:: Article

Homo Sovieticus and Mind Control

By Richard Marshall.

Homo Sovieticus, by Wladimir Velminski, MIT, 2017

This is a strange, unsettling and weirdly great little book about the strange and unsettlingly weird attempts of the Soviet Union to master brain waves, mind control and telepathic destiny in order to control the masses. Read this book alongside Svetlana Alexievich’s necessary books about Homo Sovieticus to further understand how the Soviets attempted to guide its people towards Utopia. Read it alongside current research and advances in Neuroscience and Artificial intelligence (AI), and see how far this pioneering work of the Soviets is now bearing fruit in the rest of the world. One example of this is at the intersection between network neuroscience and network control theory where we find work examining how network control fundamentally relates to mind control. The basic idea behind this kind of control is straightforward. Injecting energy into one part of a network should influence activity in other parts of the network. Read alongside books such as ‘Acid Dreams’ by Martin A Lee and Bruce Shlain about the CIA obsession with LSD as truth serum; Melvin Powers’ ‘Advanced Techniques of Hypnosis’ and ‘Hynoptism Revealed’; Herman Sherman and Sir Hubert Wilkins’ ‘Thoughts through Space’ first published in 1941, a “well documented” account of the Wilkins-Sherman experiment in long distance telepathy where “ Wilkins and Sherman, though 3,400 miles apart – one encamped on the snow swept Arctic Tundra, the other living in a Manhattan apartment – kept in mind-to-mind contact three nights a week for three months”; J.C. Lily’s ‘Communication Between Man and Dolphin,’ ‘Programming and Metaprogramming in the Human Biocomputer’ of which Timothy Leary writes: ‘ Start thinking of your brain as a biocomputer. Wet warc. Start thinking of your minds (plural) as your software. You know, sloppy disks that you use to process your thoughts and create images on the screens of your consciousness. This is the basic concept of the Cybernetic (Information) Age. I consider it the crowning achievement of post-industrial philosophy. Is not J.C. Lilly the ultimate reality hacker of our era?’; and A.R. Luria’s ‘Cognitive Development- Its Cultural and Social Foundations’, ‘Higher Cortical Functions of Man’, ‘The Making of Mind – A Personal Account of Soviet Psychology’ and the rest of Luria’s works of which Oliver Sachs writes: ‘The new science of brain/mind which Freud envisaged came into being in the Second World War, in Russia, as the joint creation of A.R. Luria (and his father, R.A. Luria), Leontev Anokhin, Bernstein and others , and was called by them ‘neuropsychology.’ The development of this immensely fruitful science was the lifework of AR Luria, and considering its revolutionary importance it was somewhat slow in reaching the West.’

What strikes anyone today about the current state of play regarding how governments seek to control societies is how ‘soft control’ in the West, as laid out by Chomsky and Herman in ‘Manufacturing Consent- The Political Economy of the Mass Media’ and by Chomsky in ‘ Necessary Illusions – Thought Control in Democratic Societies’ is being supplemented by a technological prosthetic utopianism of which the Soviet experiments presented here are eerily prescient. Dreams of wars without soldiers, cars without drivers, work without workers and minds without consciousness or willpower (just intelligence) are being presented as dreams not nightmares. What strikes the reader of ‘Homo Sovieticus’, and what makes it such a strange and weird read, is the lack of dystopian alarm bells ringing for any of its protagonists. The same sense of unease strikes me when I listen to our current technocratic apologists when they talk about the latest advance in AI: have Elon Musk and co had Frankenstein bypasses somewhere along the line – or is that deficit the price they – and the rest of us – pay for their amazing gifts? What also struck me was how the Soviet scientists, technologists and futurologists overestimated their ability to deliver on their visions for the future. Their research programmes ended up with little to show despite their grandiloquent promises and one is left wondering whether our current crop are going to similarly fall short of delivering on their promissory notes.

