a responsible political post known to the people at large—that he is withdrawing from politics is also politics.”

Was this by Sorokin as reported by Lenin, a form of anti-politics, a sort of pro-technocracy stance? Politics might be harmful while science cannot, according to Sorokin.

Lenin also talked about the obligation “to make great national sacrifices for the sake of the supreme interests of the world proletarian revolution.” He added that “Anglo-French and American imperialism will inevitably destroy the independence and freedom of Russia if the world socialist revolution, world Bolshevism, does not triumph.” He also talked about the “faith in “democracy” in general, as a universal panacea” and the “failure to understand that this democracy is bourgeois democracy”. “It would be ridiculous and foolish to refrain from employing terror against and suppressing the landowners and capitalists and their henchmen, who are selling Russia to the foreign imperialist “Allies”. It would be farcical to attempt to “convince” or generally to “psychologically influence” them.” And he pointed to the possibility of “increasing panic and multiplying cases of the dissemination of panic, of treachery, and desertion to the imperialists, and so on and so forth.”


Despite what Lenin wrote about Sorokin and what later Sorokin wrote in turn about Lenin, in his second autobiography ‘A Long Journey’ (1963) Sorokin remarked how “political activities, plus participation in the same seminars and scientific work in the University, were responsible for the establishment of friendly relations and cooperation with the leaders and members of the Social-Democratic (Bolshevik and Menshevik), the People’s Socialist, and other radical parties. At that time all these parties did their anti-Czarist revolutionary work together, as one revolutionary front fighting the common enemy. […] It was through participation in these seminars of Petrajitzsky, Kovalevsky, and Tugan-Baranovsky, through shared revolutionary work, and eventually through many heated, informal discussions that a mutual friendship developed between myself and several Social-Democratic students, such as Piatakov, Karakhan, and others, who later became Communist leaders and members of the first Communist Council of the People’s Kommissars headed by Lenin (Karakhan was the Secretary of Foreign Affairs, Piatakov, Secretary of Industry and Commerce, and so on).”

During the same time “as a result of their unduly high appreciation of my scholastic achievements, in my sophomore and junior years M. M. Kovalevsky [law professor at the University of St. Petersburg and the founding chairman of sociology at the Psycho-Neurological Institute, ed.] offered me a position as his private secretary and research assistant, de Roberty the position of assistant in his courses and of co-editor of the series “New Ideas in Sociology,” while Petrajitzsky and Bekhterev invited me to be co-editor of New Ideas in Science and Law and of Journal of Psychology and Criminal Anthropology.”

“Through Kovalevsky, who was an influential member of the State Council (which corresponded somewhat to the Senate of the United States) and a leader of a liberal party, and through Petrajitzsky, who was one of the leaders of the Constitutional-Democratic Party, I met many influential officials and statesmen, members of the Duma (Russian House of Representatives), and other leaders of conservative and progressive political parties. Kovalevsky, Petrajitzsky, de Roberty, and other professors knew of my affiliation with the Social-Revolutionary Party and of my past and present “subversive” activities; however this knowledge in no way spoiled our good relations. If anything they rather approved of my political views as being quite natural for a young man of my background. Kovalevsky often half-humorously introduced me to political leaders as “a young Jean Jacques Rousseau,” while Petrajitzsky, de Roberty, and others commented favorably on the broad and idealistic-realistic character of my political ideology which was free from a narrow fanaticism and intolerance”

Later on, still according to Sorokin, “sociology had been introduced into the university curriculum under Kerensky’s regime in 1917, and in the years of 1919-22 was expanded into a separate department [at the University of St. Petersburg, ed.] with myself as its elected chairman.”

So, before becoming Kerensky’s secretary in the Provisional Government, Sorokin was Kovalevsky’s secretary at the University of St. Petersburg, and before moving to the United States of America he became the founding chairman of the first department of sociology – a discipline introduced in Russian universities by Kerensky’s government – at the same university that between 1924 and 1991 will be known as the University of Leningrad.


