In a 1968 issue of Technology and Youth – the relentlessly upbeat Soviet journal that popularised the wonders of modern science – we find an article that titillates the reader’s interest in telepathy, even as it purports to convey the (inconclusive) results of serious scientific experiments conducted by a team of researchers at what was then Leningrad State University (Saint Petersburg State University in the post-Soviet era).
The article begins with the known: an electrocardiogram records the electrical activity of the heart over a period of time, just as electrodes placed on a person’s scalp can record the electrical activity of the brain. But what if we refine our instruments until they can reliably pick up the electrical signature of a person’s “aura” – the energetic field that hovers around each individual body? Pavel Gulyaev, the lead researcher, soberly explains that the proposed “electroauragram” will allow us to eventually record the micro-shimmers we generate with every twitch of a nerve – in fact, even just thinking about something produces a biological charge in our personal electrical field. In the Soviet Union, just as in the West, talking about aura colours and energies was a fad; meanwhile, as Wladimir Velminski recounts here, Soviet scientists were taking the possibility of “brain waves, mind control, and telepathic destiny” very seriously.
A long footnote in the book’s first chapter tells us that all of Gulyaev’s papers were entrusted to the author, and that he intends to use this “wealth of material” to more fully investigate Gulyaev’s legacy. We can hope that this project materialises, because Gulyaev’s quest to uncover the material, energetic basis of thought communication is both fascinating and – in one possible interpretation – typical of a kind of Soviet science fictional romanticism.
“What if”, Gulyaev wonders, “our electromagnetic fields expand through space with the speed of light…[so that] all people on earth are connected to each other by the electric [beating] fields of their hearts”? Velminski, however, does not find any geeky curiosity or genuine cultural impulse behind the blurring of boundaries between Soviet scientific and spiritual imaginations. The thesis of this very slim, episodic history of Soviet experiments in telepathy, he argues, is that they “were meant to reach the brain of a whole society, propagate there, and establish uniformity of thought”. As far back as arguments made by Leon Trotsky, he adds, “the operations of the ‘soul’ were [to be] determined and directed by electromagnetic stimuli”. The nefarious agenda of psychobiological research lasted until the collapse of the USSR, when the popular televised seances led by hypnotist and clinical psychotherapist Anatoly Kashpirovsky represented, says Velminski, “the last effort of Soviet power to initiate citizens into the mysteries of the communist apparatus”.
The problem with this thesis is that it makes the book’s examples of Soviet research on the edge of the paranormal far less interesting. Each short chapter bursts with tantalising anecdotes about the quest for direct extrasensory communication, but none of it matters, in this author’s telling, except to show us that the Soviet Union was hell-bent on finding more effective ways to thoroughly brainwash its own citizens. Fortunately, this overly politicised view has been countered elsewhere by historians of Soviet science; unfortunately, it takes more than a bit of telepathic empathy on the part of the reader to get through the awkward translation (from German) to find the hidden gems in Velminski’s “wealth of material”.
Yvonne Howell, professor of Russian and international studies, University of Richmond.
Homo Sovieticus: Brain Waves, Mind Control, and Telepathic Destiny
By Wladimir Velminski, translated by Erik Butler
MIT Press, 128pp, £14.95
ISBN 9780262035699 and 2338011 (e-book)
Published 3 March 2017