The Soviet experiment in mind control is therefore, among other things, a fascinating prototype of our contemporary landscape. The story is a harbinger for what is to come, but with the sad and genuinely pathetic payoff of Soviet bathetic failure. The story is about how belief in science coupled to metaphors from the cutting edge technology of its day resulted in research programmes and practices designed to support the prevailing ideology of the state. Today the metaphors that dominate research are the computer, AI and the algorithm, back then it was radio, cybernetics and electromagnetism. The climax shows the crumbling Soviets as ridiculous rather than dangerous: one wonders why anyone thought that world domination was even a remote possibility by the time we get to its final demise.

The culmination of this strange story is a series of tv broadcasts in 1989. As the Berlin Wall fell and perestroika fulfilled its aim to end the Soviet experiment Anatoly Mikhailovich Kashpirovsky broadcast six programmes on Channel 1 to millions of Soviet citizens:

‘You can leave your eyes open for a while. Have a look at your surroundings. There should be no pointed objects, and no fire. Your posture should be stable. If anyone is seriously ill – for example, suffering from epilepsy – please do not participate in our séance; simply turn off the television.’

The first of the six was broadcast at 8.30, 8th October 1989 straight after the evening news. Kashpirovsky was a licensed physician who had provided services to the national weightlifting team. This was the team that at the Seoul games of 1988 had dominated the event and won six gold medals (and the whole games had been dominated by the Soviets, which had won 132 medals overall, and his reputation was such afterwards that his psychic tunings had reached beyond mere sport.) As the society collapsed it was thought that he would be able to heal the body politic by turning citizen’s minds away from the chaos and turbulence to new goals.

After the first tv viewing Leipzig exploded and mass demonstrations broke out for the first time against the GDR. Kashpirovsky’s second session lasted twenty minutes. Between the third session on 5th November and the fourth two weeks later Channel 1 announced, on Fiday November 10th , that the Berlin Wall had been opened the previous evening. Kashpirovsky charged drinking water in people’s homes with his psychic energy and audiences continued to receive his messages in order to refocus their faltering image of the world.

‘At the end of this confrontation of two systems, East and West – which each coordinated the assembled opinions [Meinungsbilder] of the public to strategic ends – people on the Soviet side sat engrossed by a televisual spiritist session: a miracle cure, technologically induced intoxication to dam up doubts and banish secret thoughts into the “iron cage of the unconscious”. Kashpirovsky’s transmission represents the last effort of Soviet power to initiate the citizenry into the mysteries of the communist apparatus that was in the course of disappearing.’

All sorts of hokum pseudo-philosophy purports to comprehend this nonsense. Pavel Pepperstein, who made films based on his revolutionary thoughts about this involving women staring at semi erect penises, writes:

‘The energy that enables the sign to hold us in a hypnotised state steams from two sources. The first source is the functioning of the sign in the sphere of its perception (that is, the “presence” of the sign). The second source is the sign’s history, its mysterious past, which includes the highly enigmatic moment of how something is transformed into a sign that was not a sign before.’
He asks about this ‘enigmatic moment’ by asking the difference between phallus and penis. His thirty minute film ‘Hypnosis’ asserts that the penis moves from mere non-signification to signification via erection. This movement is for Pepperstein ‘one of the most mesmerizing omissions of our culture.’

There is reason to believe that Pepperstein believed what he was saying and doing. There is no reason for us to.

That the control of the masses was a central concern of the Soviets right from the start is clear: Trotsky himself writes:
‘The question of how to educate and control the human being, how to improve and perfect physical and mental construction, poses an enormous problem that can only be understood on the basis of socialism.’

This book shows just how seriously the Soviets took to investigating collective brainwashing via the controlling influence of science and technological (radio) fetish. The very first page shows us a diagram taken from work by Soviet cybernetic scientist Pavel Gulyaev in 1965 subtitled, ‘Material Foundations of Telepathy.’ (One of the great things about this book are the diagrams). The neural prosthetics that are discussed in the book are not medical implants that alter mental states from within but external prosthetics that attempt to alter the thoughts from outside. The aim of the work was to send coded messages, symbolised in the diagram as a Soviet Star, to the whole of Soviet society, and propagate and establish uniformity.

