ON NEW YEAR’S EVE 1984, Evgenia Debryanskaya was hosting a party. Evgenia was a thirty-year-old single mother from Sverdlovsk, the largest city in the Urals. She thought of herself as provincial and undereducated—she had never gone to college—but she had money, connections, and beauty, which significantly boosted her ambition of becoming someone in Moscow. Her money came from playing cards: she was a shark, and thus an outlaw. Her connections came from an unlikely fact of provenance: she was the out-of-wedlock daughter of the longtime Moscow Party boss.1Her beauty was unconventional: she was extremely thin, with a prominent nose and short dark hair cut asymmetrically to fall over half of her chiseled face; and she spoke in a deep, smoke-filled baritone. Some combination of these unusual traits secured for Evgenia the use of a very large nomenklatura apartment on Gorky Street, Moscow’s central avenue.
On New Year’s Eve, people kept coming, to stay until the Metro reopened early in the morning—or to keep drinking and smoking and talking well into the next day and the day after. This was Moscow’s bogema, the hard-partying, black-market-trading, intellectually edgy crowd. Some of them were writers or artists, and others claimed membership simply by living outside the official economy or by hosting good parties. Some of them would have read or heard of Orwell’s 1984 or Amalrik’s Will the Soviet Union Survive Until 1984?, and this added an extra note of recklessness to the mood. A very young aspiring actress arrived with an entourage of male admirers. One of them split off from the group as soon as they walked in. Instead of continuing to the kitchen, he sat down on an orphaned chair in the hallway. He looked like he was barely out of his teens. He asked the hostess for water.
Evgenia brought him a glass. He took a sip and asked, “Do you know when violets bloom on the lips?” She had no idea what that meant, and she loved it. She loved him for being able to say something that was so clearly beautiful and so utterly incomprehensible. He stayed the next day and the day after that, for three years, until she stopped loving him.2
His name was Alexander Dugin. He came from what they both thought of as the dullest type of Soviet family: his father, who was educated as an engineer, worked for the KGB in some secret but unglamorous capacity. His mother was a bureaucrat at the health ministry. His grandmother was a dean at the Higher Party School, an apparatchik factory that took up several city blocks just a few minutes from the apartment Evgenia and Dugin now shared. Their love was not the only emotion that united them: a shared hatred of the Soviet regime brought them even closer. In 1985, Dugin, whose imagination took more risks than Evgenia’s, said that the Soviet Union was ending. This was after Gorbachev had declared perestroika. They had a son that year and named him Artur, in honor of Rimbaud.
Evgenia learned French and English from Dugin, who insisted that books must be read in the original. When they met, Dugin was twenty-two and had been expelled from a technical university, but he could already read in French, English, and German. Now it took him two weeks at a time to acquire a new European language. He learned by reading books, and Evgenia learned by reading with him, taking turns sounding out the sentences. As long as she loved him, she never tired of hearing words she could not understand. The first book she read in English with him was The Picture of Dorian Gray.
Evgenia continued to bring in the money, but both agreed that Dugin was the one who worked. He rose early, ate whatever he could scavenge in the kitchen, and sat down at his desk to read for the next eighteen hours. The void he sought to fill by reading was vast. His focus was philosophy. He spent months explaining Nietzsche’s concept of the Dionysian to Evgenia; she loved the idea of embracing chaos—it seemed the perfect antidote to the stifling regimented boredom that surrounded them. Then Alexander told her that he had found a philosopher no one had ever heard of, one who had taken Nietzsche so much further. The philosopher’s name was Heidegger.
The first translation of Heidegger’s writing—just twenty pages of it—would not be published in Russian until 1986.3 Nor could Dugin, who had no affiliation with any Soviet institution and as a result no access to any but the smallest neighborhood libraries, find any of Heidegger’s books in the original German. He finally procured a copy of Being and Time on microfilm. In the absence of a microfilm reader, he rigged up a diafilm projector—a Soviet technology for using thirty-five-millimeter film to show cartoons or short films at home using a hand-crank—to project the book onto the top of his desk. By the time he was done with Being and Time, Dugin needed glasses. He had also read the foundational text of his thinking and of the rest of his life.