Sorokin, according to Michel P. Richard who met with him during the 60s at his home in Winchester, Massachusetts and wrote an introduction to the abridged version of his magnum opus “Social and Cultural Dynamics” (1937-1941 in four volumes):

The amazing thing about Sorokin’s life is that he managed to survive. He was born in 1889 in a village in northern Russia, the second son of an itinerant artisan and a Komi-speaking peasant girl. His earliest memory was the death of his mother in the middle of Winter, when he was about three years of age. His father subsequently developed a severe drinking problem, and at the age of ten Pitirim left home with his older brother. Forced to make his own living by doing odd jobs, Sorokin had little formal education until he entered a teacher’s seminary at the age of fourteen, at which time he also joined one of the revolutionary parties. In 1906 he was arrested at a rally and spent four months in jail. This resulted in expulsion from the teacher’s seminary, but Sorokin continued his revolutionary work in the countryside under the assumed name of “Comrade Ivan.” One of the mass meetings he addressed was broken up by mounted Cossacks; there were numerous casualties, and Sorokin fled to St. Petersburg in a state of nervous exhaustion. For two years he worked at various jobs and attended night school to prepare himself for the university entrance examinations. In 1909 he was admitted to the Psycho-Neurological Institute” – only two years after its foundation in 1907, ed. – “but transferred to the University of St. Petersburg after one year to escape the draft.

To escape the czarist police Sorokin changed addresses frequently. […] In 1913 he was again briefly imprisoned for conspiring to write a pamphlet critical of the Romanov dynasty, and he also completed his first book, about law and sociology, entitled ‘Crime and Punishment, Service and Reward: a sociological essay on the main forms of social behavior and morality’. […] After the collapse of the czarist regime he was appointed secretary of Prime Minister Kerensky. […] When the Provisional Government fell, Sorokin again found himself on the “wanted” list for his outspoken attacks against the Bolsheviks. In 1918 he was arrested and charged with plotting to assassinate Lenin. Influential friends obtained his release from prison, but he immediately involved himself in military operations against the Bolsheviks in Archangel. When this effort failed, Sorokin with a companion went into hiding in a forest for two months. Finally, to protect friends who were harboring him, he gave himself up to the Chekha police. He was sentenced to death, but again influential friends persuaded Lenin that he was a good candidate for rehabilitation. (His two brothers were not so fortunate; both lost their lives during this period.)

In 1919 Sorokin returned to his posts at the University of St. Petersburg and the Psycho-Neurological Institute. […] By September 1922 the Soviet Union had had its fill of Professor Sorokin, and he was exiled. A series of lectures in Berlin and Prague led to an offer to visit the United States in 1924, and a permanent appointment at the University of Minnesota. […] In 1930 he was invited to organize the Department of Social Relations at Harvard University, where he remained until his retirement in 1959. […] In 1960 he became the first president of the International Society for the Comparative Study of Civilizations.”

Some of his views about the interaction of individual personality and society might appear in line with those of his former teacher Bekhterev. Sorokin was influenced by the philosopher K. F. Jakov or Zhakof – with whom he conducted field studies – as well as by the Russian early behaviorists, in particular his teachers Bekhterev at the Psycho-Neurological Institute and Pavlov at the institute and the University of St. Petersburg.

Society, Culture, and Personality: Their Structure and Dynamics, by Pitirim Sorokin. Harper & Brothers, New York 1947

In his essay “Lenin, the destroyer”, Sorokin in 1924 wrote (empasis added): “We estimate a doctor, an engineer, an architect, a painter, not so much according to his subjective desire as according to the objective result of his activity. It is not enough to have a desire to cure an illness or to imagine a wonderful machine to be a good doctor or a skilful engineer. The same may be said for statesmen. Even a madman may have a profound desire to be the Saviour of Mankind.”

This essay was part of a debate after Lenin’s death entitled “Was Lenin a Failure?”. The presentation of Sorokin’s piece included the following summary: “He fastens upon Lenin blame for all the ills that have befallen his country since the Revolution, and sums him up as a pathological fanatic and an agent of destruction, with no new ideas and no message for humanity – a half-mad leader of brutal rebels.”

“But was Lenin perhaps a successful practical actor” – Sorokin continued – “who by his genius was able to put these ideas into practice and to improve in this way the biologic, economic, mental, and moral state of the people, especially of the labor classes? Again the objective results of Lenin’s dictatorship give us quite a definite answer to this question.”