One of the key figures in the book is Gulaev. Gulaev’s work connects with Freud’s ‘prostehetic God’ but not via the ‘natural aspirations’ of a culture but rather via attempts to control, guide, switch, steer and control. Electromagnetic stimuli rather than dreams were the engine, fulfilling the Leninist slogan, “Communism is Soviet power plus the electrification of the whole land.” And the experimental nature of the whole state is presaged in Trotsky declaring:

‘ Man at last will begin to harmonise himself in earnest. He will make it his business to achieve beauty by giving the movement of his own limbs the utmost precision, purposefulness, and economy in his work, his walk, and his play. He will try to master first the semiconscious and then the subconscious processes in his own organism, such as breathing, the circulation of the blood, digestion, and reproduction; within necessary limits, he will try to subordinate them to the control of reason and will. Even purely physiological life will become subject to collective experiments. The human species, the coagulated homo sapiens, will once more enter into a state of radical transformation, and, in his own hands, become an object of the most complicated methods of artificial selection and psychophysical training.’

This resulted in attempts to develop higher social-biological types, blending futurist and constructivist ideas of the 1920s with cybernetics. Vladimir Bekhterev (1857-1927) transformed the labour ergonomics of Aleksei Gastev (1882-1932) into creative-dynamic-energetic circuits implemented, in a lab setting, as rhetorical-informational circuits. Television pioneer Hovannes Abromovich Adamian (1879-1932) worked on auatic-electromagnetic networks and were the basis for hypothetical-telepathic circuitry. The construction of epistemological objects was tied to ways in which they were presented and staged.

Gulaev pivoted from the work of Aleksei Kapitonovitch Gastev, futurist and propagandist for Taylorism in the USSR who wanted the dreamer to be the ‘ austere, flexible, and constructively thinking dreamer who can quickly discern the relationship between one phenomenon and another,’ who looked for the calibration of work on all levels via inventors who ‘cycle through, in a moment, all conceivable variants and remember, quick as lightening, whether the same thing has already occurred on another machine or device, in another instance.’ Contra Kazmir Malevich, who looked to end ‘further development, invention, labour and creation,’ Gastev looked to advance all of these. He combined futuristic new-machine man poetics with Taylorism’s ‘tough and hierarchical ergometry.’

Gestev was close to Lenin and wrote futuristic poetry about people and factory machines: ‘We Grow Out Of Iron’ goes:

‘Look! I stand among workbenches,
Hammers, furnaces, forges, and among a hundred
Overhead hammered iron space.

Fresh iron blood pours into my veins.
I have grown taller.
I too am growing shoulders of steel and arms
Immeasurably strong.
I am one with the building’s iron.’
The 1917 revolution ‘gave rise to complex interdisciplinary conditions favouring the institutional exchange of scientific practices and methods.’ He worked to regulate work and movement in sequences that were thought out in advance to engineer the fusion of man and machine via ‘training-agitation.’

‘By creating determinate sequences of settings, reconstructing them, and improving them – always in relation to laboratory experiments and the experience of production – we will advance toward exercising active influence on the organism, training it, and creating new, organised reflexes.’

So humans were to be refitted so that they overcome sluggishness and became New Men whereby ‘The whole worker has organically fused with the factory mechanism as a whole.’ By ‘setting’ Gastev meant the setting of the ‘ framework for a given machine, erecting all the parts necessary to make it operate, then adjusting the machine…’ and this evolved into an administrative function. He explicitly links this to invoking a new cultural disposition ‘It is a matter of love for labour, for the constructive ease of physical toil, for cultivated artistic work. … It concerns a sphere of work that has never existed before.’