THE PHRASE A RUSSIAN INTELLECTUAL is probably most likely to use when talking about the early 1980s is bezvozdushnoye prostranstvo—“airless space.” The era was stuffy like the Russian izba, a log cabin, when its windows are caulked for the winter: it keeps out the cold, but also the fresh air. The windows will not be opened even a crack until well into spring, and as time goes on, smells of people, food, and clothing mix into one mind-numbing undifferentiated smell of gigantic proportions. Something similar had happened to the Russian mind over two generations of Soviet rule. At the time of the October Revolution, the Russian intellectual elite had been both a part of and a partner to the European conversation about God, power, and human life. After fifty years of purges, arrests, and, most damaging, unrelenting pressure on what had become an isolated thought universe, the Russian intellectual landscape was populated by barely articulated ghosts of once vibrant ideas. Even Communist ideology was a shadow of its former self, a set of ritually repeated words that had lost all meaning. Lenin had long ago dispensed with most of what Karl Marx had to say, enshrining a few of his selected ideas as überlaw.
“As the time passed, Marx’s successors revealed a tendency to present his teachings as a finite and all-inclusive concept of the world, and to regard themselves as responsible for the continuation of all of Marx’s work, which they considered as being virtually complete,” wrote Yugoslav Marxist dissident Milovan Djilas. “Science gradually yielded to propaganda, and as a result propaganda tended more and more to represent itself as science.”4
Marina Arutyunyan enrolled in Moscow State University’s psychology department in 1973, when she was seventeen. The department was new, the subject and purpose of study were not entirely clear—what, after all, could and would a psychologist do in Soviet society?—but it drew young people like Arutyunyan: cerebral and romantic in comparable measure, and driven to learn the secrets of the human soul. Arutyunyan knew that “psyche” meant “soul.”
For the first two years at the psychology department, Arutyunyan was in hell. Endless hours were devoted to a subject called Marxist-Leninist Philosophy. This was a clear case of propaganda masquerading as scholarship, and while the young Arutyunyan might not necessarily have phrased it this way, she cracked the propaganda code. She developed a simple matrix on which any philosophy could be placed and easily appraised. The matrix consisted of two axes on a cross. One ran from Materialism (good) to Idealism (bad) and the other from Dialectics (good) to Metaphysics (bad). The result was four quadrants. Philosophers who landed in the lower left quadrant, where Metaphysics met Idealism, were all bad. Kant was an example. Someone like Hegel—Dialectics meets Idealism—was better, but not all good. Philosophical perfection resided in the upper-right-hand corner of the graph, at the pinnacle of Dialectical Materialism. Arutyunyan shared this matrix with several classmates, and now they had Marxist-Leninist Philosophy down.
History of the Party proved a much more difficult subject. “Look at yourself,” the professor said to her derisively. He used a Russian word—taz—that could mean either “hips” or “basin.” There was apparently something wrong with Arutyunyan’s taz. She looked around, confused, wondering if she had somehow besoiled a laboratory basin in a History of the Party classroom. The professor, it turned out, was referring to her hips, which he deemed too narrow to produce quality Party progeny.
In addition to the various propaganda sciences, psychology department students received hands-on instruction in the natural sciences. They dissected frogs, and were expected to proceed to dissect rats, but Arutyunyan rebelled when it came to that and her group was, blessedly, exempted from having to kill mammals. There was a subject called Anthropology, but this area of study in its Western understanding was disallowed in the Soviet Union, so the course would more accurately have been called Theory of Evolution. It included the study of genetics, banned for decades but recently redeemed, and this was interesting.
Physiology of Higher Nervous Functioning featured human brains in formaldehyde, which were brought in for every class and set on each table. Arutyunyan was too squeamish to use her finger—gloves, in short supply all over the country, were not an option—so she stuck it with a pen, earning the professor’s wrath. “You are damaging the brain!” he bellowed.
For the purpose of legitimizing their peculiar area of inquiry, psychology students were also required to undergo detailed and rigorous training in statistical and data analysis. As for the psyche, it was conspicuously absent. If Arutyunyan learned anything in her first couple of years at university, it was only the basic logic behind this absence.
Marxism in the Soviet Union had been boiled down to the understanding that people—Soviet citizens—were shaped entirely by their society and the material conditions of their lives. If the work of shaping the person was done correctly—and it had to have been, since by now Soviet society claimed to have substantially fulfilled the Marxist project by building what was called “socialism functioning in reality”—then the person had to emerge with a set of goals that coincided perfectly with the needs of the society that had produced him. Anomalies were possible, and they could fall into one of two categories: criminality or mental illness. Soviet society had institutions to handle both. No other kind of disharmony was conceivable. Inner conflict was not an option. There was really no reason to take up the subject of the psyche.
