Moscow’s Booming Psychology Industry


By Simon Green

There’s no doubt about it, in today’s difficult economic times, more and more people are turning to a third party for assistance with their turbulent lives. If you had asked me to give you a description of a psychologist back in my youth, I would have suggested a middle-aged man with a shock of unkempt hair, not entirely dissimilar to The Wild Man of Borneo, who would typically start the meeting with: “you’re fine, how am I?” Needless to say, I was dragged off to meet such a person when I was sixteen as my mother declared me to be insolent, surly and uncooperative – adjectives befitting a typical teenager in the 1970’s.

Ten minutes later I was out on my ear, having engaged him in meaningful dialogue, resulting in him gruffly announcing to my parents “there’s nothing wrong with him!” My mother was mortified saying “how can you do this to us and why did you ask the man so many questions? He’s one of the top psychologists around.” I shot back at her: “well he asked me lots of questions, and besides there’s nothing wrong with me.” My mother looked crestfallen, unbelievable, really, as it turned out I was not fundamentally flawed as she suspected, and her vitriolic expedition had backfired horribly- I had survived my first and last visit to a ‘Shrink.’

Moving forward some forty years, and it finds me here in Moscow tracking down some modern psychologists to interview who were considerably easier on the eye in most cases than the one I had encountered. I first had the pleasure of meeting Olga Zotova at one of our PICnic group conversation club get togeth`ers, and she fired questions at me relentlessly at the rate of a Kalashnikov. Olga is an attractive lady in her mid thirties who had many years in advertising before embarking on the psychology mission. Her clients comprise of 75% women and she operates under two main maxims: 1) “something hurts in my life”, and: 2) “everything is ok but I want something more.”

The former state often leads to depression with suicidal ramifications, and Olga has adopted a British protégé, John Henden, who is an acknowledged expert in his field with books to his credit: “Preventing Suicide-The Solution Focused Approach,” where he explains that “most clients respond well to the statement that suicidal feelings are normal and experienced by normal people in response to abnormal situations.”

However difficult the client’s situation is, Olga tries to apply a position (stance, maxim) taken from narrative practice: “the person is not the problem, the problem is the problem.

Russia has the highest underage suicide rate in Europe, especially with ‘NEETS’ – young people not in employment or education. School psychologist Ekaterina Zherdeva says that conflicts with parents and school friends contribute significantly, but only 10% actually want to escape life: “Teenagers think that they will die, everyone will come to their funeral and mourn, regret, and realize how good they were and how they were under-appreciated. Then they will have a movie made about them and suddenly life becomes beautiful and amazing- unfortunately teenagers don’t understand death very well.”

I myself encountered suicide at close quarters when my best friend had been enjoying Christmas Eve drinks with us in 1988, bid us a cheerful farewell, and went home to his wife where relations were at a low ebb. Two hours later he rang me up and talked me through his death as he had secured the exhaust pipe of his car into the car and so gassed himself to death. I tore around every conceivable place to locate him, had phoned the police too, but at 07.00 the next morning a knock at the door confirmed our worst fears. The question still remains today- why? I saw no outward signs that would propagate this ghastly final act, and hope that nowadays people would feel able to talk to a trained professional about such issues.

Olga has a very pleasant disposition and it is easy to see why people open up to her. She also possesses a natural ability to ask questions in a manner, which coerces people into conversation with her. Many of the issues she discusses revolve around relationship problems which is why men prefer not to seek counselling and many women are reticent due to lack of knowledge among many Russians as well as it being perceived as weak or lazy by one’s own peers who could give you advice for nothing!

Meet husband and wife team, Vadim Petrovskiy and Marina Borodenko. Vadim is in his mid-sixties, still practicing avidly, and is generally considered to be the doyen of the psychology industry here. He has an avuncular appearance and kindly manner, and has some thirty years experience in this field. Originally he was a mathematician and his father was a famous psychologist who encouraged Vadim into the same field by nature of his prolific reading, and the fact that maths and psychology were intricately interwoven due to the complexities of both subjects.

By 1985 he was lecturing at university and was perpetually bombarded with questions from psychology students to which he had no answer. Looking to fuel his desire for further knowledge in this industry, he stumbled upon a hitherto impossible book to procure in Russia: Eric Berne’s ‘Transactional Analysis.’ The T.A theory encapsulates the foundational pillars of adult, child and parent with respective communications and sequential life patterns. He also familiarized himself with existential analysis and logotherapy, enabling a person to live their life with inner consent. Once equipped with these theories, it provided the perfect platform with which to enter the profession.

Vadim built his client base via cafe meetings and 66% of his clients are women. “They entered my premises as naive young girls but exited as mature women” – many of them got married soon after his consultations. Most of the problems he hears about are work related, infidelity, relationships with children, depression, sexual inadequacy and panic attacks; Vadim finds it easy to detach himself emotionally.

Marina has been in the business for 29 years since 1987, and at that time only 150-175 people in the whole of Russia graduated in psychology. She was a professional rhythmic gymnast until aged sixteen when her parents’ painful divorce put paid to further career development. After graduating she had 12 clients a day, mainly alcoholics, so there was no shortage of work in those days she said. Nowadays she restricts herself to four consultations a day, with 75% being women and 25% being men aged 25-35 with love addictions that go south. Although Marina has been a supervisor for 15 years, she still maintains a mentor just in case she needs a second opinion.

My final interview was with Elena Stankovskaya, another very attractive lady who combines effervescence and a demure manner with consummate ease. Her skills lie in a technique that combines gentle prodding and probing to put clients at ease and open up. She abides by the tried and trusted old school method, promoted by her mentor, the aforementioned Vadim, and relates to that oft-quoted line of Ophelia’s in Hamlet: “We know what we are, but not what we may be.”

Elena possesses a highly infectious giggle which alas doesn’t come into play as much as she would like in her line of work. Her mother is a doctor, but daughter opted for mental in lieu of physical repair, and has been enjoying success via referrals for the last nine years, largely due to her relaxed ‘bedside manner’ with clients. She combines work with her university – the higher school of economics – and her clients are 90% women. Issues such as lack of self-esteem and relationship problems, which rear their ugly head even with their mothers, and work problems all form part of life’s rich tapestry presented to her.

I ask about any unusual and tricky confrontations and was told about a lady with low esteem and anger issues, almost to the point of being self-pugilistic, who suddenly unleashed a volley of vituperative invective in her direction before barging out of the door. She returned next week in cheerful mode as if nothing had happened. Another lady had had a life-changing experience behind the wheel resulting in a severe loss of confidence and needed careful navigation back to previous confidence levels. I then ask if she’s put me into any particular category: “Oh you’re completely f.u.b.a.r,” she says laughingly ( a slang term I rather regretted introducing her to a few months previously); “tell me something I don’t know,” I retort!

Sense of humour has to be well-judged and appropriate, and interestingly none of the people interviewed had it prioritised. As Lena said, many people are talking to her due to relationship problems going sour, with accompanying bitter recriminations. A famous U.S humourist once remarked: “Instead of getting married again, I’m just going to find a woman I don’t like and give her a house!” Personally I’ve found that humour often gets you through the darker periods of life as was echoed by another entertainer: “Through humour, you can often soften the blow that life delivers; and once you find laughter, no matter how painful your situation might be, you can survive it.”