In the early years of the Cold War, a spate of social scientific projects based in institutions in the US emerged that sought to define the ‘Soviet mind’. The People of Great Russia (1949) by anthropologist Geoffrey Gorer, with contributions by British psychoanalyst John Rickman, argued that the ‘national character’ of the people of ‘Great Russia’, on either side of the 1917 October Revolution, could be understood by examining experiences of early infancy.
Gorer, who had been conducting research as part of the Columbia University project Research in Contemporary Cultures since 1947, was struck in his discussions with his colleagues in New York, who were Russian emigres, that they had almost all been swaddled as babies. He claimed that swaddling practices in the region were distinctive because babies were regularly released from their bandages in order to be breast fed. Periods of lonely constriction were punctuated by moments of warm intimacy. He proposed that the oscillation between being tied and untied, constrained then freed, isolated then cuddled was a key that could unlock the psyche of adults in both the Tsarist Russian Empire and the Soviet Union who oscillated ‘between unconscious fears of isolation and loneliness, and an absence of feelings of individuality so that the self is, as it were, merged with its peers in a ‘soul-collective’.’
This paper will explore Gorer’s methods, his theoretical discussions with Rickman (whose contribution to The People of Great Russia consisted of vignettes about Russian peasant life written while he was stationed as a doctor with the Friends’ War Victims Relief Unit in 1916-1918, prior to his psychoanalytic training), and the critical reception with which the theory was met both in the Soviet Union and among Russian emigres in the US and UK.
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