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Learning to Find Yourself

Tonight's theme is "childhood scripts." Five men and three women, ranging in age from 25 to 40, sit in a circle in the living room of a spacious, recently renovated downtown Moscow apartment and talk about how they think their traumatic childhood experiences might be affecting their lives today. Emotions are running high.

"It's very hard for me to open up to people because my parents never showed their feelings when I was little," complained Igor, 39, a self-made businessman who owns a pharmaceutical company with offices across Russia. "And sex of course was the most taboo subject in our family."

"Igor, please, sit down next to an empty chair over here and imagine your mom were next to you. What would you want to ask her about?" Vadim Petrovsky, one of the two therapists in the room, and the school's founder, suggested. Igor blushed, but then obediently switched chairs. A small psychotherapy session ensued while the rest of the class quietly sipped green tea and took notes.

Ten years ago, this scene would have been hard to imagine and 20 years ago, it would simply have been inconceivable. During the Soviet era, the word "psychotherapy" carried the stigma of mental illness, or, worse, with "psikhushki," Soviet-era prison-like mental health facilities where dissidents were locked up for years. The few psychiatrists who worked in the state clinics treated patients only with severe pathologies.
Things slowly began to change in the early 1990s when Western books on psychology became accessible in Russia. As public interest grew, psychology became more and more popular as a science and as a profession. But it took another decade for ordinary Russians to start gradually opening up to the idea of actually attending therapy.

"If we talk about Moscow, there's definitely a therapy boom here," said Petrovsky, a therapist with more than 25 years of experience who also teaches at a number of Russia's top schools including the Psychology Department of Moscow State University and the Higher School of Economics. Petrovsky said that within the last five years, his clientele grew by at least 30 percent. He charges $200 per session, although the average price of a private psychotherapy session is between $50-70. Even so, he said he gets calls from new clients almost every day.

"As incomes grow, more people are able to afford therapy," said Petrovsky, whose clients include famous Russian politicians, movie stars and high-profile businessmen. Still, he insists that it is not just fashion or a whimsy for the rich and powerful.

"People began to realize that the tools they acquire through therapy could significantly improve their careers, relationships and life in general," he said. To make his services accessible to a less affluent clientele, four months ago Petrovsky and his wife Marina, also a therapist, started the Night School of Psychology. Despite the somewhat odd schedule--classes take place in their apartment from 10 p.m. till about 2.30 a.m. every Wednesdayall the available spots were taken in less than a week. The price is $50 per class and the entire course takes four months.

"It's a school for successful individuals who want to learn but are too busy to do so during the day. Besides, towards the night, people tend to speak their minds and souls more openly," Petrovsky said, when asked why he had chosen such unusual hours. "I'm a night owl anyway, and I guess so happen to be my students," he added, laughing.
Nevertheless, many believe that the idea of going to a therapist remains quite novel to Russians. "Many people think, Why would I pay someone to listen to me? I can always talk to friends'," said Julia Gurina, a businesswoman and a newly certified gestalt therapist.

Gurina, 30, who co-owns a small event-management company, became interested in psychology and tried doing therapy when she had a baby five years ago. "I wanted to learn how to build a dialogue with the child so that I wouldn't repeat my parents' mistakes when they raised me," she said. But therapy also ended up helping her "become more aware of (my) mission in life." Gurina went on to explore the latter by receiving her second degree in psychology as well as a psychotherapy license. She said she plans to start her own practice soon.

"In our culture, we love feeling like victims--of bad circumstances, bad government, bad climate--you name it," Gurina said. "Therapy helps you take your life into your own hands and to finally start Living--with a capital 'L.'"

Ekaterina Kovateyeva, 27, a manager at a production company, didn't go so far as to get another degree. Yet she admitted that going to a therapist after a painful breakup did change her life forever. "Before, I used to listen to my girlfriends and they'd say, 'oh, forget him, he isn't good enough for you.' And I'd still feel helpless and miserable. Now I have learned to see the big piture and I understand why I tend to choose a certain kind of men and act in a certain way." Kovateyeva said it was not easy to find a good therapist in Moscow. The first therapist she went to obsessively timed their sessions and wasn't very perceptive. "He would always say 'you should do this and you shouldn't do that," she said. "And a good therapist doesn't tell you what to do."

Vadim Petrovsky of the Night School of Psychology agrees. "I'd say there are only fifty specialists in Moscow I'd personally recommend to visit if there is a need, and perhaps about a hundred who wouldn't do you any harm but won't necessarily help you either."

"In Russia, the standards in this field are still very low compared to the U.S.," he said. Even so, the demand is slowly but surely on the rise, especially among women. Studies show that women make up about two-thirds of therapists' clientele in Russia, and psychoanalysis prevails over other types of therapy. Factors boosting the interest vary.

"Both psychology and therapy have become people-friendly in Russia," said Zhanna Sergeyeva, editor of Psychologies, a popular monthly magazine launched in Russia about two years ago, which has increased its circulation from 150,000 to 270,000 copies. "Therapists are regulars on talk shows on TV and radio and they look like cool individuals, not like boring nerds or scary psychiatrists from the Soviet times," she said.

For others, therapy is becoming a matter of prestige. "Ten years ago, it suddenly became cool to take care of your body, and everyone who could afford it started going to the gym. Recently it has become trendy to look after your soul," said Yekaterina Ignatova, a freelance journalist who for the last five years wrote stories on relationships and psychology for Russia's top glossy magazines. She said that more than 70 percent of her girlfriends had tried therapy at least once. But, she insists, this trend is true only for Moscow and St. Petersburg. "In five years, therapy may become more widespread," she said. "But in small towns, alcohol remains the only therapy."

Yet it's not solely Moscow women who flock to the "soul doctors." For Dmitry, a 40-year-old lawyer, therapy is a way to find true love. Three years ago he went through a divorce and since then did not manage to have a satisfying relationship. After completing a series of personal-growth training sessions, he heard about the Night School of Psychology from a friend and decided to give it a shot. "I was raised by a single mother and I would always choose women whom I could take care of. They would take advantage of me, and I was unhappy," Dmitry confessed after the class was finally over. It was 3 a.m., but for the sake of soul-searching, he said he didn't mind staying up almost the entire night.

"I am learning so much about myself here," he said. "It's the best investment you could ever make."





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