Will Research Take Second Place?

Moscow, Russia- “We have had a very bad, really tragic situation during July, August, and September,” said Andrey Brushlinsky, director of the Institute of Psychology and the sale psychologist in the Russian Academy of Sciences.

“In those three months we didn’t receive our salaries because the Ministry of Finance and Ministry of Sciences couldn’t furnish the funds,” Brushlinsky said at the outset of a two-hour interview in Moscow. The salary situation seemed little changed from a year ago, when Brushlinsky had made similar comments in an Observer interview: “Before we had money but no freedom. Now we have freedom but no money.”

The Institute of Psychology and the other once-potent institutes of the Russian Academy of Sciences have been struggling for years to keep the wolf from the door. But the Academy and its institutes are not alone in this problem. The government also has been months in arrears in paying the army, coal miners, and workers in many other sectors of the economy.

Money hasn’t been available because Russian tax collections are less than half of what they would be if laws were rigorously enforced. Tax income has been falling about 20 percent below expected levels, though a new get-tough policy may improve this.

Brushlinsky says that the brain drain resulting from this financial crisis has not been as severe at the psychology institute as in some of the other institutes. A handful of researchers have departed for permanent jobs abroad. And a dozen or so have left to work in commercial establishments. But the bulk of the Institute’s more than 200 researchers, including 100 PhD-level “candidates of science” and 20 higher-level “doctors of science” are staying with the psychology institute. This is so despite the fact that “available funds are only enough to pay miserable salaries and cover lighting and heating expenses,” Brushlinsky says.

Sources of Research Funds

What has saved the psychology institute, Brushlinsky says, is support from two new government funded entities. One is the Russian Basic Research Fund, that funnels research money directly and competitively to researchers who need it, bypassing the bureaucratic structures of the Russian Academy of Sciences. The other is the Russian Humanitarian Research Fund, which selectively provides organizations like the psychology institute with funds for laboratory equipment, publishing expenses, as well as international and educational activities. Both funds were created in the early 1990s.

New University Connects With Non-political Agenda

“We have found new ways of operating,” Brushlinsky said. “For example, last year we created a new university in the Russian Academy of Sciences, the Human Sciences University.” The psychology department of the university is situated within the walls of Brushlinsky’s institute. It admitted 25 students in 1995 and a new first-year class of 30 more students entered this fall. Plans include providing eight years of study, leading to the “candidature,” the Russian equivalent of the PhD. The program is similar to that offered in the Russian state universities but with greater emphasis on scientific methodology.

“For many decades the Academy of Sciences and its institutes were the main locus for research activities in the Soviet Union,” Brushlinsky said, “and education was left solely to universities and other schools of higher education. But more recently, our leaders began to understand how difficult it could be for many of the educational institutions in Russia to extract themselves from the ideological, politically engaged basis of much of the teaching that went on during Communist times.”

One way of depoliticizing higher education was to connect it directly with the country’s best ongoing scientific research activities in each field, Brushlinsky said. That is precisely what the new “psychology faculty” at his institute is doing, he said. And it is being done not only in psychology but also for other disciplines in many of the other institutes as well.

“As this educational aspect of the Institute develops, many of our psychologists- about 30 or 40-are not only researchers but they also lecture in psychology,” Brushlinsky said. “So they do have a second salary that comes from the Ministry of Education. This also creates a new fortunate situation in which many of our psychologists are able to conduct organized scientific research with the participation of their students.”

If this sounds like the situation long-prevailing in many psychology departments in America, Brushlinsky concedes that “it’s good in some respects.”

But it also means giving up something-something with a familiar ring to American psychologists- Brushlinsky points out: “Unfortunately, many psychologists in the Institute now have to split their time between teaching and research. And that’s not good for research.”

Revamping Science Policy

Some good news for research, however, may be forthcoming from a shortly anticipated revamping of Russia’s science policies, Brushlinsky believes. His hopes focus on one of the youngest members of the Academy of Sciences, Vladimir Forlov. Fortov is a physicist who is the director of the Russian Basic Research Fund that has been providing support to the psychology institute, as well as Deputy to Prime Minister Viktor Chemomyrdin. In August he was appointed Minister of Science and Technology by President Boris Yeltsin.

“This is very good for us- I hope that Academician Fortov, as Minister of Sciences, may establish new and better conditions for the Academy of Sciences,” Brushlinsky said.

International Exchange

High among Brushlinsky’s priorities in his strategy to save the Institute of Psychology is a vigorous program of international exchanges. Programs with France and Germany appear to be the most important ones. They include support for Russian professors and students working abroad, joint research, and translation and publication of Russian works abroad and translation of French and German works into Russian. Notably, they support international conferences in Moscow. Brushlinsky is now working with German psychologists on plans for an early 1997 conference tentatively called “Science under Totalitarian Regimes” and focu sing on scientists at work during Stalin’s and Hitler’s reigns.

Brushlinsky clearly cherishes his Institute’s ties with American psychologists and organizations, even though they are not as formally structured or materially supportive, by and large, as the Institute’s ties with France and Germany.

But he does not hesitate to show his pique over what he sees as a wave of faddish, unscientific enthusiasm in America for the works of Lev Vygotsky and inadequate regard for the theories of Sergey Rubinstein, for example.

Rubinstein and his followers-Brushlinsky being certainly among the most eminent- hold that humans and their minds are first of all developed and revealed in practical activity. Brushlinsky states that this approach views speech and other symbolic communication as secondary, since they derive from the contacts the infant makes in practical activity. According to Brushlinsky, the whole of Vygotsky’s theory relies on an approach based on signs rather than activity, focusing not so much on the sensory system’s involvement in practical activity as on speech as a system of signs.

Brushlinsky said, “I agree that Vygotsky is a very interesting and important psychologist. But unfortunately many psychologists and other specialists abroad escape from dialogue concerning important aspects of Vygotsky’s theory. They cannot or will not participate in dialogue concerning Vygotsky’s theory, and so they become very one-sided,” dodging discussion because they cannot answer the critical questions that Russians and others would confront them with, he complained.

“It’s unfortunate than not only during Stalin’s regime but also today, Vygotsky and his theory are the victims again and again of propaganda and non-scientific approaches. Under Stalin, Vygotsky, after his death, was the victim of Stalin’s totalitarian decrees. And now, under a free society, Vygotsky is the victim of  ‘charismatization.’ But in both cases he is the victim of propaganda,” Brushlinsky said.

On the occasion of the hundredth anniversary of Vygotsky’s birth this year, Brushlinsky has published an article in which he points out numerous flaws and distortions in Vygotsky’s published texts and proposes to set them straight (Pervyeutochneniya texctov L.c. Vygostskovo).1 For example, where Vygotsky cited a statement by Leon Trotsky in the manuscript of one of his key works, Thought and Language, censors or editors had deleted Trotsky’s name and made the citation part of Vygotsky’s text.

Worries About the Future

Summing up his thoughts about the future of the Institute of Psychology, Brushlinsky said, “Russia is in a very difficult situation economically and politically at present … with little investment in Russian industry and a Communist party interested only in revenge [for what has happened to the country].” Brnshlinsky said the future of research depends on development of a Russian society that is flourishing economically and politically. He continued, “Only if we have stable financial support from the Ministry of Sciences or other government sources can we continue our research and enjoy freedom and clear perspectives. But if our institute becomes only an educational institute and not a research institute, that is a very bad situation.”

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