HIS LIFE

Gita L. Vygodskaya

Translated from the Russian language by Ilya Gindis

Published in School Psychology International, Vol.16,

I want to tell you about a person who has been described in many ways: an "outstanding scientist", an "eminent scholar", and even a "genius". Well-known philosopher and historian of science Stephen Toulmin once called him a "Mozart of Psychology". I want to tell you about Lev Semenovich Vygotsky.

Sixty years have passed since the day, or more precisely, the night he died. It was June 2nd 1934. Sixty years is a long span; almost a lifetime. During these years, many of those close to him - among them relatives, friends, colleagues, students - passed away. There is almost no one left who knew him well, or talked to him, and who could now honestly describe him, the way he was, and how he lived and worked. Of all those left alive, I perhaps, am the only one who knew him well. This is not only due to him being my father, and me living with him during his last years, but also due to the nature of our relationship. We not only loved each other very much, but were also close friends. Because of this, everything that has to do with him is very dear to me.

My memory has kept everything that happened, back then, when he was alive. Often I am surprised at how vivid these recollections are. My mother and my aunts were also amazed at the accuracy and amount of details I recalled about events that happened so many distant years ago.

It so happened that for many years I could not talk to anyone about my father. Back then it seemed to be impossible for me. All the memories were still so alive and sensitive that to share them with anyone else seemed like blasphemy. It was enough for me to listen and ask everyone about my father. And there were people who could tell me about him. My mother outlived him by 45 years, and, of course, we on more than one occasion looked back returning to those years when my father was by her side. His sisters also outlived him; they were very close to him, and eagerly recalled years of his childhood, and everything in subsequent years. Alexander R. Luria (a world-renowned neuropsychologist, a colleague of Vygotsky - Transl.) often recalled him and eagerly shared many memories with me. I was lucky to be a student of A. V. Zaporozhetch (a prominent Russian psychologist, specialist in early childhood - Transl.) and later to work under N. G. Morozova (an expert, well-known in Russia, on special education and psychopathology - Transl.) - both of them told me about their teacher and their years of working together. Other former students and colleagues shared their memories - and always with passion and admiration. In this way I got to know a lot of what I could never have seen firsthand. It seems the "inner block" I had since childhood to talk about my father has been magically lifted, and now I feel like I can freely talk about him. I remember my father well and I will try to tell you about him, his first steps, and his last years. I would like to convey to you what kind of a person he was, how he lived his short but meaningful life, to help you to visualize him as a living person with thoughts and feelings.

* * *

Lev S. Vygotsky was born on November 5th, 1896, in the small town of Orshe (Currently, Republic of Belarus - Transl.), but before his first birthday his family moved to the city of Gomel.

In those times it was a lively town, small but important, due to its geographical location. In Gomel Lev went through his childhood, years of schooling, and his youth. He returned there after finishing his university education in Moscow, and stayed until January 1924.

Vygotsky's family was one of the most educated in the town. Lev's father, Semion L'vovich, graduated from the Commercial Institute and worked as a manager at the Gomel bank. He was an intelligent man of wide interests, fluent in foreign languages. He was well respected in the community being one of the founders and most active members of the "Society of Education" in Gomel. It was his initiate to create a superb library for all citizens of the town. His personality was not easy to deal with, he was often stern, but this did not prevent him from being a loving father. He was both demanding and concerned for his children, understood them well and was always attentive to their needs. The children loved him and respected him greatly. The heart and soul of the family was the mother, Cecilia: she was the one who upheld in home an atmosphere of love and care. She was well educated and fluent in several languages. By training, she was a teacher, but she never got a chance to work in school: her whole life was dedicated to raising her children and running the household. There were eight children in the family, each a year and a half apart. Lev was the second; he had an older sister. The older children, with Lev no exception, helped the mother in the housework and cared for the younger ones. The family was very tightly-knit being united by common interests: history, literature, theater, and art. It was a family tradition to get together after the evening tea. By this time everyone was done with his or her activities, the father with business, mother with housework, and children with their school assignments. They then talked amongst themselves about whatever came to mind, or read aloud either classic novels or newly released ones. Both the parents and children valued this time of family closeness and spoke warmly of it for many years to come.

This tradition persisted when the children grew up and had their own families. I remember these conversations well, when some of us sat at the table and some near the warm stove. All the children were right there, but they never interrupted the adult conversations or readings. We just sat quietly, played with our toys, and listened to the adults. None of us were forced to be in the room, but I never could remember a time when anyone left the room during these gatherings, and I remember being upset when my mother finally sent me up to my room to sleep. If my father came home alone he always joined in; if he brought home a colleague from work, he stayed for the tea but then went to work.

But let's return to Gomel. According to recollection of Lev's sisters, my aunts, the family life style was very modest. Besides the school uniform the children had only one set of clothes each, which the mother made herself. But despite that, there was always money for books: they were purchased often and the household had a large collection of classics. The children were often taken to play productions: in those days Gomel was often visited by talented actors. In this way the children, since the earliest age, were exposed to literature and performing arts.

