In the autumn of 2021, after graduating with a Ph.D. in Psychoanalytic Studies from the University of Essex and completing my post–doc at the University of Cambridge, I made the decision to return to my native country, Lithuania. Since then, I’ve been working at the historic Vilnius University as an Associate Professor in the Institute of Psychology. This transition significantly influenced my academic perspective: unlike comparable programs in the U.K. and the U.S., the Institute of Psychology is quite sizeable, encompassing various branches of and perspectives on psychology and psychoanalysis. While there are significant traces of Jungian psychoanalysis in the work of Lithuanian scholars and psychology students, Freud is placed somewhat confusingly in the psychology curriculum. This means that Freudian psychoanalysis is perceived more as part of the historical background than as a set of ideas for use in understanding the contemporary psyche.
This is mostly a consequence of the split between research and practice: psychoanalytic clinicians tend not to remain in the academic sphere. Freud’s ambiguous status is also an historical consequence of the years of Soviet occupation, during which psychoanalytic education was suppressed for ideological reasons. Psychoanalysis—and, indeed, much of psychology—had to negotiate a regime directly opposed to the capacity for individual self-reflection (Rasickaite 2022).
Thus, many of the pivotal psychoanalytic thinkers in U.S. and U.K. programs—including Melanie Klein and Donald Winnicott, whose work I regularly taught at Essex—tended to be excluded from the undergraduate psychology curriculum. Even now, object relational, relational, and self-psychological theories tend to be relegated to postgraduate courses that focus on clinical training rather than scholarly research.
The ambiguous place of psychoanalysis in the undergraduate psychology curriculum is certainly not unique to Lithuania. Over the past several decades, the emphasis on social and cognitive psychology in European and American universities has grown as well, while psychoanalytic theories of subjectivity have been minimized or entirely omitted (Yakushko and Hook 2017).
Nevertheless, based on my experience discussing key psychoanalytic concepts with undergraduates in several different countries, I knew that these concepts remained of great interest to undergraduates in many fields of study. Indeed, at Vilnius my students seem far less resistant to psychoanalytic instruction than their U.K. counterparts—perhaps because of the institutional integration of psychology and psychoanalysis. Unlike the exclusively psychoanalytic undergraduate programs in the U.K., the program at Vilnius seeks to expose students to a much wider variety of psychological and psychoanalytic schools of thought.
Yet a certain degree of skepticism and ambiguity continued to characterize the reception of psychoanalysis in Lithuanian education, chiefly as a consequence of the country’s history of periods of Soviet (1940–1941 and 1944–1990) and Nazi (1941-1944) occupation and oppression, during which psychoanalysis was suppressed as a pseudo–science potentially threatening to the collectivist and fascist ideologies, with its emphasis, as Frank Brenner points out, on individual worth, intimacy, resistance, and the capacity for self–reflection.
Lithuanian historian Tomas Vaiseta (2016) argues that Soviet psychology was primarily based on a Soviet political–medical model that lacked genuine interest in the interior lives of individuals and that focused instead on unifying political agendas. Dissidents, deviants, and rebels—including, of course, academics—were deemed to be of “unsound mind”—in other words, politically inconvenient and even dangerous. The term “psychoanalysis” itself was banned for decades, as if the mere suggestion of contemplating one’s inner life might encourage rebellion against the regime (Angelini 2008).
Yet like a repressed memory, psychoanalysis managed to find its way back into Lithuanian higher education. In the 1970s, doctoral students at Vilnius University were encouraged to study Freud’s theories, which were translated from into Lithuanian by psychiatrist and neurologist Juozas Blažys. In the 1980s and 90s, psychoanalytic associations and centres were established across the country, to serve various populations (Milašiūnas 2004), but they remained limited in number due to ongoing political and ideological opposition. Ultimately, the resurgence of psychoanalysis as a clinical model significantly influenced the undergraduate curriculum, as the close relationship between education and practice in Lithuania allowed for the teaching of psychoanalytic principles even in introductory psychology courses, as well as in more advanced clinical courses. This is still the case at Vilnius University. However, as a psychoanalytic academic, it seems to me that much of the psychoanalytic knowledge in the undergraduate program remains compromised in various ways.
