Science Struggles to Survive in Academia…

YAROSLAVL, Russia-Travel guides point to Yaroslavl as the “most Russian” of regional cities, an attractive example of what Russia is all about, with the bonus of being within easy reach of metropolitan Moscow.

For anyone seeking to understand what Russia’s approach to psychology is all about, the psychology department of the regional Yaroslavl State University offers similar advantages.

With its 20 faculty members and more than 400 students, Yaroslavl’s department of psychology is a small community of its own, located in a leafy setting far from all other departments of the university except biology.

At mid-morning, the building’s lobby is the scene of several lively group discussions, amid the many large potted plants. Are we witnessing the vaunted Russian-style collective discussion and confrontation of various subdisciplinary views-of the type said to be so typical of Russian psychology? Perhaps. Though it is hard for an American observer to discern how much of the discussion is focused on psychology, and how much on the television coverage of Michael Jackson’s visit to Moscow the night before.

Selecting Students, The Curriculum

What is certain is that each year the psychology department selects about 80 secondary school graduates to enter the department’s the five-year course of study. All will receive stipends. The selection is based on secondary school records and three rigorous examinations given over a three-week period in July. The same selection system applies in the state universities in Moscow, St. Petersburg, and more than 20 regional universities.

Once admitted, the students focus almost exclusively on psychology. They are immersed also in foreign language training and mathematics/statistics courses offered within the department itself.

There is a common curriculum for all students in years one and two. All professors and instructors teach these introductory courses. In year three, the students begin to branch out into their chosen specialties. And in their fifth year, as “diplomniks,” they prepare their theses. Finally, some of them spend about four more years in the same department to do their candidatures,” a PhD equivalent.

Russian psychology departments are structured very differently from those in the United States that university-based exchanges between the two countries require some creativity to be successful. Yaroslavl currently has a fruitful program with Stonehill College in Massachusetts. It involves short-term exchanges of students and professors. But an additional tie with a university psychology department that offers doctoral training would be greatly welcomed, several Yaroslavl psychologists suggested.

Real-world Applications of Psychology

Viktor Novikov, currently the president of the International Academy of Psychology, is probably the most widely-known member of the faculty. Novikov is a social psychologist who focuses on industrial settings and issues of productivity. He reports his consulting work brings him substantial income and has made him wealthy by Russian standards.

As an example of the work that he and his colleagues have been called upon to do, Novikov cites a series of breakdowns at a Yaroslavl petroleum refinery. Novikov and his team analyzed the timing of the breakdowns and found them to be connected with the cycle of agricultural work in the area. Many of the employees apparently wanted work to stop so they could take care of their crops. Novikov said that further investigation showed the refinery director might have been involved in triggering the breakdowns, hoping thereby to ingratiate himself with his staff. To correct that situation, the refinery placed the soon-la-be former-director in charge of repairs under the supervision of a new, specially trained director of the refinery.

Novikov notes that “work is much more interesting in post-Communist Russia but is much harder on people. Capitalism is more cruel to people than Communism, and our people are not ready to go in the new directions.” The greatest need for psychologists in Russia today is in mental health areas, he said.


Svetlana Kornilov gave up university teaching six years ago to be a practicing psychologist in the health services section of the Yaroslavl education department. She now works with a group of psychologists, psychiatrists, and physicians that helps children with developmental problems who have difficulties in their school work.

She says that most of the children she sees suffer to some extent from what Russians refer to as oligophrenia, that is, mental deficiency or retardation. There are special schools for these children and special training is offered to their parents.

“But now we are seeing more and more social orphans-children whose living parents have abandoned them- and our diagnoses must differentiate whether the basic problem is mental retardation or a result of deprivation and abandonment,” Kornilov said.

“Although special houses have sprung up in many towns to house and care for the abandoned children, there is no social support system for the large number of children who essentially are socially deprived children. Ultimately, we can do little for them,” Kornilov said.

Applying What Is Learned

Practical thinking is the specialty area of Svetlana Kornilov’s husband, Yury, who holds one of the three departmental “catherdae,” the chair of general psychology. The research of his team focuses on bridging the gaps between theoretical thinking (explaining) and the types of practical thinking (action) that cannot be verbalized easily.

“The basic problem is that when students finish their education they often don’t know how to use it in practice,” Komilov said. And, ever since Russia opened its doors to the outside world, Komilov and his co-investigators have become more aware of similar research by scientists in America, Germany, France, and other countries. Within Komilov’ s area of mentorship are “diplomniks” who are preparing their theses on topics of thought and attitude. One example is that of student Sergey Shefov. His topic is the experiencing of death and mourning, as seen through ancient Russian myths and proverbs and as seen in the stages of acceptance of death outlined by Elisabeth Kubler Ross.

Diplomnik Elena Koneva identifies her specialty area as the psychology of communication and legal/forensic psychology. On the one hand, this includes everyday communication in work situations, as weB as work problems and conflict resolution. In the forensic area, Koneva’ s work covers areas of sexual aggression , the reliability of witnesses’ testimony, and the mental and volitional states that diminish culpability. The latter refers to the Russian equivalent to the American insanity plea.

Improving Expert Decision-making

Medical thinking and decision making in the course of medical treatment is the specialty area of Leonid Urvantzev and his student s. Their work focuses on why, for example, doctors often arrive at widely different conclusions even when working with the same diagnostic information and medical data. Recently. Urvantzev’s investigations extended to somatic aspects of asthma, heart disease, and infertility, as well as psychosocial aspects of those disorders.

The goal of the Urvantzev’s studies is not so much to help physicians respond directly to patients’ needs, but rather, to help physicians engage in more efficient problem solving in the areas of diagnosis, prophylaxis, and rehabilitation. But not all Russian physicians welcome such help, he says.

“Some doctors want this help, but others are very critical,” Urvaotzev said. “I think the majority are skeptical-they have little psychological background. But young doctors are more interested and accepting.”

Political Psychology

A comparative study of political orientation and career decisions of youths in Russia and Germany is the main project currently being conducted by Svetlana Ivanovna, a social and political psychologist. The study involves just under 200 subjects in each country chosen from four distinct social economic categories.

The youths in both countries are “very apolitical in the sense of being non-engaged in the political processes of the country,” Ivanovna says. “In Russia, working-class youths have more political interests than university students. But they have very little knowledge of political parties and issues. But, they are in great distress, because in earlier times they had clearer perspectives for their personal development, as it was the working-class that was supposed to be at the top of the list of priorities in the Soviet system. Now they have lost all that.”

Interpretation for this article was provided by Tatyana Klimenko, English professor of the psychology department, who soon will be integrating into her classes lessons based on a complimentary and complete set of APS’s popular journal Current Directions in Psychological Science.

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