Mozart of psychology
[b]Lev Vygotsky is much revered by those interested in psychology, pedagogics and art. His colleagues called him a Mozart of psychology, ranking him alongside Sigmund Freud and William James. The founder of the study of artificial intelligence lived in Gomel from the age of 1, which shaped his scientific personality.[/b]On November 17th, 1896, Lev was the second child born to theVygodsky family, in Orsha. Interestingly, he changed the ‘d’ to a ‘t’ in adulthood, inspired by a desire to emphasise that his family never sought out advantages [‘Vygodsky’ is based on ‘vygoda’ which means ‘benefit’ in Russian — editor]. The family moved to Gomel just before his first birthday, settling inGinzburg’s house (where they rented a flat) in the centre of Gomel. It now houses the regional philharmonic orchestra.
On November 17th, 1896, Lev was the second child born to theVygodsky family, in Orsha. Interestingly, he changed the ‘d’ to a ‘t’ in adulthood, inspired by a desire to emphasise that his family never sought out advantages [‘Vygodsky’ is based on ‘vygoda’ which means ‘benefit’ in Russian — editor]. The family moved to Gomel just before his first birthday, settling inGinzburg’s house (where they rented a flat) in the centre of Gomel. It now houses the regional philharmonic orchestra.
I learnt about Vygotsky around five years ago, at Gomel’s FrantsiskSkorina State University. It was hosting a scientific-practical conference devoted to Lev’s works. Those present were proud to note that he was their countryman, living and working in Gomel — although he is mentioned as a Soviet scientist in encyclopaedia.
Some time later, I met Anatoly Kuzmich (now dead) who prepared the first exposition devoted to the scientist at Gomel’s Vygotsky Pedagogical College; the educational establishment was named after the brilliant scientist back in 1996. He happily shared his finds with me, saying, “We have theatrical posters from those times, as well as invitation cards to hear Vygotsky’s report and a report on the decision to establish a laboratory at our Pedagogical School — now known as a college.”
Coming to see the exhibition, I hear of two British tourists who were very surprised to see Mr. Vygotsky’s portrait and to learn that he worked at Gomel’s College. His early life saw him graduate from the Ratner Men’s Gymnasium, with honours, gaining entry to Moscow University’s Medical Department. However, he switched to law within a single month and his passion for philosophy and literature later guided him to the Shanyavsky People’s University in Moscow (known for its strong lecturing approach). It employed such legends as Timiryazev, Vernadsky, Chebyshev, Zelinsky, Blonsky and Gotie. In this way, Vygotsky began to study psychology...
Like others students in need of money, he combined his studies with a job at a small magazine, working as technical secretary. This inspired him to review new books and to write his critique on Shakespeare’s Hamlet. Later, famous Soviet Shakespeare expert Professor Anikst wrote: ‘I’ve been studying Shakespeare for the pastsixty years but, on readingVygotsky’s work on Hamlet, I’ve realised that this 19 year old man is a genius’.
Lev returned to Gomel in the revolutionary year of 1917, welcomed by his large family. Some of his relatives were suffering from tuberculosis, requiring his support, so he remained in the city for seven years.
He initially taught private lessons to earn a living but, within two years, was offered a place lecturing in Russian language and literature at Gomel’s Soviet Labour School. He also worked at some professional technical schools and at the People’s Conservatory, teaching diverse courses. In 1922, Vygotsky accepted an offer to lecture in psychology at the Pedagogical College where, the following year, he set upan experimental psychology room, conducting research, which he wrote up through various papers.
In 1924, he was invited to speak at a scientific-practical conference on reflexology in Petrograd (now St. Petersburg), due to the absence of the original speaker. His report so impressed everyone that an invitation to Moscow was forthcoming. There, his evening lectures attracted the city’s most eminent minds; peopleeven leant through windows to listen.
By the age of 37, Vygotsky had written around 200 scientific works but, in the summer of 1934, died from tuberculosis. His works were banned for decades, although Western scientists studied them. Russia and Belarus allowed them to reappear in the 1990s, with his theories on child psychology enjoying tremendous popularity.
Natalia Dudal, a senior lecturer at Gomel’s Frantsisk Skorina State University Psychology Department, offers me a cup of tea while taking down a heavy file. I’m expecting to hear something sensational and Ms. Dudal confirms, “We have made some new discoveries but I’ll explain in stages. Our department has a history of studying Lev Vygotsky; we hold conferences on his works and organiseannual seminars. Moreover, we keep in touchwith Lev’s relatives: his daughter Gita when she was alive and, now, his granddaughter, Yelena Kravtsova. She heads the Vygotsky Institute of Psychology in Moscow. Two years ago, we launched a student project to collect materials connected with Vygotsky’s life in Gomel. The regional archives and Gomel’s Palace-and-Park Estatewere able to assist us greatly.”
Over two years, teachers and students discovered over 70 documents.Ms.Dudal recollects with a smile the enthusiasm that the project aroused. Those involved clung to any sheet bearing Vygotsky’s signature or family name. They scanned and photographed documents and, sometimes, re-wrote papers by hand — as it was impossible to restore them. Only a handfulare completely new but among them are reports by Vygotsky on how to test for psychological characteristics, with a view to offering career advice to students. “These studies retain relevance today, although the report requires further work,” admits Ms. Dudal.
Other rare finds include an application form for employment, in which Lev notes his job as head of a theatrical studio. Ms. Dudal indicates the date, telling me, “Certificates were extended each month, as was natural in those years: nobody knew whether tomorrow would come. We’ve sent a copy to Moscow’s Vygotsky Institute of Psychology, which plans to re-publish a collection of his works. The first volume will be devoted to Lev’s theatrical activity — part of his ‘Gomel’ biography. Vygotsky travelled to Moscow, Kiev, Saratov and Petrograd, inviting famous theatrical troupes to perform in Gomel. Our city was a notable venue, viewed as one of the most theatrical in Soviet Russia.”
No doubt, the Psychology Department will continue its work on those years, as teachers and students alike are eager to discover more about Vygotsky’s time in Gomel, creating a legacy for their native city.
By Inga Popova