A Counseling Psychologist in Russia as a Fulbright Scholar: “James In Wonderland”

Published in The Counseling Psychologist, 21, 4, October, 1993, 643-652.
James M. O’Neil School of Family Studies University of Connecticut Storrs, CT, 06269


This paper summarizes a counseling psychologist’s experience with a Senior Fulbright Teaching Lectureship at Moscow State Pedagogical University in Moscow, Russia, from February 19 to April 24, 1992. The author describes his personal and professional experiences in Moscow six months after the failed 1991 coup d’ etat and the end of Soviet Communism. Professional perspectives on Russian psychology and impressions of the Russian people and culture are given, as well as how the author was changed by this cross cultural experience. Encouragement is given to other psychologists and educators to apply for Fulbright Awards in Russia and other countries to better internationalize Counseling Psychology.

A Counseling Psychologist in Russia as a Fulbright Scholar: "James in Wonderland"

On August 19, 1991, flying back from the APA Convention in San Francisco, I heard disturbing news. A coup d’ etat was occurring in the Soviet Union. On the next day, Boris Yeltsin climbed up on a tank and in front of 150,000 Russians and declared that freedom would not be given over to the conspirators. On that day, Communism, as we knew it, died in the former Soviet Union.

My Fulbright Senior Lectureship was set in this historical context. The possibility of experiencing the historical changes occurring in Russia activated a special midlife energy. This paper summarizes my personal and professional experiences during my nine weeks in Russia.

James In Wonderland

My colleagues in Russia described my nine weeks in Moscow as "James In Wonderland". This terminology was used whenever chaos existed in the educational environment or when some unpredictable event abruptly changed our plans. The term "Wonderland" also conveyed my Russian colleagues’ deep fears about the chaos in their lives and the unknown future of their country. Russia is indeed a wonderland these days with so much rapid change and uncertainty. The country has been turned upside down over the last seven years. The former Soviet Union has lost its name, flag, political ideology, leaders and land, a stable currency, and in a profound sense, its national identity. How to handle these changes was the most prevalent psychological challenge for the people. Feelings of loss, shame, anger, and guilt about the past were expressed, as well as fear and anxiety about the future. Under these conditions, therapists and the premises of Counseling Psychology are needed in Russian society.

There is much to speculate about in terms of the future of Russia and much that we Westerners have to learn about their history and culture. Like Alice in Wonderland, I was in awe of what I observed. Many unexplained paradoxes existed that prohibited many generalizations or truths. Rather than seek truths or try to untangle the paradoxes, I embraced the wonderment of these unpredictable times in Russia with my Russian friends and colleagues. Journeying with the Russian people in this wonderland increased my compassion for the struggle that is occurring in every person and institution in the former Soviet Union.

The Fulbright Experience and Activities

My Fulbright placement was in the Department of Educational Psychology of Moscow State Pedagogical University. Very few academic exchanges of psychologists existed during the Cold War. Only fifteen psychologists have been awarded Fulbrights to the former Soviet Union since the exchange began in 1978 (Reiss, 1992). These scholars were not trained as counseling psychologists or clinicians, but as academic psychologists who did teaching or research. I was the first psychologist to be placed at Moscow State Pedagogical University and the first Fulbrighter to specifically lecture about the discipline of Counseling Psychology. Under these conditions, it was challenging to translate Counseling Psychology’s unique philosophy to students and colleagues who had no knowledge of our discipline.

In my Fulbright application, I proposed to teach the course "Introduction to Counseling Psychology". The course was a survey of the major themes in a masters degree in counseling. Most of the course content had never been taught before in Russia. Additionally, I was asked to prepare a 3 day, 18 hour workshop for the teachers of Chernobly on victimization and counseling. There were also consultations with students and other faculty about research, exchange possibilities, and approaches to therapy cases.

Research by Western psychologists in Russia had been very limited, so I collected as much data as possible during my nine week teaching lectureship. Three collaborative research projects were implemented with my Russian colleagues. Numerous lectures were given outside the university at the Russian Academy of Science, the Russian Academy of Pedagogical Science, and other institutions in Moscow and St. Petersburg. I visited many schools, an orphanage, and Hospital No. 20 that had an inpatient crisis unit for suicidal men and women. On March 19, I was invited to a roundtable discussion at Moscow State University (MSU) on the future of religion and spirituality in Russian schools. This was the last topic that I imagined to be discussed at MSU, only yards from the Kremlin Wall.

Professional Perspectives and Insights

Given the rapid pace of change, intelligent generalizations are difficult to make about the status of psychology or life in Russia these days. The historical progression of Russian psychology, under Socialist control, needs to be understood before any tentative insights can be drawn. Whenever I felt some "truth" was emerging on the status of Russian psychology, there would be a contradiction or some counter truth would emerge. As I engaged the Russian culture and people, I experienced many paradoxes and contradictions. With the above reservations in mind, my thoughts are summarized below on what my colleagues reported about the state of psychology, clinical practice, and education during the early months of 1992 in Russia.

