The apparent incongruity of this book’s title, which seems more at home in Nexus magazine, and its publisher raises questions and expectations. Is it really a serious academic study of research not just into mind control but psychic mind control?
Disappointingly, no, it isn’t. Homo Sovieticus is a translation of a German original from a rather different, if also internationally acclaimed, institution, Wladimir Velminski being an ‘art and media scholar’ at the Bauhaus-Universität Weimar, and it soon becomes apparent that his book is the product of a university devoted to the creative arts rather than science and technology; despite Velminski’s description of it as a ‘coupling of science and poetology’ the latter wins out, with artistic licence and imagination trumping critical analysis.
It’s a slim volume, just 100 pages, and about a quarter of those are given over to illustrations and diagrams from Soviet sources, and employs the kind of art-speak and high-flown language – only some of which can be blamed on the translation of those awkward compound German nouns – that’s always a warning sign of style getting the better of substance.
The substance is the Soviet leadership’s supposed efforts not just to control the thinking of its population through technologically-enhanced psychic means – direct mind control on a mass scale – but, beyond even that, the ‘project of making a New Man [the Homo Sovieticus of the title] endowed with telepathic destiny’. The last phrase, even though it’s used just the once, has, rather cheekily, been picked out by MIT Press for the subtitle: it’s the translator’s rendering of Velminski’s Sendungpotenzial, which my German-English dictionary tells me translates more literally as the far less sexy ‘broadcast potential’. (The original title was also less grabby: Gehirnprosthesen - ‘neural prosthesis’, Velminski’s term for the machine-enhanced psychic techniques.)
Early Soviet research into psi was based on the notion that thoughts are electromagnetic in nature and behave in the same way as radio waves, the brain being ‘a broadcasting tower able to emit, receive, and, ultimately, influence thoughts’. Telepathy is, according to this model, a natural ability to pick up the mental signals ‘broadcast’ by others, which could theoretically be boosted, both in their transmission and reception, using electromagnetic devices.
Velminski conflates the Soviet state’s use of broadcast media to shape the thinking of its citizens in conventional ways with its supposed aim of developing such enhanced telepathic mind control methods, literally beaming thoughts into the heads of the populace. He doesn’t argue that this was ever viable, or even that telepathy is a reality – he sidesteps that question with an airy ‘The precise status of telepathy in science does not stand at issue’ - merely that it was believed to be possible. Neither does he attempt to place the theories on which that belief was based in the context of parapsychological research generally (subsequent theories of how telepathy and clairvoyance work – assuming they do – having moved on from the simplistic ‘mental radio’ concept).
However, Velminski never produces any real evidence for the existence of such a programme, or even that the Soviet leadership had ambitions in that direction. While the individual parts of his story have their interest, they’re strung together with thin connections and tenuous associations of ideas that would make the most undiscriminating conspiracy theorist blush.
Velminski begins with ‘labour scientist’ Aleksei Gastev, who, before he fell victim to Stalin’s paranoid purges and was shot in 1939, developed a new ergonomic approach to the organisation of work, which entailed not only training the worker’s body to make the movements required to carry out a task as efficient as possible, but also their thought processes and even imagination.
He then passes on to the neurophysiologist Vladimir Bekhterev, who in the 1920s, in Velminski’s word, ‘repurposed’ Gastev’s system in the light of his own research into telepathy, which had convinced him that it was possible for one individual to mentally influence another at a distance. However, while Velminski’s account of Bekhterev’s research is fascinating, he doesn’t explain how he applied Gastev’s methods; the supposed repurposing is simply stated as fact.
The same applies when he moves on to the inventions of the television pioneer Hovannes Adamian, whose designs, Velminski says, were ‘directly linked’ to Bekhterev’s experiments, representing ‘auratic-electromagnetic networks’ that ‘provide the basis for hypothetical-telepathic circuitry’. He doesn’t give any detail of exactly how the two men’s work linked, directly or otherwise, the chapter consisting mostly of technical descriptions of Adamian’s patents, which purely related to TV. Velminski notes that Adamian was a regular participant in spiritist seances (then much in vogue) but that’s it.
