Peter Pomerantsev

From salivating dogs to mass indoctrination: Pavlov’s sinister legacy

Joel E. Dimsdale describes the refinement of thought-manipulation over the past century, as rival ideologies competed for control of the mind

Pavlov with members of his staff and one the dogs he experimented on. [Getty Images]

When two post-Soviet supermodels committed suicide in the noughties, both throwing themselves off high buildings in New York and Kiev, the trail into what made them so depressed led to a ‘personality development’ organisation in Moscow that offered ‘trainings’ that would help ‘find your truer self’.

The moment you entered the dark Stalinist gothic theatre, filled with dozens of other ‘students’, you were under the control of the ‘life coach’. Drawing confusing pictures on a whiteboard, he would talk quickly and loudly about ‘transformation’. Then came days of non-stop psychiatric-style exercises. People went on stage and were instructed to recite their most traumatic past experiences. Some talked about rape, others about bullying. The life coach would turn on them and scream that this was all their fault; they had allowed all this to happen and now he would make them strong. Humiliation was followed by elation, confession by group ecstasy, weeping by wild laughter. It seemed to the attendees that they felt real emotion for the first time, could be themselves, and that the outside world, their families and professional lives were all fake. From early morning to late evening you were forbidden to leave the hall, even to go to the toilet.

After a week you were told to sign up for the next, more expensive course. Everyone complied. Even journalists who had gone in to investigate the organisation crumbled. When agents of the life coach called them, which they did constantly, and told them to enrol for future courses or else miss out on their ‘transformation’, they reacted like Pavlov’s dogs to words that had been incessantly repeated at the ‘trainings’. Those words set off the memory of super-intense emotions and tough investigative reporters turned to putty on the phone.

The ‘courses’ ultimately operated much like a pyramid scheme: if you wanted to stay, you had to bring in more people.

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