Like every Russian institution, Russian psychology is in transition. It has been significantly affected by the tenets of Socialism and the heritage of the Russian culture. In the past, most psychological theories had to conform to the Communist Party’s position. Numerous theories were publicly discredited and banned over the decades and many are now being revived. In addition, Russian psychology has been highly theoretical and research oriented. Application of psychological theory to psychotherapeutic interventions or personal growth was mostly prohibited. When this knowledge was applied, it was from a strictly medical model perspective. Overall, the psychotherapeutic and practical use of psychology, beyond the state’s use of it to control behavior, has been very limited.

Most of the philosophies and basic premises of Counseling Psychology are diametrically opposed to cherished principles of the Communist Party and therefore official Russian psychology. For example, individual differences, free choice, self development, quantitative assessment of personality, and the unconscious, have all been banned at some time during the last century.

Mental health services, like we have in the West, have not existed. Only recently have there been private mental health practitioners, and only a few actual mental health centers were identified during my visit. There are about 100 active therapists in Moscow and only 2,000 in the entire country. The Association of Practical Psychologists has been formed to develop the applied aspects of counseling and psychotherapy profession. Most practical psychologists have no formal training in counseling or psychotherapy beyond learning theory and attending workshops in Russia or abroad. Like in America, but to a greater degree, counseling and psychotherapy are stigmatized processes. Since money is very scarce and psychotherapy is stigmatized, most therapists have numerous jobs to survive. Teaching, consultation, and educational programming are very common for Russian practical psychologists.

"Therapeutic help" during the previous decades of Communism consisted of political and personal control of defective or dissident individuals. This has been psychiatry’s domain. Some humane and therapeutic services began to emerge in some psychiatric clinics in the 1980’s. One of the tasks of the new "glasnost therapists and psychologists" is to differentiate their therapy from the terror and abuses of many psychiatrists. However, there are currently no formal training programs that train counseling, clinical, or school psychologists. Psychology programs are designed to prepare teachers of psychology or academic researchers. There are very few courses teaching counseling and psychotherapeutic skills. While I was there, my colleagues were just starting to develop courses to train counselors and therapists. Counseling Psychology’s science – practitioner model of training, or more precisely some adaptation of it, would be very useful in Russia over the next few years.

No student services or counseling centers exist in Higher Education in Moscow or St. Petersburg. Furthermore, Russian psychology does not have an ethical code that guides either teaching, research, or therapeutic practice. There are few standardized methods of personality assessment (as we know these in the West) beyond observation and the use of social histories and interviews. Assessing individual differences violated the Socialist principle that every one is the same. Numerous psychometric instruments have been recently adapted and translated into Russian. Much interest exists in the theory and practice of American counseling and psychotherapy.

Russian psychologists have limited data on the severity of social problems in their country. It was reported that there are 20,000 orphans in Moscow alone. I confirmed through four independent sources that over 15,000 young military trainees die each year during their training because of beatings, suicide, and "accidents". Additionally, data on suicide and alcoholism indicate that they are rapidly increasing. Very limited data exist on rape, wife battering, family violence, incest, depression, child abuse, and sexual behavior. Crime is also on the rise in Moscow. I experienced it personally on March 22, 1992, when 20 gypsy girls surrounded me in front of Lenin’s Museum and stole my wallet. One week I was lecturing about post traumatic stress syndrome to the teachers of Chernoble and the next week I was experiencing it as I walked the streets of Moscow.

Ethnic and race related tensions among Russian people were apparent from my discussions with psychologists. Anti-Semitism is a scary reality for Jews and resentments (i.e. racism) towards other ethnic groups (i.e. Moslems) are now being discussed openly. Western cross cultural psychology, could be useful in describing the inter-group dynamics that are now more out in the open. In the past there has been political control over what Russian psychologists have read from the West. Freud was not read for years without special permission. There was some indirect access to American psychology books through the underground, but Western psychological concepts that went against Socialist principles were prohibited. These prohibitions have produced a great need for the psychological literature published in the West. Since very few translated American psychology texts exist in Russia, excitement and celebration occurred when my 125 books on Counseling Psychology arrived at the university. The books are now part of the University library’s permanent holdings.

Sex education and sexual freedom has not existed in the former Soviet Union, but now sexuality is being discussed by many Russians. Numerous persons mentioned that their sexual relations were not satisfactory and blamed the state and restrictive religious norms for making the society "sexless." Sex education and sex therapists, as they might be adapted to the Russian culture, will be needed in this changing country.