So, although he shows that Bekhterev provided a theoretical framework for technologically-enhanced mass thought control, Velminski doesn’t demonstrate that anybody tried to develop it practically. His only examples of such a conceptual leap actually being made are a 1921 speculation by futurist Velimir Khlebnikov on the possibility of transmitting sensations, such as taste, via radio waves, and a science fiction novel explicitly based on Bekhterev’s work, The Ruler of the World (1926) by Alexander Balyaev, in which telepathic influencing enhanced by machines becomes an instrument of mass subjugation (or, in a typical phrase, ‘the novel’s psychography implicitly and explicitly elaborates a media theory that hypostasizes a closed order of reception-, production-, and transmission technologies’). Velminski suggests that Balyaev’s novel represented what the Soviet state was working towards, but a SF plot hardly constitutes evidence.
Post-war, cyberneticist Pavel Gulyaev developed Bekhterev’s idea of thoughts as a ‘kind of radiation’, which he called the ‘auratic field’, developing devices such as the ‘Aurathon’ for diagnosing disease by reading information about internal organs from that field, and for healing by its manipulation. Gulyaev called this bioinformation signal the psikhon. Inevitably, Velminski links this to the supposed goal of mass control - ‘Psikhon stands for something that serves to take in and instrumentalize the population – an animate “agent of infection” for influencing, controlling, and steering the psyche along cybernetic lines’ – but that is what he reads into it: Gulyaev’s work, as outlined by Velminski, was concerned purely with health and healing.
According to Velminski, all this ‘reached its apogee when the Soviet Union was in the course of collapsing and the masses had to be “recharged with healing forces”.’ This refers to a series of live broadcasts on the USSR’s main TV channel in October and November 1989 by Anatoly Kashpirovsky - described by Velminski as a ‘clinical psychotherapist’ but more accurately a hypnotist and psychic healer – which attempted to ‘calm a land beset by turbulence and heal the body politic by setting viewers’ minds to the state’s new goals’. MIT Press’s back cover blurb makes this episode the book’s focus (‘Incredibly enough, this last-ditch effort to rally the citizenry was the culmination of decades of official telepathic research, cybernetic simulations, and coded messages undertaken to reinforce conformity’) – but it is, yet again, all much vaguer than it’s made to sound.
Velminski’s final leap is the most baffling. His closing chapter is devoted to Russian artist/rapper Pavel Pepperstein’s 2004 film Hypnosis. This consists of a series of close-up sequences in which young women kneel in front of a naked man and stare at his genitals until he achieves an erection. This is apparently Pepperstein’s attempt to answer the burning ‘psychoanalytic question’ of ‘What distinguishes the penis from the phallus?’, and leads Velminski to ponder ‘Does the female gaze hypnotize the male member, or is the woman herself hypnotized by the process of erection?’ (Or neither, maybe…?)
Leaving aside the artistic merits or otherwise of Pepperstein’s film, its place in Velminski’s book and connection to what has come before is unclear to say the least. His attempts to explain its relevance produce statements ripe for Private Eye’s ‘Pseuds Corner’, such as ‘One can draw a parallel between the genital striving to become a phallus and Soviet power’ and ‘In this light, neural prostheses aimed at domestic or foreign affairs… come to resemble a penis that cannot turn into a phallus.’ If you say so, Wladimir…
Homo Sovieticus doesn’t achieve Velminski’s aim to ‘outline a new picture of the thinking that shaped the age’ and explore ‘how the phantasms haunting psychological research were enlisted to steer thinking and manipulate the population’. At best it shows how some in the USSR, following the false trail of the ‘mental radio’ model, might possibly have thought along such lines. Velminski looks at the data with the eye of an artist, not a scientist or historian, making Homo Sovieticus more a piece of literary performance art than, as billed, history. – Clive Prince