To this day, the website of the psychology department of Moscow State University bears the traces of Russia’s disjointed history with the study of the psyche. A Psychological Society was established at Moscow State University in 1885 and, the site states proudly, “became the center of Russia’s philosophical life.”5 In 1914 the society became a full-fledged institute, with teaching and research functions. Then the narrative on the site becomes suddenly depersonalized: “During the years of acute ideological struggle for the construction of a Marxist psychology, the institute’s leadership changed.” In fact, the institute itself was abolished in 1925. Six years later, the university shut down all departments dedicated to the humanities and social sciences. Ten years after that, the humanities returned, but psychology was now subsumed by the department of philosophy. Only in 1968 did the Soviet government recognize psychology as a discipline in which degrees could be awarded—and the country’s leading university resumed, at least on paper, the study and teaching of the psyche—after a break of nearly half a century.6 The new students could hardly have known that less than a century ago Russian thinkers had been reading Nietzsche and arguing with him, or that Lou Andreas-Salomé, who popularized the great philosopher’s ideas in Russia and broke his heart, was a native of St. Petersburg. She went on to become one of Sigmund Freud’s early and close students and to work as a psychoanalyst in Germany almost up until her death in 1937, at the age of seventy-five, but her ties to Russia had been severed by the Revolution nearly twenty years earlier.7
The Bolshevik state set out to create a New Man. The project contained an echo of Nietzsche’s Übermensch idea, but now it was a practical task rather than a philosophical exercise. For a time, it seemed that Freud’s teachings could help bridge the gap between theory and practice. His writing had been widely translated before the Revolution, and he and his students had taught a number of Russian psychoanalysts.8 At one point, not long before the Bolsheviks came to power, psychoanalysis seemed to be gaining a foothold in Russia faster than in Western Europe.9 After 1917, the new regime set out to transform Freud’s theories into dogma on which massive institutions could be based, much as it was doing with Marxism. In its simplified form, Freudism—a term coined by analogy with Marxism—“was seen as a scientifically valid promise of an actual, rather than fictional, transformation of man, to be carried out on the basis of his consciousness,” wrote Alexander Etkind, a historian of psychoanalysis in Russia.10
A newly formed state publishing house put out a three-volume edition of Freud’s Introduction to Psychoanalysis in 1922, and twenty thousand copies—a large press run, considering the era and the topic—were snapped up within a month.11 The Russian Psychoanalytic Society was formed the same year, under the auspices of the state.12 Between 1922 and 1928, state publishers put out an entire library of translations of foundational works by Freud, Jung, and other early psychoanalysts.13 A psychoanalytic preschool opened in Moscow, drawing the children of the newly minted Bolshevik elite. It was a pilot project, the prototype of an imagined future factory for the production of New Man.
It did not work. Not only was psychoanalysis particularly unsuited for reproduction on an industrial scale, but even in the confines of a single elite preschool it had a way of producing discomfort and discontent. The experimental psychoanalytic preschool was shut down in 1925, amid vague fears of precocious sexuality.14 Over the following five or six years, the Russian Psychoanalytic Society ceased functioning, Freud was depublished, and Freudians fell into disfavor or worse. Freud’s most important Russian student, Sabina Spielrein, a patient, student, colleague, and lover of Carl Jung, a teacher of Jean Piaget, and a co-discoverer of countertransference, had returned to Soviet Russia from Germany in 1923 and soon, it seems, faded from view. She died in 1942 in the southern Russian city of Rostov, shot as a Jew by the occupying Nazi troops.15
The demise of Russian psychoanalysis spelled the near-total end of any study of the psyche—in part because psychoanalysis had so dominated psychology and in part because the new state was now rejecting any explanation of human behavior that was not both material and simple. Ivan Pavlov’s straightforward theories of cause and effect fit this approach perfectly; it remained only to condition the entire population, rendering it pliant and predictable. Etkind writes of a psychoanalyst in Odessa who installed a portrait of Pavlov on the flip side of a likeness of Freud that hung in his office: Pavlov would face visitors during the day, when an official might happen by, and Freud greeted his clandestine psychoanalysis patients in the nighttime.16
Only a few of the early Soviet psychoanalysts remained in Russia and lived. One long-term survivor was Alexei Nikolaevich Leontiev, who narrowly escaped official censure or worse in the 1930s17 and went on to have a long academic career, venturing into psycholinguistics late in life. But the work that had allowed Leontiev to continue research during the darkest Soviet decades was his activity theory, which viewed human beings exclusively through the lens of behavior and any human action as part of a larger process of communal action.18 When Arutyunyan was a student at Moscow State University, Leontiev’s course represented the sum total of psychological theory taught in the first few years. His lectures were boring, painful, and infuriating. It made Arutyunyan angry that Leontiev’s theory recognized only the conscious part of being human, leaving no room for metaphysics. Leontiev taught by feeding his students uncatchy phrases that summed up counterintuitive theories. One such mantra was “shifting motive onto the goal.” For instance, if the student’s goal is to pass his exam and he develops interest in the subject matter, then his motive will have shifted onto his goal. This never seemed to happen for Arutyunyan.