Public education, particularly in the first six grades, was described by most of my colleagues as authoritarian, rigid, punitive, and abusive toward children. Most of the children and adults I met reported their educational experiences as negative and unhealthy for their personal and professional development. Methods of teaching have been rigid and based on Socialist principles. Pressure tactics were used to instill learning through rote memory, fear, and physical and emotional abuse. There were some exceptions to these approaches in special schools. Educational reform, particularly teacher educational reform, is a critical issue for Russia as it moves to a more free society. Research is conducted in Russia, but in the past most topics, including dissertation topics, have been reviewed and controlled by the state. Research facilities are underdeveloped and raw materials like paper, photocopiers, and computers to conduct research are very scarce.

The Russian People and Culture

Traveling to Russia was foremost a cross cultural experience and one I needed to grow personally and professionally. I decided to be more than an "academic tourist" and immersed myself in every aspect of the culture, particularly what the people believed and valued. I left Moscow with a strong bond with the Russian people and a deep respect for their rich culture. I was personally touched by the art, the culture, and the Russian spirit. My personal contact with Russians was very personal, direct, and honest. The Russian soul is not shallow; their personalities are energetic and generous. The compassion of the Russian people is very visible, and their humanity is very much alive, even now with severe deprivation and despair.

The Russian personality is best understood in the context of the Russian culture before and after the 1917 Revolution. Additionally, knowledge of Leninism, Marxism, Socialism, Communism, the Russian culture, and the Russian Orthodox Church are essential to understand the complexity of Russian life. Generational differences between Russians affect attitudes and world views. Those who lived through Stalin’s purges and the second World War are clearly different than those who have been exposed to Glasnost as young people. Adding to the complexity are the ethnic, class, religious, geographic, and language differences of this vast country. There are over 100 different ethnic groups and languages in the former Soviet Union. Furthermore, if you add to this diversity the present rate of economic, social, and political change of the last two years, you have a society "living on the edge".

Rarely did a day pass in Moscow without hearing about the Russian soul or some deep aspect of the culture that bonds the people together in both positive and negative ways. This existential ambience may have been even more accentuated than usual given the transitions and chaos occurring daily in Russia. Food was available, but much of it was too expensive for most Russians to buy as the ruble was continuously devalued. Walking the streets, riding the subways, and visiting the churches of Russia, you could feel the existential struggle and "stretch" for meaning and survival. Overall, I observed the Russian people and culture as very existential. Since existentialism is also my primary way of observing reality, I was on "existential overdrive" for the entire nine weeks. This may help to explain some of my difficulties adjusting back to this culture in the Spring of 1992.

On a personal level, I was immersed in the same "Russian Wonderland" as my Russian colleagues and friends. Many times, I was unaware of what was happening in my environment and behind the scenes. I was not always sure who I was relating to. Were my contacts with colleagues and students, past or present KGB agents, potential friends or old Communist Party members, or combinations of these different roles? At first, this kind of ambiguity and loss of control gave me pause. But, if there are two things that you have to do as an outsider in this country, it is to give up control and tolerate ambiguity. After I found out that my close colleagues did not know exactly "Who was Who", both in the past and present sense, it became less problematic, and frankly, intriguing as I interacted with each individual personally, professionally, and politically.

Russian life and the people are full of paradoxes and contradictions that are not easily understood by the Western mind. Like Lindy and van der Kolk (1991), I experienced some individuals as "living in the double", meaning that there were two distinct personalities within the same person that could be activated depending on the situation. One personality conformed to the politically correct Socialist principles and another one reflected his/her own personal viewpoints. A number of contacts admitted that this dual personality was very common and a product of the Soviet state’s continuous monitoring of individuals. This separation of personalities or "double life" was being discussed openly and had diminished somewhat after the Coup d’ etat of August 1991. The disbanding of the KGB and the Communist Party gave the people some confidence that they could be individuals without fear of harassment. Yet, this double life has been operating for many decades and raises special clinical questions about Russian interpersonal relations and conflicts.

On a more personal level, I was invited to 12 Russian homes for dinner or tea. Many of these families had never before had an American in their home. In the past, hosting an America was risky business and likely to prompt a visit from the KGB or at least a report to the local party officials. Spending time with these Russian families was one of the most meaningful events of my trip and a special occasion for them also. Usually, young Russian boys and girls would arrive from adjacent flats (apartments) during our meal to curiously and nervously observe their first real American person. I was touched by these children and their families as they shared their family histories and their best food and vodka, and discussed how their country was evolving out of a totalitarian state to some unknown political entity.

The personal stories they told were the most moving and disturbing. Of all my activities in Russia, these stories altered my consciousness about oppression and will stay with me for a very long time. Almost everyone had a personal story about their struggle under Communism or the tragic history under Stalin or during World War II. Having studied Russian History as an undergraduate, I had a context for most of these stories. What I did not have was a heart and mind large enough to fully internalize the tragedies they reported. Estimates of 40 to 60 million people being eliminated under Stalin’s genocide and purges were consistently reported. This means that between 25 to 50% of Russian families lost a family member during the Stalin Era. This suffering was compounded by 15 million Russians killed during World War II, vicious anti-semitism, fears about the KGB, and distrust and paranoia about friends and even sometimes, family members.

