East-West Church & Ministry Report
Vol. 11, No. 3, Summer 2003, Covering the Former Soviet Union and Central and Eastern Europe


Book Review

Behind Invisible Walls: The Psychological Legacy of Soviet Trauma, East European Therapists and Their Patients, edited by Jacob D. Lindy and Robert Jay Lifton (New York: Brunner-Routledge, 2001).

Reviewed by Dennis O. Bowen.

Anie Kalayjian, an Armenian psychologist, came from the United States in 1988 to visit and comfort survivors of the Armenian earthquake. She was frightened one night when a black van with Soviet bureaucrats was waiting for her. She thought, of course, they were KGB agents. She recalled the family stories of how, in that part of the world, the ultimate nightmare always arrived with people in a black van. Her only option was to go with them.

She was surprised later when one of the middle-aged bureaucrats with her began to weep at the sight of the devastation, grief, and casualties. He took her aside and began to tell his story. "I can't let anyone know that I was crying." He told her that he was angry, not only because he had lost his daughter in the earthquake, but because of the Soviet system and its blunders and faceless uncaring mechanical policies that allowed a tragedy of such magnitude, with few ways to provide help to the survivors.

Underneath all the anger at the Soviet system was another secret, the inability to share his happiness on the day Stalin died. When his son came home from school that day in 1953, this bureaucrat shed staged tears of grief to keep from being reported to the authorities. And underneath was the anger that Stalin had allowed the massacres and pogroms against Armenians since 1923.

In their recent book, Behind Invisible Walls, Jacob Lindy and Robert Jay Lifton describe two kinds of walls that make up the culture of trauma in the post-Iron Curtain countries of Eastern Europe. There are walls that "unconsciously preserve outmoded ways of adaptation" and walls that perpetuate the denial and silence among the generations of families who suffered these traumas.

We all are familiar with the legacy of the Soviet era in which approximately 60 million people died in the Soviet Union alone. In this book we get a glimpse into the psychological trauma resulting from this dark period. The authors tell us there is virtually no one living in the countries behind the former Iron Curtain who did not have a family member who suffered physical, psychological, or political trauma, or death as a result of repression and abuse.

Behind Invisible Walls explores these phenomena by recounting some of the historical data as context. More important, eight therapists from six different former Iron Curtain countries (Hungary, East Germany, Romania, Russia, Croatia, and Armenia) share case studies of their work with 13 patients. These patient-therapist stories bring alive the themes of healing from trauma, but they go beyond simple clinical reports. The vignettes also explore therapists' lives that were also traumatized. They had no choice but to perform their work as a new type of wounded healer.

Soviet-era therapists attempted to find a new language of healing, given the limitations of Marxist, dialectical materialist vocabulary permitted by the state. They learned a little of the psychoanalytic thought that trickled in from the West while they searched for a vocabulary of healing during their careers. Dissident writers provided another vocabulary of healing--a vocabulary of the soul for the therapists. In their struggle to learn how to administer healing to the traumatized, they described finding a "humanistic" vocabulary from dissidents, poets, and writers such as playwright Vaclav Havel. (They use the term"humanistic" in the sense of being life affirming and not part of Marxist vocabulary.) They took this new vocabulary in order to find a language to attempt healing for the traumatized and to understand themselves and their own trauma.

In the emotional climate of Soviet times, strategies and defenses that contributed to survival actually intensified the trauma, as people had to construct "false selves." People lived in paranoia, despair, and had no choice but to live a lie. Psychiatry and psychology were themselves victims of the oppressive system and also were required to become perpetrators of trauma.

This book is essential reading for anyone planning to work in the social services in any post-Soviet state. It is also recommended for those needing additional depth of understanding regarding the cultural and personality characteristics of people who lived through the Soviet era. Therapists and their patients speak to us of the determination and the creativity of the human spirit in a time of utter spiritual darkness.

Dennis O. Bowen earned a Ph.D. in clinical psychology from the Illinois School of Professional Psychology in 1992. He is a missionary with the Evangelical Free Church Mission and lives in Moscow.


Book Review, East-West Church & Ministry Report 11 (Summer 2003), 2.

Written permission is required for reprinting or electronic distribution of any portion of the East-West Church & Ministry Report.

2003 East-West Church and Ministry Report
ISSN 1069-5664



EWC&M Report | Contents | Search Back Issues | From Our Readers | Subscribe
Feedback