Wednesday, 10 May 2017


The fate of Vygotskii's brain

death mask

I have only just learned about L. S Vygotskii's brain. Following his death 1934, it was removed and preserved, for 'research'. It seems that it remains preserved in the Museum of the Moscow Brain Research Institute – along those of a lot of other esteemed Soviet citizens –

I have come across this in a long, unpaginated article by contemporary Russian artist Arsenii Zhilyaev, published in the US in the latest issue of the monthly art-theory journal e-flux. The relevant passage quoted below appears on the article's penultimate page –

the Pantheon of the USSR. The project belongs to the renowned Soviet neuropathologist and psychiatrist Vladimir Bekhterev, one of the pioneers of reflexology. In the final years of his life Bekhterev became convinced of the need to create an institution that would study the brains of leading Soviet citizens with the aim of finding connections between the physiological features of the cerebral cortex and the individual’s mental abilities. Bekhterev called for a special legislative act requiring the brains of all prominent Soviet citizens to be extracted at their death and delivered by a special commission to the institution in question. In addition to its research activities, the Pantheon of USSR would also house an exhibition hall showcasing actual brain specimens, plaster casts and molds, as well as products of the individuals’ creative activities, and biographical information and psychological profiles based on data from close relatives and associates of the deceased.

Bekhterev was a prominent figure, occupying the influential position of director of the Leningrad Institute for Reflexology, and his proposals received considerable attention at the highest level. Bekhterev’s remarks calling for the creation of the Pantheon were printed in Izvestiya, one of the most widely read papers of the time. The launch of the project was, moreover, to mark the ten-year anniversary of the Bolshevik Revolution. But before his plans could be realized, Bekhterev died unexpectedly, under circumstances that remain mysterious. A commission convened for the occasion resolved to cede the project’s mission to the already existing Institute for the Study of the Brain, which at that point already possessed Lenin’s brain and would soon receive Bekhterev’s own. This marks the beginning of the history of the successor project to the Pantheon, which continues to this day. We know that the collection of the Institute for the Study of the Brain was significantly enlarged in the 1920s and ’30s, receiving, among others, the brains of the following citizens: the poet Andrei Bely; Alexander Bogdanov; psychologist and Marxist philosopher Lev Vygotsky; writer Maksim Gorky; fellow revolutionary and Lenin’s wife, Nadezhda Krupskaya; prominent party and cultural leader Anatoly Lunacharsky; poet Vladimir Mayakovsky; physiologist Ivan Pavlov; leader of the international Communist movement Clara Zetkin; and one of the founding fathers of the Soviet space program, Konstantin Tsiolkovsky...

Ironical? Lev Semenovich formulated the social-historical understanding of human mental development, arising out of the active interplay with material, especially social activity...etc. Understanding this is not advanced by dissecting dead brains, certainly not the long-dead, preserved brain of L.S. Vygotskii, but through active involvement with living practical process... again etc.(n.p.).

A matter of small importance now perhaps. Many years ago L. S.'s daughter, the late Gita Vygodskya, took me to the grave of her father and her mother in Novodevichii Cemetry in Moscow, where he lies among the great and the good – and the not so good. I had no inkling of this then.I ought however, to have spotted it along the way before now.
If you would like to follow this further, Alla A.Vein and Marion L. C. Maat-Schieman published an academic report nine years ago. There is also what looks to be an interesting article, by Jochen Richter, locked away behind a journal-publisher's pay-barrier, at:

It looks like no autopsy report on the brain of L. S. Vygotskii has been published.


Vein, A. A., Maat-Schieman , M. L. C. (2008) Famous Russian brains: historical attempts to understand intelligence, Brain, vol. 131, pp. 583-590
Zhilyaev, A. (2017) Tracing avant-garde museology, e-flux journal, no 82 (n.p.)

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