Almost everyone felt more free to talk about these issues after the August Coup and the disbanding of the KGB. My sense was that many people were talking for the first time without great fear. These family stories collided with current realities of severe economic hardships, unemployment, rising crime, long food lines, and fears about the future. What amazed me the most was the strength of the Russian people and their good and generous spirits, as they faced their history and daily life. Most knew how to struggle with the dim realities of everyday and could generate hope and good spirits in the midst of despair and fear. I remember mentioning to one Russian colleague that if the same dismal economic, social, and political conditions in Russia were transplanted to the U.S., that there would be riots in American streets. Three weeks after returning to America, those words came back to me again. The worst civil unrest and violence of the century erupted in Los Angles in May, 1992. The premise that personal and political oppression is the "bed where violence sleeps" was profoundly understood in two separate cultures with two different political ideologies.

Personal Reflections

The Fulbright exchange was the most stimulating professional activity of my career. The experience altered me personally, professionally, and politically. I had to prepare myself psychologically for the cultural immersion, particularly living alone in Moscow without speaking fluent Russian. The preparation process and living there stretched me to my capacity. This kind of challenge was important to me at this point in my career. The Russian Fulbright experience disrupted my paradigms and fostered a revaluation of the meaning of my teaching, research, and therapeutic approaches nearly 20 years after completing my doctorate at the University of Maryland. In some ways it "radicalized me"; something my friends say I do not need. Yet, if you asked what I mean by this, I would be unable to fully articulate it. Sorting out my experience in Russia will take more time and no doubt will stay with me for many years.

Preparing to teach Counseling Psychology concepts, in a cross cultural context was very challenging. Like Skovholt (1988), I had to review my professional assumptions and how these might (or might not) translate to Russia. Furthermore, I had to face my biases about Russians and the Russian culture. Monthly air raid drill in grade school and political slogans from the McCarthy Era (i.e."Better Dead than Red" and "Kill a Commie for Christ") were locked away in my childhood consciousness.

After returning, I asked myself what produced such intense interest by my colleagues and friends in my Russian experience? Furthermore, what altered me and produced such a sense of awe from my experience? What is happening here in America today that intimately connects us to the Russian soul and the dramatic changes occurring there?

My response is that most Americans recognize that a profound renewal and transformation is occurring in Russia and all over Eastern Europe. There may be an awareness that the historical-archetypal process of how a people transform and renew themselves is happening. Likewise, Americans know that they are called to this same personal and national renewal to survive in this new interdependent world order. I learned, as many Americans may intuitively know, that the Russian people are experienced at transforming fear, suffering, oppression, and lost identity into interdependence and commmunity. Even with personal and political oppression, Russians committed themselves to the common good of others: the community. Americans face this same challenge of renewal, transformation, and the development of community. I am sure that I was drawn to this Russian experience because of my own need to be renewed. Whatever future transformations that occur in my life will be directly linked to the many courageous Russians that shared their homes and souls with me during those 65 days in wonderland.

I hope this summary of my Fulbright experience encourages others to consider the Fulbright Program to Russia and the other republics of the Commonwealth of Independent States. Other counseling psychologist Fulbrighters have reported that the Fulbright program has been an important part of both their careers and the internationalization of Counseling Psychology (Hedlund, 1988; Heppner, 1988; McWhirter, 1988a, 1988b, Nugent, 1988; Skovholt, 1988). The future of Russia is very uncertain and no one knows what ultimately will happen there. Anything could still happen, including a return to a totalitarian police state. Counseling Psychology can play a critical part in helping Russia reach its full potential. The profession of Counseling Psychology, as we have it in the West, cannot and should not be directly transported to Russia. Yet some hybrid version of Counseling Psychology, with our rich humanistic philosophy and diverse research methods, could make a difference as Russia develops its own approaches to maximizing human potential. Likewise, our profession can be greatly enriched by contact with Russian psychologists who are developing therapeutic services and counselor training programs, hopefully based on some of the premises of Counseling Psychology.


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Author Notes

The author gratefully acknowledges the helpful comments of my colleagues Dr. Sandra Ragazio – Digilio, Pat Schuler, Sarah Holmes and Matvey Sokolovsky on early drafts of this manuscript. This manuscript was presented at the 100th convention of the American Psychological Association, Washington, D.C., August 18, 1992 as part of the symposium "The Soviet Union Fulbright Program and Counseling Psychology: International Implications. Requests for reprints should be sent to James M. O’Neil, School of Family Studies, Box U- 58, University of Connecticut, Storrs, Ct. 06269. 26 25