Gastev drew parallels with life sciences. ‘In modern biology, the term setting is being employed more and more frequently. Even though its use has not yet been generally established, still it can be said that the psychological term setting has been circulating for some time now in the sciences. In German schools of psychology, the term setting is everywhere.’ Pavlov was drawn on too: setting ‘resulting from a known practice’ qualified as a conditioned reflex. Setting wasn’t merely rote learning but was a matter of combining conditioned and unconditioned reflexes to work in a living machine to optimise operations. He came up with a patented device for optimising hammer use. Sven Spieker writes:

‘… the orthopaedic apparatuses of the Russian constructivists [mark] the point of intersection between the integral body and the deficient, incomplete body, which, as castrated or potentially castrated, requires symbolic completion again and again.’

The device was not just about setting the body, however, it was for setting the mind as well. It was a device of neuroprosthesis: ‘External observation, in the sense of self-discipline, becomes integrated into self-observation.’ Labour for Gastev becomes an object of experimentation and construction using recoding and self-regulation : ‘Inspiration seizes [the inventor] just as he takes something apart, observes it precisely, and then, in an instant, with the aid of his great memory, quickly finds a similar phenomenon in other constellations and sets this phenomenon in relation to that one.’

Velminski, who has written a book that remains steely, observant, objective and fascinated throughout by his subjects (which means that readers are genuinely fascinated (and appalled at times) by these genius’s working at the cutting edge of their technologies and scientific theories) writes that ‘From the 1960’s onward, Gastev’s vision for constructive-creative processes served as a pre-cybernetic model in Russia. It provided the foundation for new control practices… and as such, factored into the design of the first computer work stations in the USSR.’ Gastev was shot in a Moscow suburb on 14th April 1939 for counterrevolutionary terrorist activities.

From this we encounter the start of telepathy work. Bekhterov writes of the famous animal trainer Vladimir Durov: after discovering the methods used to train animals Bekhterov used them on humans, seeking to instil ;’ ideas, feelings, emotions, and other psychophysical states into the psychic sphere of subjects [by] bypassing consciousness and the faculty of judgment.’ Like Freud, he thought the brain a device for processing electrical signals. Bekhterov and an electrical engineer Bernard Kazhinsky, who thought humans were radio stations and thoughts electromagnetic waves, worked together to develop technologies for telepathy. They built a ‘Faraday Cage’ to communicate thoughts to dogs. ‘ .. the nature of the phenomena accompanying the transmission of mental information at a distance is the same (electromagnetic) as in ordinary radio communication.’

In “The Radio of the Future” the futurist Velimir Khlebnikov wrote in 1921:

‘ Finally we will have learned to transmit the sense of taste – and every simple, plain but healthful meal can be transformed by means of taste-dreams carried by radio rays, creating the illusion of a totally different taste sensation. People will drink water, and imagine it to be wine. A simple, ample meal will wear the guise of a luxurious feast.’

Belaev’s novel ‘The Ruler of the World’ included research journal reflection:
‘ Two butterflies communicate with one another. Yet what energy enables them to do so? … there we have a radio message.’ And we get a glimpse of the utopian motivations of these guys, working to bring about the dreams of freedom from restraint and the past that they believed were constraining the authentic human from fulfilling herself. Yet the picture being developed of what this new human might be is itself a new and odd twist on what we might meet in Marx or precursors such as Rousseau.

‘What is revolution in general? It is liberation from all… inhibitors… It is a complete absence of restraint. There were laws, customs, and so forth. All of this has come to nought. The old is gone, the new still does not exist. Inhibition is eliminated, there remains only excitation. And this produces all possible excesses in the realm of desire, thought, and behaviour.’

Learning is understood as a process of developed reflexes. ‘More and more she is turning from a living human being into an automaton.’ Stirner is the monstrous hypnotist in the novel. There are drawings of the radio people he envisages with technical jargon. Science is transposed into the book:
‘We put a dog in front of the cage, and Dugov inside. When the cage wasn’t grounded, the dog successfully performed Dugov’s mental commands. But as soon as it was, the channels of influence no longer reached the dog.’

Radio pioneers Alexander Popov (1859-1906), Alva Edison, Nikola Tesla and Guglielmo Marconi all figure in the ideas being developed. Popov constructed the device that led to the first wireless transmission in 1896 on 24th March at the St Petersburg Academy of Sciences. In June Marconi patented a device of the same design. Popov protested. In 1824 Hans Berger invented the electroencephalograph which made possible the recording of the physical energy of the brain.

