‘Technologies of Mind and Body in the Soviet Union and the Eastern Bloc’: Conference Review

Julia Sutton-Mattocks reviews the international symposium ‘Technologies of Mind and Body in the Soviet Union and the Eastern Bloc’, University of Nottingham, 17th–18th May 2019.

‘The project of creating a “New Man” and “New Woman” initiated in the Soviet Union and the Eastern Bloc constituted one of the most extensive efforts to remake human psychophysiology in modern history.’ These were the words that opened the Call for Papers for ‘Technologies of Mind and Body in the Soviet Union and the Eastern Bloc’, a wonderful two-day symposium held at the University of Nottingham in May 2019. The symposium, which was funded by the Wellcome Trust and by the Universities of Nottingham and Warwick, was the brainchild of Claire Shaw (Warwick) and Anna Toropova (Nottingham). They invited papers addressing the following questions: ‘How did science, culture and medicine overlap with a mode of government that sought to manage, cultivate and regulate human life? What role did Soviet and East European scientists, medical professionals, educational specialists and cultural producers play in the articulation of new ideas about the body, health and human perfectibility? How did individuals and collectives engage with – or resist – the transformative imperatives of the Soviet experiment?’

The final programme comprised eight panels of three to four papers each, two engaging keynotes (from Frances Lee Bernstein [Drew] and Lilya Kaganovsky [Illinois, Urbana-Champaign]) and a film screening. The presenters had interpreted ‘technologies’ in a variety of ways, ranging from wooden prostheses (Bernstein) and cochlear implants (Anja Werner [Martin-Luther-Universität, Halle-Wittenberg]) to film psychotherapy (Toropova), amateur club photography (Jessica Werneke [Loughborough]) and Soviet film cyborgs (Diana Kurkovsky West [Northwestern]). Some of these technologies were attempts to restore or augment the body’s physical functions; others represented means of surveying or controlling the individual or collective body. I was pleased to see the programme go beyond the Russian context, which – although fascinating – is often all-pervasive at conferences dealing with this region and historical period. Here, in addition to papers on Russia, we enjoyed contributions on the Czechoslovakian, Bulgarian and Latvian contexts, three papers on the GDR and one (Zhipeng Gao [York University, Toronto]) on the fate of Pavlovian psychology in China.

In the first panel, which looked at theories and practices of revolutionary embodiment, two papers particularly stood out. These drew attention to the breadth of cultural, political and economic discourses that affected understandings of the body. With her paper on an early Soviet idea that the body was a ‘porous and permeable’ organism – a conception that emphasised its interconnectedness with the biosphere – Johanna Conterio (Flinders) questioned the centrality of the ‘man-machine’ to Soviet theories of the body. Pavel Vasilyev’s (VLJI/Siberian State Medical University) paper then moved from the biosphere to the economic context. Beginning his presentation with Martyn Liadov’s (1872–1947) notion that the menstrual cycle was a function of the market economy and would disappear under communism, Vasilyev noted the irony that Liadov’s prediction would come to pass at times of particularly harsh economic conditions in Soviet history.

The central – and heavily biopolitical – question of the relationship between expert knowledge and disciplinary power was spread over two panels. The first dealt with diagnosis, surveillance and resistance, while the second explored psychology, pedology (the ‘science of the child’) and criminology. Both sets of papers demonstrated the scope, ambition and innovative nature of the various facets of the Soviet health- and social care systems, as well as the implications for the individuals and groups with whom they came into contact. A thread running through the first of these panels was that ideology and health were equally at stake in the Soviet healthcare system: because ideology was so firmly embedded in Soviet approaches to smoking (Tricia Starks [Arkansas]), psychiatric illness (Ben Zajicek [Towson]) and venereal disease (Siobhán Hearne [Durham]), any failure to treat could be interpreted as a failure of the ideology. Such panel cohesion was a particular strength of the symposium. We have all been to conferences where each paper is individually fascinating, but where panel discussions are formed with difficulty. In this case, it was always easy to identify common threads and to pose questions that could be answered by all speakers. As a result, the Q&As were as dynamic and thought-provoking as the individual papers.

