High Concept

Psychotherapy While-U-Wait

Russia’s newest fad.

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.

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:

“And my aunt went out on the balcony and–bang!--and she got shot, and there was all this blood, and now she is in bed,” says one.

“When they started shelling, my dad pulled me out of bed and my mom was thrown back against the door, and there is this huge hole in my bed where the shell hit,” says another.

Mikhailov takes the kids on three at a time, offering an endless variety of ways to banish their fears. As soon as the children provide these accounts of their traumas, they happily go to work destroying them (with “reimprinting,” presumably, as well as “V/K dissociation”). Under Mikhailov’s supervision, a 13-year-old boy enthusiastically pours imaginary solvent onto his mental film of the war. A 10-year-old haunted by the sound of falling bombs imagines them flying into bottomless pits in the earth and never exploding. The memories are supposedly obliterated.

There could hardly be a better example of how quick-fix therapy thrives in a vacuum than here in Chechnya. Gaisa Salgiriyev, chief doctor of a hospital in the mountain village of Shatoy, remembers first hearing about the psychological consequences of war in March 1995, when a group of visiting English doctors asked him whether he had enough staff psychologists to deal with the looming problem. “I laughed and said, ‘Chechens will never have psychological trauma,’ ” says Salgiriyev. “Then suddenly, old people started dying. I would ask if they’d been sick, and hear, ‘No, just sort of weary.’ Then children started dying, especially mentally retarded ones. The parents would say, ‘No, he wasn’t sick–just kept asking to stop the shooting.’ ” Soon, kids with traumas were filling the hospitals. Salgiriyev contacted the international relief organization Medicins du Monde, asking for help. Now, a French psychiatrist is prescribing unheard-of French drugs while Nadezhda Vladislavova, a former actress, leads the NLP training.

One of Vladislavova’s patients is a middle-aged artist who is haunted by images of dead friends with whom he failed to resolve a conflict. Vladislavova wastes no time trying to explore the conflict. Instead, she steers her client straight toward forgiveness.

“Do you think Allah wants you to forgive them?” she asks.

“Oh, yes, Allah is very generous. But the problem is, the cells of my body remember the pain they caused me and they are resisting. The two sets of cells are fighting among themselves.”

“Let’s wait for them to fight it out.”

Vladislavova’s optimism is infectious. “They’ve now stopped fighting and started arguing,” the patient says suddenly. “They are saying, ‘All right, let it be as you wish.’ “

“The most valuable sort of forgiveness is the kind that has not come easily,” Vladislavova offers by way of reinforcement. She has him project images of his dead friends onto a mental painting.

“There are these strange shapes glistening in the painting now–let me see what they are,” the man says. “It is a green leaf, like the leaf of a hazelnut tree, except twice the size. It looks a lot like the depiction of a lover’s heart, except elongated. The men are lighter now. Now they are passing on into the clouds. I feel so free, so light at heart, in this area. I had this tension before, starting in my feet, and now it is gone.”

Vladislavova schedules another appointment for the man. He is a difficult case, she explains, with multiple physical symptoms; he will require more than one session.

Not everyone is as happy as Vladislavova about NLP’s widespread application. “I hope that NLP will eventually become as marginal here as it is in the United States,” says Krol. Indeed, there is hope. “I am getting bored with NLP,” one practitioner said to me. “Ever since I discovered Gestalt, I have been using that more and more.”