When I joined the Institute of Psychology at Vilnius University, I was given the option to revive a disused module titled “Creativity of Psychology,” and I was given a blank slate to work with. Historically, creativity has been a difficult concept to study, research, and measure in clinical psychology, as it spans dozens of different disciplines and methodologies. From John R. Hayes’ focus on the development of unique works, to Frank Barron’s problem–solving, to Raymond B. Catell’s heightened sensitivity, I felt that psychoanalysis might have a place in this module, but it was unclear what that place would be. I proposed, alongside the traditional psychological authors and theories, to teach more psychoanalytic material as well.
For example, there is the rich creativity of Freud’s own thinking and writing. Creativity and play are also heavily emphasized in Winnicott’s work, particularly in relation to anxious and deprived children. Winnicott’s “squiggle” game became my students’ favourite activity; after all, they could certainly relate to the struggle to verbalize their experiences, and many of them had few other opportunities to express themselves through play in their lives as young adults. Winnicott’s departure from “heavier” psychoanalytic theorizing about repressed memories, trauma, difficult early relationships with caregivers, and the anxieties of psychosexual development has perhaps also helped make his work particularly refreshing for undergraduate students—helping them to see psychological struggle as a form of communication and a source of creativity rather than merely a set of pathologies.
I thought that students would also benefit from learning about how instrumental creativity and play can be in the therapeutic process and the therapeutic relationship, including in cases of trauma, post–traumatic growth, resilience, and sublimation. Teaching in the post–pandemic era as well as during the war waged by Russia in Ukraine made discussions of intergenerational trauma and the abundance of pain necessary—as was discussion of the creative processes to which the treatment of such afflications can lead. It was a teaching experience that I knew would have been starkly different in any Western institution, and as an academic I, too, appreciated the opportunity to stumble, in a playfully Winicottian sense, in my teaching technique and to rely more than usual on the intuitions and emotions I experienced in response to the distressing events in our sister country. After all, Lithuania, the Baltic countries, and much of Eastern Europe are once again witnessing a deep historical wound, comparable to our experience of earlier such wounds in our own lands. The unity, unfortunately created by this collective trauma, permeates day-to-day life, as well as clinical practice and the overall academic environment.
While teaching this new module, I felt a bit like a smuggler: I was smuggling psychoanalysis into a psychology module on creativity. Indeed, given the marginalized status of psychoanalysis in higher education generally, I often reflect on the act of “smuggling in psychoanalysis” as a way to preserve and transmit knowledge that might otherwise be lost or taught only superficially as a relic of the history of psychology. In fact, one might say that my university and country have a history intertwined with meaningful forms of smuggling. For instance, in an attempt to oppose Russian authorities’ efforts to replace the Lithuanian language with Russian, book smugglers or book carriers illegally transported Lithuanian books from as far away as the United States, to secretly teach children and resist Russification. Given today’s events, it feels apt now to smuggle psychoanalysis, as a discipline that was once deemed subversive by the Soviet apparatus—indeed, to help make it a discourse for understanding the current, incalculable levels of aggression on display, as well as our own reactions to it. In other words, psychoanalytic knowledge is both a reminder of our history and a coping strategy for the present.
As a discipline and academic community that places the study of resistance at its heart, psychoanalysis, too, has had its fair share of obstacles (both encountered and projected) to overcome—including opposition from psychology departments and training institutes. Smuggling in psychoanalysis continues to be a way of cultivating a more direct dialogue and collaboration with other disciplines and theories, creating opportunities to reintroduce our discipline into the broader curriculum and to allow psychoanalytically oriented academics to advocate for closer ties between theory and practice—something that students often identify as the “missing experience” in their psychology programs.
Angelini, Alberto. 2008. “History of the Unconscious in Soviet Russia: From its Origins to the Fall of the Soviet Union.” The International Journal of Psychoanalysis 89.2: 369–388.
Milašiūnas, Raimundas. 2004. Psichoanalizė: 100 klausimų ir atsakymų [Psychoanalysis: 100 questions and answers]. Tyto Alba: Vilnius.
Rasickaite, Igne. 2022. “The Fate of Psychology in Lithuanian Higher Education Institutions during World War II.” Lietuvos istorijos studijos 50: 110-129.
Vaiseta, Tomas. 2016. “Defining Model of Psychiatry in Soviet Lithuania: The Case of One Hospital.” Lietuvos katalikų mokslo akademijos metraštis 39: 151–172.
Yakushko, Oksana and Derek Hook. 2017. “Whatever Happened to the Human Experience in Undergraduate Psychology? Comment on the Special Issue on Undergraduate Education in Psychology. American Psychologist 72.2: 173–175.