From experimental psychosis to resolving traumatic pasts – Psychedelic Research in Communist Czechoslovakia, 1954‑1974, Sarah Marks, 2015

From experimental psychosis to resolving traumatic pasts – Psychedelic Research in Communist Czechoslovakia, 1954‑1974

De la psychose expérimentale à la guérison des traumatismes du passé : la recherche psychédélique en Tchécoslovaquie communiste, 1954‑1974

Sarah Marks

Cahiers du monde russe, 2015, 56, 1, 53-75.

DOI: 10.4000/monderusse.8165


The mid‑twentieth century saw an abundance of new theories of human behaviour and mental disorder, many of which were inspired by new developments in broader scientific fields, from cybernetics and genetics, to pharmaceuticals and new technologies of psychological testing1. There is a developing historical literature on the development of psychiatry in Western Europe and North America, yet we know little of how these new understandings came to shape psychiatric research in the Communist world.2 To date, there has been no substantial historical examination of the work of psychiatrists in Communist Czechoslovakia, despite the country having had a long tradition in research in the field from the inter‑war period.3 This paper seeks to situate Czechoslovak psychiatric research during the Cold War in a wider international scientific context. I approach these questions drawing on archival material, published research articles and scientific memoirs relating to research groups working on the psychiatric use of psychedelic substances based in Prague across a twenty‑year period from 1954 to 1974. Their work sought to investigate the effects of psychedelic substances on the human mind, explore whether the experiences induced by them were comparable with psychosis, and how the effects of these drugs could have psychotherapeutic value in a clinical setting.

For the duration of the Communist period, a designated research institute operated at the psychiatric clinic in Prague, and results of studies carried out there, as well as at hospitals across Czechoslovakia, were published in journals such as Czechoslovak Psychiatry (in Czech) or Activitas Nervosa Superior (in English, for distribution abroad), along with a range of monographs distributed by state‑run publishing houses. Furthermore, many psychiatrists were able to collaborate and visit researchers abroad, both in the west and the USSR. Yet it has been argued that research in the “psy disciplines” was “stifled” in East‑Central Europe as a result of Moscow‑led dogmatic control.4 Such a claim contains the suggestion that researchers in the area lacked academic autonomy, and that science was consequently temporally out of synch with countries where ideological controls were more relaxed : The West, by implication. In this article, I use psychedelic research as a case study to destabilise such historiographical claims, demonstrating that research in psychiatry occurred in a parallel time frame, and with key linkages across East and West during the Cold War.5 It is also a case study of a level of permissiveness in the 1960s in Czechoslovakia in a variety of fields of cultural production, of which science was one. As there is a lack of historical writing on international psychiatry more generally in the post‑war period, I will embed the psychedelic research project within the context of schizophrenia and psychosis research and the rise of different biological aetiologies of these mental disorders in the 1950s and 60s. In addition, I will explore the profound temporal continuities in practice and knowledge from the inter‑war period, with the
survival and dominance of psychoanalytic theory in Czechoslovak psychiatry. This came to have a role in shaping LSD psychotherapy practice in Prague through the 1960s until 1974, in spite of explicit state opposition during both the Nazi Protectorate years of the Second World War, and under Stalinism from 1948‑1956.

Finally, as time – and the subjective experience thereof – formed a fundamental part of the psycho-therapeutic process, I will analyse how the psychiatrists involved in the LSD psychotherapy projects explicitly utilized the psychedelic properties of hallucinogenic drugs to actively manage patients’ experiences of their own past within the controlled environment of the clinic and the therapeutic relationship. The potential to use pharmacological and psychological techniques to control and manipulate memories and experiences from the patient’s own history for therapeutic purposes fit into a wider progressive project for the improvement of human subjectivity itself. These techniques, according to their advocates, appeared to offer a utopian method for revisiting and ultimately curing historical trauma.6 As such, LSD research resonated with broader interests of the socialist regime, particularly in the 1960s, which was concerned both with facilitating future human potential, and with the use of science and technology to further social progress.

Understanding Psychosis

In 1954, research began on the so‑called “experimental psychosis” project, with the participation of a number of researchers across different institutes in Prague, including Jiří Roubíček at the Psychiatric Research Clinic, and Miloš Vojtěchovský at the Research Institute for Human Nutrition. In part, the purpose of these experiments was to record the psychological effects of hallucinogenic drugs ranging from psilocybin, mescaline and adrenochrome, to the newly synthesized lysergic acid (LSD).7 During the 1950s and 60s the researchers themselves ingested the various compounds and compared their respective effects ; including their impact on time perception, thought processes, types of optical hallucination, and range of emotional responses experienced. A variety of different tests and questionnaires were used to measure the psychological and physiological effects of the substances, including biochemical measures of metabolism, emotion rating scales and projection tests.8 As the effects of some psychotropic drugs – and particularly LSD – seemed to mimic psychotic states observed in psychiatric patients.