“For a man who knows that Lenin from the moment of his returning to Russia in 1917 was in the last stage of progressive paralysis, who knows that he was even then abnormal, that this abnormality at the end of 1921 was medically testified – for such a man all Lenin’s psychology and behavior is quite comprehensible on pathological grounds. Half-mad and ill, he was suited to be at the head of a government distinguished by wild destruction, unlimited bestiality, cruelty, and animosity. The generous phrases and catch-words with which he tried to “beautify” all the inferiority of his nature, his anti-sociability, madness, and wild activity, are nothing but usual “veils” with which such individuals try to betray themselves as well as other people.

Any serious psychologist, psychiatrist, and behaviorist knows this fact very well. Only an ignorant and naïve people on one hand, and individuals of mad, anti-social, and inferior type (who are very numerous amongst the right and left extremists, radicals, and “super idealists”) on the other, are deceived by these “gorgeous speech-reactions”; for them only Lenin is “the saviour of mankind,” “the liberator of humanity,” “the great reformer,” “the new Jesus Christ,” and so on.

I have no desire to convince them because they need less to be convinced than cured.”

“In fact that the deadly blow to communism was administered by the communistic leader” – Sorokin concluded – “there is indeed something providential and symbolic.”

Nikolai Lenin (Vladimir Ilyitch Ulianov), a sketch made from life for The New York Times by Oscar Cesare in Moscow, November, 1922, and autographed by Lenin

Sorokin, according to the Encyclopaedia Britannica online in 1930 became the founder of the Department of Sociology at Harvard University, the oldest university in the U.S.A.. Sorokin was reportedly co-opted to Harvard directly by the university president Abbott Lawrence Lowell. Sorokin later became the 55th president of the American Sociological Association (his presidential address here).

His books include, among others which have been translated overall into 17 languages, ‘The Sociology of Revolution’ (1925), and also ‘The Crisis of Our Age. The Social and Cultural Outlook’ (1941) and ‘Man and Society in Calamity’ (1942) – the last two both published by E.P. Dutton – today part of Penguin Random House.


On the Bolshevik side there was the psychiatrist Aleksandr Aleksandrovič Malinovskij alias Alexander Bogdanov, previously discussed in PsyPolitics. He co-founded Bolshevism with Lenin; their close working relationship was established after what some sources report as their first meeting in Geneva, Switzerland in 1904. Four years later in 1908 Bogdanov published the utopia Red Star and during the same year was meeting with Lenin in Capri, Italy at Gorky’s villa. In 1918, the year following the Bolshevik seizure of power in Russia, his book from ten years earlier, Red Star – the first utopia of the Soviet era – was republished by the Petrograd Soviet.

As previously written in PsyPolitics, Bogdanov “was, among other things, the founder of a discipline of general or universal organization called tektology, that was used for the 5-year economic planning in the USSR, seen today as a precursor of Ludwig von Bertalanffy‘s systems theory and of Norbert Wiener‘s cybernetics, the basis of the current automation revolution. Bogdanov also wrote a popular Short Course of Economic Science published in multiple editions, including after the Bolshevik revolution and translated into English; its 1897 edition was reviewed by Lenin the following year. Bogdanov’s magnum opus is Universal Organizational Science (Tektology) initially published in St. Petersburg in 1912-1917.

A Short Course of Economic Science (1897), by A. Bogdanov. Publ. A. Murinova’s Bookshop, Moscow. Translated by J. Fineberg in Moscow and published by the Communist Party of Great Britain, London 1923. Lenin’s review of Bogdanov’s book in 1898

Всеобщая Организационная Наука (Тектология) [Universal Organizational Science (Tektology)], by A. Bogdanov. St. Petersburg 1912-1917. Translated into English in 1996 by the Centre for Systems Studies Press at The University of Hull, England

Красная звезда, Red Star (Utopia, 1908), by Alexander Bogdanov. Petrograd Soviet, Petrograd 1918
Bogdanov’s Red Star – Editions, Covers, Translations. – Alexander Bogdanov Library

Красная звезда, Red Star, periodical of the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation, Founded 1924, here celebrated in a 1974 USSR stamp


Harold Loeb’s (author of Life in a Technocracy, 1933) family company was Kuhn Loeb & Co., a significant financial backer of Russian and Bolshevik revolutionary leaders and of Lev Davidovich Bronstein alias Leon Trotsky in particular. Trotsky was an intimate friend of the socialist Alfred Adler, the psychoanalyst of the “will to power,” a pioneer in bringing psychological concepts outside the clinic emphasizing the role of the wider society on individual psychology, seen nowadays as a forerunner of community psychiatry.”