She became seriously ill after her second year. Her medical leave lasted another two years. She came back older and perhaps smarter, and after passing exams for one year, was allowed to resume learning as a fourth-year student. This was the year students chose their specialty and began research projects. Arutyunyan landed in social psychology, and a new life began. Graduate students led seminars, including one on attraction. The young instructor talked about the threat of castration that men perceived as emanating from highly attractive women, and his students went wild. This was no “activity theory,” this was sex and the psyche and everything they had dreamed of thinking about when they applied to the psychology department. Gradually, Arutyunyan and some of her classmates discovered that the space around them was not entirely airless. Russian architecture, created as it was for a very cold climate, contains a peculiar invention called the fortochka. It is a tiny window cut inside a larger pane. Even when windows have been sealed for the long winter, the fortochka can remain in use, being opened regularly to allow air to circulate. The Soviet university, as it turned out, had its fortochkas, and the way to learn was to hunt for them and then to stick your whole face in them and breathe the fresh air as though one’s lungs could be filled up with reserve supplies.
One such fortochka was the thinker Merab Mamardashvili, who lectured in the philosophy department. He talked about Marx and Freud as intellectual revolutionaries, which was akin to heresy since Arutyunyan and her friends thought that Freud was something like God and Marx more like the Devil, but witnessing someone thinking—actually thinking—out loud proved exhilarating. Another fortochka was Alexander Luria, who lectured in the clinical psychology specialty. Luria had served as chairman of the Russian Psychoanalytic Society in the 1920s,19 had survived by going into neurology, and had become a great storyteller of the mind. Across a generation, an ocean, and the Iron Curtain, he managed to inspire Oliver Sacks, who considered Luria his teacher in the art of the “neurological novel.”20 The most important fortochka of all was found in the university library, which contained the spetskhran, a restricted-access collection to which a resourceful student or researcher could gain access. The spetskhran contained Freud’s case studies. It was the most compelling, most engrossing, most mind-shattering thing Arutyunyan had ever read. Only years later, long after the last of the old Russian psychoanalysts had died, did she realize that what tied all the fortochkas together was not just that they gave her new knowledge and that they contrasted markedly with the mind-numbing recitations that filled the university, but that they all saw and described human beings the way she wanted to understand them.
Every school of psychology has its own concept of the person. Carl Rogers’s sees people as basically good but often unlucky: they must be tended to better. The cognitive behaviorists imagine imprints that interfere with the functioning of otherwise serviceable human beings. The human being of psychoanalysis is a complicated creature, a creature capable of reflection but doomed to make mistakes in the process of reflecting, a creature endowed with huge, destructive energies. It is by no means an innocent creature, born good and merely handicapped by external forces. This was the creature Arutyunyan wanted to study. It would be years before she was able to articulate this, but for now she was writing her thesis on cognitive dissonance, thereby creating her own little fortochka. It turned out you could do that—write about Soviet people as though they could contain contradictions and inner conflicts—as long as you framed the story in requisite meaningless phrases lifted from one of the approved textbooks.
WHAT WAS ARUTYUNYAN GOING TO DO with all the knowledge she was hoarding? Being able to apply one’s theoretical expertise was an unimaginable luxury in the airless space—if one was a psychologist or social scientist, that is, rather than a rocket one. Intellectuals aspired to and prized luxuries of a different order: an unburdensome job in a nontoxic environment that left time for thinking and breathing some fortochka air. This was a lot to want, and getting it required luck, brains, and connections. Arutyunyan, both of whose parents were sociologists, got a job at the Institute of Sociology, and this was virtually a dream setup.