Day one ended with a screening of Julian Chehirian’s (ARC, Sofia) film Excavating the Psyche, which was based on his 2015 exhibition of the same name, and which explores the social history of Bulgarian psychiatry during the state-socialist period. Chehirian describes himself as a researcher and curator who creates installations. In his own words, his ‘small worlds engage social histories in order to expose contact points between ideology, the collective and the individual.’ (Chehirian, n.d.) The film was a powerful way of ending day one. It not only introduced a further national context for comparison, but also placed the viewer in the position of psychiatrist, inviting us to experience a particular version of the medical gaze over the human mind and body. In the Q&A, Chehirian talked us through his initial vision for the research project and exhibition, and his experience of interacting with visitors.

My take-away point from day two was articulated by Michael Rasell (Lincoln). Speaking as part of a panel entitled ‘Object of State Care: The Aging and Disabled Body Under Socialism’, Rasell made the salient point that the Eastern bloc was not monolithic when it came to healthcare. In the GDR’s case, he noted, the healthcare system was informed not only by state socialism, but also by the German medical and public health tradition, and an awareness of West Germany’s proximity. His point was reinforced by the other papers on the panel, which explored discourses of child sexuality in socialist Czechoslovakia (1950s–70s) (Frank Henschel [Kiel/Leipzig]) and healthcare for the elderly in the post-WWII Soviet Union (Susan Grant [Liverpool John Moores]). Rasell’s point did not only draw attention to the different cultural, political and historical contexts within the Eastern bloc, but also to the way in which geography can affect negotiations of the individual and/or collective body. This theme was later taken up by Nick Baron (Nottingham) and Oksana Sarkisova (CEU, Budapest). Baron demonstrated how cartography acted as metaphor, model and means of exploring the creation of Soviet modernity in the interwar period, while Sarkisova explored interwar film-makers’ use of medical intervention into blindness as a metaphor for the wider project of lifestyle transformation in the Soviet Union’s further reaches.

Overall, this symposium featured an exciting range of responses to the questions originally posed. Perspectives on the relationship between mode of government, science, culture and medicine took in the management and regulation of all stages of life (birth, childhood, puberty, adulthood and old age), the body and mind in both sickness and health, the criminal as well as the conformist, and across several different national and cultural contexts. The prevalence of papers exploring cinema and photography demonstrated the extent to which individuals, professionals and the state understood cultural production to be both a powerful means of disseminating ideas about the body and mind, and an active agent of change. Of the many responses to the question of individual and collective engagement with ‘the transformative imperatives of the Soviet experiment’, I think it is fair to say that one particular paper stood out: few of us will ever have laughed as much at a conference paper (in enjoyment, I hasten to add) as we did when Ben Krupp (Illinois, Urbana-Champaign) told us of his attempts to follow Soviet health exercise regimes and transform himself into the ideal Soviet body. It was only a shame that this paper had to be delivered by video link rather than in person — a practical session may well have been just what we needed to blow away a few post-lunch cobwebs! And with this image, I will close by thanking the organisers for bringing us all together for such a fascinating – and fun – two days. I was delighted to hear that there are plans afoot to publish the conference papers in due course.


Chehirian, Julian. n.d. “Julian Chehirian, History of Psychiatry Bulgaria.” Accessed June 10, 2019. https://julianc.com/.


Julia Sutton-Mattocks has recently completed her PhD in the Department of Russian and Czech at the University of Bristol (co-supervised at the University of Exeter). Her thesis explores portrayals of surgery, medicalised childbirth, and treatments for syphilis and nervous illness in interwar Russian- and Czech-language literature and cinema. Her research was funded by the South, West and Wales Doctoral Training Partnership.

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