In the History of the Russian Revolution published in 1930, it is interesting to note that the author Leon Trosky – who was initially a Menshevik (minority faction) – appears to refer consistently to Bogdanov as a Menshevik. Indeed it was Boris Bogdanov he was referring to and apparently there is no mention of the co-founder of Bolshevism (majority faction) Alexander Bogdanov in his history of the Revolution. The online encyclopaedia Wikipedia reports that “Trotsky headed the Red Army as People’s Commissar for Military and Naval Affairs and played a vital role in the Bolshevik victory in the Russian Civil War of 1917–1922.  He became one of the seven members of the first Bolshevik Politburo in 1919.”

Trotsky was living in New York City with his family in 1917 and became involved with the American socialist movement before travelling to Russia. According to Wikipedia, he “left New York on 27 March 1917, but his ship, the SS Kristianiafjord, was intercepted by British naval officials in Canada at Halifax, Nova Scotia. He was detained for a month at Amherst Internment Camp in Nova Scotia.”

“On April 3, 1917, Trotsky was detained at the Citadel, and shortly thereafter was brought to the POW camp in Amherst. (His wife Natalia Sedova and children remained in Halifax at a hotel, reporting daily to the police station.) Trotsky referred to the camp as a concentration camp. He wrote about the British commanders’ attempts to block his mobilization of the other prisoners to join the Russian Revolution.

The whole month I was there was like one continuous mass meeting. I told the prisoners about the Russian revolution, about Liebknecht, about Lenin … the British colonel … forbade me to make any more public speeches. But this did not happen until the last few days of our stay at the camp, and served only to cement my friendship with the sailors and workers, who responded to the colonel’s order by a written protest bearing five hundred and thirty signatures. A plebiscite like this, carried out in the very face of Sergeant Olsen’s heavy-handed supervision, was more than ample compensation for all the hardships of the Amherst imprisonment.”

On the 17th of May he arrived in Russia to be a political protagonist during the months leading to the October, Bolshevik Revolution.


In the film ‘October, Ten Days that Shook the World’ (1928) by Sergei Eisenstein – performed with many actors who were actually involved in October 1917 events – Kerensky is shown several times travelling on a car carrying a U.S. diplomatic flag while fleeing the capital Petrograd. He spent the rest of his life in exile, mainly in Paris and in New York City, and also worked for the Hoover Institution on War, Revolution, and Peace, part of Stanford University in California. An institution we have already encountered in PsyPolitics about Eric Voegelin, the political scientist who among other things used the term ‘pneumopathology’, a term coined by the German philosopher Friedrich Schelling.

Tsar Nicholas II after the Bolsheviks took power was assassinated less than a year later with his family and he is known today in the Russian Orthodox Church as Saint Nicholas the Passion-Bearer.

October: Ten Days That Shook the World, by Sergei Eisenstein, 1928 – Wikipedia

Russian Imperial Family 1913 – Execution of the Romanov family – Wikipedia

[In the photo at the top, by photographer Ernest Sandau (1880-1918) the cousins Nicholas II, Emperor of Russia (1868-1918) and George V (1865-1936)King of the United Kingdom and the British Dominions, and Emperor of India, 24 May 1913.

In his diary, the King wrote, ‘At 4.0. we were dressed ready for the Wedding, I wore the 8th Cuirassier uniform, & were photographed, I was also done with Nicky.’

The two cousins met for the last time, in Berlin in 1913, one year before the Great War, on the occasion of the marriage of Prince Ernest Augustus of Hanover (1887-1953) and Princess Victoria Louise of Prussia (1892-1980), only daughter of Kaiser Wilhelm II (1859-1941), the last German Emperor (Kaiser) and King of Prussia, who was also a cousin of both.

The Great War one year later will involve all three.]

Cite this article as: Federico Soldani, "“What benefit does Russia derive from this Institute?” Tsar Nicholas II on the Psycho-Neurological Institute (2021)," in PsyPolitics, October 29, 2021, https://psypolitics.org/2021/10/29/what-benefit-does-russia-derive-from-this-institute-tsar-nicholas-ii-on-the-psycho-neurological-institute-2021/.

Last Updated on November 10, 2021 by Federico Soldani

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