An odd feature of the time—most likely an intended result of the system’s highly developed ability to suppress those with deep expertise or excessive passion—was that people often had to work in fields that ran parallel to their primary interests. Ten years before Arutyunyan graduated from the department of psychology and went to work at the Institute of Sociology, a young man who wanted nothing more than to be a sociologist was writing a term paper on Freud’s concept of defense mechanisms. Lev Gudkov had set out to be a journalist like his own father. Two years in a row he tried to gain entrance to Moscow’s exclusive Institute of Foreign Relations, which trained diplomats and foreign correspondents, a high percentage of them fated to work for intelligence services. Both times Gudkov failed the essay portion of the entrance exams, which was graded on a dual scale: one mark for form and one for content. Both years, his form was deemed excellent and his content got a failing grade. He was not well-versed enough in what he was supposed to think. A criticism that would haunt his early career was that he lacked “critical thinking”—meaning, he was not sufficiently critical of anything that diverged from the current Party line.
Gudkov gave up and enrolled as an evening student at the journalism department of Moscow State University. This was one of the university’s least challenging branches, and evening students, especially, were left to their own devices. For many of them, the department offered a nearly painless way to obtain a university diploma after six years of attending some lectures after work (the program was longer than normal because of its light course load). Gudkov realized that if he did not seek out knowledge himself, it would never find him. He looked, and eventually stumbled upon an elective lecture course offered by sociologist Yuri Levada.
The year was 1968, and the fact that thirty-eight-year-old Levada called himself a sociologist, and his subject sociology, was almost revolutionary. Sociology was not exactly banned in the Soviet Union, but the name of the discipline had been reduced to something like a curse word. Lenin himself had inaugurated it as a Soviet insult. The problem with sociology was much the same as with psychoanalysis: the field of study refused to be a “science” that could be used to create a new society of new men. A year before the Philosophers’ Ship sailed, one of Lenin’s closest allies, Nikolai Bukharin, published The Theory of Historical Materialism, an attempt at a sort of Marxist textbook of everything, written in a folksy language intended for the proletariat. Three things that Bukharin did in this textbook proved deadly for Soviet sociology: he included new ideas that he believed advanced Marxist theory, he subtitled it A Popular Textbook of Marxist Sociology, and he proclaimed the supreme importance of sociology among the social sciences because it “examines not some one aspect of public life but all of public life in all its complexity.”21 Lenin hated the book, and the word “sociology” took the brunt of his rage. He underlined it throughout the book and supplied a small variety of comments in the margins: “Haha!” “Eclectic!” “Help!” and the like.22 In another eight years, when Bukharin was deposed in a Party power struggle, Stalin recalled Lenin’s skepticism by describing Bukharin’s work as possessed of “the hypertrophied pretentiousness of a half-baked theoretician.”23 Bukharin was eventually executed. Much earlier, sociology had had to go into hiding.
A cautious excavation began after the Second World War. The Institute of Philosophy in the Soviet Academy of Sciences was allowed to acknowledge the existence of a discipline called “sociology.” The primary context in which the word appeared was criticism of Western sociological theories, which provided scholars with an excuse for studying them.24 The Soviet academics took care not to call their own work “sociology”: in 1968, a unit within the Academy of Sciences was allowed to graduate to being an institute, but it would be called the Institute for Concrete Social Studies. Levada, who had been trained as a philosopher, would head up the theory department of the new structure.
The Politburo resolution establishing the Institute for Concrete Social Studies was marked “top secret,” as was a later document outlining the new institute’s scope of work.25 The secrecy, along with the institute’s name—“social” instead of “sociological”—suggested that the Politburo thought it was stepping into sensitive and even dangerous territory. The potential benefits, however, outweighed the risks. The new structure was charged not only with criticizing bourgeois theory but also with studying Soviet society. The Central Committee itself was to approve studies and to receive their results. It was 1968, the year of the Prague Spring, when the Czechoslovak Communist Party attempted to split off from the Soviet Union and pursue its own, comparatively liberalized version of socialism. The Politburo was worried about similar ideas circulating in the Soviet Union. Indeed, in the summer, after Soviet tanks rolled into Prague, eight extraordinarily brave people staged a protest in Red Square; all were arrested. The following year, Amalrik would write his essay asking if the Soviet Union would last until 1984. The Politburo wanted to know the answer to that question too, and it ordered the Institute for Concrete Social Studies to be fully staffed, with 250 researchers, by 1971. Of course, there were no trained sociologists in the Soviet Union, so the new institute received special dispensation to hire researchers without advanced degrees. Levada was one of a handful of Soviet citizens who had trained themselves in sociology. He had graduated from Moscow State University with a degree in philosophy, studied sociology theory that he had found in spetskhran, and had then gone to Communist China to do research there: the system was always more tolerant of inquiry directed at other societies. Now Levada was virtually legitimized as a sociologist, and he was lecturing in the journalism department.
