Psychotherapy While-U-Wait

Better ideas.
Jan. 16 1997 3:30 AM

Psychotherapy While-U-Wait

Russia's newest fad.

Illustration by Whiting Tennis

So your whole world has collapsed, along with your country. You lost your house to war, your son to crime, your husband to the bottle. You're afraid of everything, and you have more physical symptoms than a medical textbook. Been there. Cured that. Ten sessions, tops. Hell, in a few months you'll be treating people yourself.

Advertisement

What is a culture that's changing faster than you can say "psychotherapy" to do with all its walking wounded? There's little time in Russia to devote to mental health. Even if there were more, the choice between post-Soviet psychiatry and post-Soviet psychology would hardly inspire confidence. Psychiatry in the Soviet Union served the task of enforcing uniformity, punishing and shutting in people different in behavior or thought. Psychology, with its decadent focus on the individual, barely existed. In the perestroika years, psychological institutions began taking their first tentative steps into Freudian psychoanalysis. But many aspiring helpers sought to bypass the process of catching up with the West by adopting something new and, preferably, easy to transplant.

"If you tell somebody in Russia now that, in order to offer psychological help, he has to learn something like psychoanalysis, and that in 20 years he will be qualified to start work," says Andrei Vinogradov, a Moscow therapist, "it will be simply offensive."

"In Russia," says Moscow psychotherapist Leonid Krol, "we skip everything preliminary, everything unnecessary, that people in the West have been doing for a hundred years, and start with the most progressive technology or method or school." Krol spent the late 1980s and early 1990s organizing seminars led by proponents of a variety of American and Western European psychotherapeutic schools. By far the most successful among these was the one Vinogradov now teaches: Neuro-Linguistic Programming, or NLP, a quick-fix treatment that's used for purposes from teaching businesspeople to negotiate to treating patients traumatized by war.

NLP originated in Santa Cruz, Calif., in the late 1970s, as a way for people bent on success to improve their communication skills. It has moved from the margins of the American self-improvement movement to a fair prominence in Europe and stardom in Russia. The first NLP training seminar in Russia in 1991 inspired the formation of three different NLP training centers in Moscow alone (Krol's among them). Soon they branched out to other major cities, as NLP claimed a niche in the popular imagination. These days, tabloids refer to it casually, by its initials; they view it as a technique that allows its adherents to control the thoughts and behavior of others.

To the weary American eye, NLP looks like a set of clichés borrowed from any number of psychotherapeutic schools. To Russians, that makes it ideal. "It's like with McDonald's," explains Krol. "People stood in long lines when McDonald's first opened [in Russia in 1990], because it was, after all, a real American restaurant. NLP is a real American method."

The components of NLP carry such names as "V/K dissociation," "aligning logical levels," "belief change cycle," and "reimprint." These techniques fit within models, some of which are called "submodalities," "transderivational search," "the meta model," and "semantic primes"--which may not tell us much about NLP, but goes a long way toward explaining its popularity in a country weaned on the scientific method. NLPers claim to observe "successful" behavior and "model" it, creating strategies that can be used by others. Every NLP practitioner is armed with sheets of neatly arranged tables containing inscrutably important terms.

NLP also offers a reassuringly clear hierarchy, like a simplified version of the Communist Party, or Amway. Depending on the number of seminars attended, adherents may be called "practitioners," "masters," or "trainers." Masters can train others to become practitioners, trainers can train masters, but only the specially privileged can instruct trainers. However, with a mere 15 days of study required at each level, both self-perpetuation and ambition are assured. The heads of various NLP-training institutions estimate there are between 300 and 400 master-level NLPers in Russia, and the number of practitioners is three or four times greater.

At a school in the Chechen capital of Grozny, Alexander Mikhailov, a Moscow research psychiatrist, uses NLP to treat children traumatized by the war. He shoves a sheet of NLP tables at me and points his yellow fingernail at a line titled "Visual." A kid is saying something about seeing death in the war, and Mikhailov ecstatically thumps his finger on the piece of paper every time the kid's eyes dart rightward or downward, exactly as the sheet says respondents are supposed to. Mikhailov is convinced the method works.

These kids are obliging with their memories:

  Slate Plus
Slate Picks
Dec. 19 2014 4:15 PM What Happened at Slate This Week? Staff writer Lily Hay Newman shares what stories intrigued her at the magazine this week.