In Balaev’s novel Stirner abandons his project for love of his girl and this brings about some fascinating insights into what the utopian ‘radio beings’ might be like in the future.
‘Stirner must die. I [Stirner] have given a command to my thought transfer machine. I set it to the highest capacity. At precisely one o’clock in the morning…, it will broadcast this command: from Stirner to Stirner. He will lose consciousness. He will forget everything that has occurred in his life. He will be a New Man, charged with a new consciousness. This will be Stern. Stern will go where Stirner ordered him to go. And Stern will not even suspect that Stirner, locked up in the iron cage of his unconscious, is whiling away a miserable life. It is death… the death of consciousness.’ This is the condition Baudrillard calls ‘the hallucination of reality’ where the greater mass of humankind dwindles away. The dream becomes a silence where the need to speak is redundant. What is impressive about this novel is how it grasps the strangeness of the new human condition being engineered.
‘Moscow has become a city of sublime silence. We almost no longer speak with each other, since we have learned to exchange thoughts. How unwieldly and slow the old way of talking now seems! Perhaps we’ll forget how to speak entirely over time. Soon, mail, telegraphy, and even radio will belong to the past.’

The television came late to the Soviets. Eadweard Muybridge invented the zoopraxiscope in 1879. George Carey published models for effecting electrical transmissions over a distance. Hovannes Abramovich Adamian was born that same year. He researched tv in St Petersburg before dying of lung cancer in 1932. On the night from 29 to30 April 1931 the first wireless television transmission in the Soviet Union took place. But St Peterburg was home of radio transmission and it seems that radio remains a more dominant metaphor of the work regarding brain waves, mind control and telepathic destiny than tv.
The Soviets looked forward to wireless control of their masses. ‘Doctors today can treat patients long distance through hypnotic suggestion. Radio in the future will be able to act also as a doctor, healing patients without medicine.’ The electric auragram was a machine supposed to further this mind control.

Gulyaev wrote in 1969:
‘ A patient enters the treatment room. The apparatuses register the electro-auragram of his brain, heart, nerves, muscles, and internal organs; they send the information gained to an electronis diagnosis machine that, after it has determined the illness, indicates the proper treatment. All this occurs in a few seconds; the patient needn’t even undress.’

The machine was an attempt to fulfil the dream of a world of living radio stations. Velminski writes:
‘…the key aspect of the auratic field is that it does away with the need for physical contact when gathering data from internal organs. Without mechanical operations or intrusion – just from scanning the space around the body – Gulyaev obtained electroauragrams. This data, he contended, offered empirical proof that living organisms are not bounded by their bodily frames. Instead, vital functions traverse vast distances at the speed of light. Electrical auras represent bioinfrmation, signals to be exploited in the field of sensory and neural bionics.’ (82)

And with this was developed the notion of Psikhon. Psikhon was the biomagnetic medium described by Velminski as, ‘… an agent of “infection” for influencing, controlling and steering the psyche along cybernetic lines… scientific insight and aesthetic practice belonged to a political-ideological program founded on the premise that mental events could directly produce real-world effects… The flexible “mechanism” at work corresponded to the fraught mode of civil engineering that shaped the Cold War… Fittingly, the political-medical aspect of Psikhon , which Khlebnikov envisioned and Gulyaev thought he could measure by means of his Aurathron, reached its apogee when the Soviet Union was in the course of collapsing and the masses had to be “recharged with healing forces.”

Psikhon failed because the ideological,technological and scientific advances were too feeble. We might ask: is our own destiny made too visible in this, though one never perishes through anyone but oneself? Whatever. This intense little book gives further reason to ponder what the Soviet experiment tells us about ourselves, about the current geo-political situation, about current scientific and technological advancement harnessed by political forces, and about the nature of past and present utopian thinking.


Richard Marshall is still biding his time.

Buy his book here to keep him biding!

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Tuesday, May 30th, 2017.