Levada was frighteningly intelligent, unabashedly passionate, and most important, he had mastered the art of thinking out loud during a lecture. He suggested that the peculiarities of everyday life in the Soviet Union could be observed, examined, and understood. In one lecture, for example, he analyzed a short story in which collective-farm workers are sitting around waiting for a Party meeting to start, complaining about their unreasonably demanding bosses and terrible work conditions. Then the meeting commences and the workers take turns lauding their collective farm’s accomplishments and boasting of their own contributions to the Soviet cause. Once the meeting is over, they go home, where they return to complaining of their senseless work and miserly pay. Levada showed that the public-private behavioral divide, instantly recognizable to all his listeners, could be understood not just as hypocrisy but as a social and cultural institution.26
Fourth-year student Gudkov fell in love. Now he wanted to be a sociologist and work for Levada. There were no job openings, so he would wait. An assistant’s position finally opened up in September 1970. Who knew that work could be so enjoyable? Everyone was constantly joking, telling stories, and everyone seemed to be in love with everyone else, through some sort of multiplier effect produced by everyone’s crush on Levada himself.27 The best part, though, were the discussions. Each staff member had an ongoing assignment to read a Western sociologist and prepare presentations and discussion questions for the rest of the group. Gudkov got Max Weber. He felt like an ugly duckling, not nearly as smart as his new colleagues, but the thrill and sense of privilege far outweighed his discomfort.
Within two years, it was all over. Levada’s problems began after he published his university talks in two tiny books titled Lectures on Sociology. The books passed the censors, who allowed a thousand copies out into the world, but once they were published, they were condemned for not relying on concepts of historical materialism in all their statements, and, worst of all, for “allowing for ambiguous interpretations”—in other words, for being the opposite of dogma, forcing listeners and readers to think.28 Levada publicly admitted his mistakes but was still stripped of one of his advanced degrees and eventually forced to resign from the Institute. All his staff lost their jobs.
Levada’s people struggled to find work: being purged for ideological reasons and their very affiliation with Levada marked them as dangerous. Within a year, though, all had settled somewhere, but often doing nothing beyond the empty imitation of activity that Soviet academic institutions had become so good at producing. What mattered was that Levada assembled his group into a seminar that met every couple of weeks in the evenings. They met wherever Levada was working at the time, and even when they got kicked out and had to move to another institute and had to change the seminar’s name (following especially acrimonious evictions), for the next quarter century they never stopped meeting29 and their mode of work and mission remained constant. It was, as the participants put it, “to assimilate Western sociology.” They read twentieth-century theory, talked, and wrote papers that could never be published. In order to write a dissertation that he could defend, Gudkov had to recast his reading of Weber as criticism of Weber, and still it took him years to get his doctorate—he was once again criticized for insufficiently critical thinking, as well as for “bourgeois objectivity,” the thought crime of failing to recognize the inevitability of capitalism’s demise.
WESTERN VISITORS to the Soviet Union who lucked into Moscow’s insular intellectual circles were usually taken with the luxurious sense of timelessness in which they existed. With careers almost entirely lateral and ambitions, if they ever existed, generally shelved, people like Arutyunyan, Gudkov, and even Dugin seemed to study solely for the sake of learning, rarely even entertaining the possibility that theory could be put to work in any way. But in 1984 Arutyunyan learned that the government was launching psychological “consultation” services, to provide something like family therapy. They were to be called Family and Marriage Centers, and their task was to try to stem the tide of divorces. Party committees had apparently despaired of their ability to manage and shore up the Soviet family: in the 1970s the number of divorces in the country had nearly doubled while the number of marriages barely grew.30
A session with a psychologist at one of the new centers would cost three rubles if the psychologist had the equivalent of a master’s degree; a doctorate holder’s hour ran five rubles and fifty kopecks. This was a fraction of the cost of a black market pair of jeans, but one could buy dozens of loaves of bread with such a sum. Arutyunyan held a doctorate in philosophy by now, but her first client was disappointed to discover that he had just paid top-shelf rate for a meeting with a skinny young woman. She showed him her degree. He still wanted his money back because he had come for help talking sense into his teenage son but the boy had taken off on the way to the appointment. Arutyunyan was firm: there would be no refunds.
They met weekly for about six months. The son never showed, but judging from the father’s reports, their relationship gradually evened out. As for the father himself, at his last session he told Arutyunyan, “All this time I have simply been living my life when I should really have been thinking about life.”