Lev was growing up as a sociable boy. His peers were drawn to him, and he was often surrounded by friends. They all shared his interests such as stamp collecting, chess, and, by their own admission, reading of adventure novels. During the summer he spent time on the river, swimming or taking his sisters and friends in a boat. In those years he become interested in esperanto, and learned the language on his own.

He received his elementary education at home, studying independently and having a tutor for consultation. He passed an exam for the first 5 years of grade school and entered into a private all boys secondary school. Lev was a steady consistent student, doing equally well in all subjects, and the teachers often commented on his superb abilities. His math teacher predicted him brilliant future as a mathematician, his literature teacher - as a philologist. Already in those early years he stood out in his breadth and depth of interest. All his learning was marked by seriousness and maturity. Of all his subjects he most preferred literature and philosophy: these were objects of his fascination and involvement. He knew the Russian classics well, but was also interested in contemporary Russian and foreign literature.

Although far advanced in his abilities and level of knowledge, he, according to his schoolmates, never acted cocky, or condescending. It was not in his character to do so. He carried himself in a conservative manner, and was always ready to help out anyone who needed it. He willingly and patiently explained difficult topics, and his friends greatly respected him for it. This willingness to help out everyone stayed with him all his life: his colleagues recalled how he often helped a friend for hours at times, ignoring fatigue.

In 1913 Lev graduated gymnasium (a secondary school in pre-revolutionary Russia that prepared students for the university - Transl.) with a gold medal. It was time to think of where to go from there. Literature was out of the question: philology graduates became, in most cases, teachers in public schools, a position not available for Jews in pre-revolutionary Russia. His parents assumed Lev would become a doctor, because this would allow him to live outside of the Pale (a few provinces where Jews were allowed to stay permanently). Going upon the advice of his parents, Lev sent an application to a medical school of Moscow university, and was accepted to the great joy of his parents. But having stayed there for about a month, he realized how distant medicine was from his true interests and transferred to the Law School of the same university. This school opened the way for a career as a lawyer, which would have allowed him to live outside the boundaries of the Jewish settlements (the Pale - Transl).

He began to study in earnest, but the subjects once again did not satisfy him. He was intent upon studying his permanent interests: problems of literature, art critique, philosophy and philosophical analyses of art. Therefore, he decided, in 1914, without interrupting his education at the law school, to enroll in the historical-philisophical division of the Shanavsky's University. This was a progressive institution that accepted individuals regardless of nationality, religious or political views. The degrees awarded, however, were not accepted by the government and graduates received no official recognition. Although the university was not an official institution, the level of instruction there was very high, and the students received a solid education, taught by leading scientists and scholars of that time.

Much is known about how Lev lived in Moscow during those years from his sister Zinaida, who also studied in Moscow. She shared her brother's interests, as they often attended lectures together as well as theater. Together they saw the famous actor Kachalov in the role of Hamlet. Lev was so mesmerized by this actor that several years later he dedicated to this play both a thesis and a public lecture: both were entitled: "Kachalov - Hamlet".

Those student years in Moscow were for him a time of great spiritual growth. They were also noteworthy for another reason: it was during this period that he developed a keen interest in psychology, and began to study it. In his own words, "...while still at the university, I started a study of psychology and continued through all subsequent years. Since then I did not interrupt my studies in this field".

Towards the end of his education at the Shanavsky's University he was expected to present a thesis. As a topic Lev Vygotsky chose Shakespeare's tragedy "Hamlet". In the summer of 1915, having come back home for vacation, he wrote the first, and then in winter of 1916, in Moscow, the second version of his analyses of the tragedy. Prior to the writing of the thesis, there was a period when Lev undertook an in-depth study of the tragedy and its translations, and in analyzing it gained knowledge of the philosophy of literature. This was his first scientific research paper.

This work had an interesting fate. Have you, the honorable reader, ever came across a student thesis that was published 52 years after it was written? Being published, it survived several editions, was translated into numerous languages, and received high marks from the leading specialists in the field. That is exactly what happened to the work of young Vygotsky! It first saw the light in 1968 as an addendum to his book "Psychology of Art". The editor of the publication, the great philologist Vacheslav V. Ivanov wrote that "...the talent of the young author was already evident" and that the author was "ahead of his time". Well known scholar of Sheakspeare, A. Anikst noted: "For the last 60 years of my life I studied Sheakspeare... and when I first read Vygotsky's work on "Hamlet", I knew that it was written by a 19 year old genius". If you, the honorable reader, ever happen to come across this work, be sure to note the erudition and insight of its author, the independent and daring reasoning, and the unexpected analogies. Keep in mind through all this that the author was then only a teenager and a sophomore student with two more years to go before graduation!

Toward the end of 1917 Lev ended his education at both universities, and in December returned to Gomel. At that time the city was occupied by German forces (World War I was still in progress - Transl.). It was impossible to find a permanent job under such conditions. The family was also going through a difficult time. Lev had two sick relatives on his hands: his mother recovering from a bout with tuberculosis, and his younger brother who also contracted the disease, and whose condition was deemed critical. The young boy needed constant care; Lev was his nanny and cared for him until the boy died before his 14th birthday. His mother, stricken by grief, fell ill again, and Lev once again had to care for her. Before the end of the year, another tragedy struck the family: Lev's second brother died of typhoid fever. And so ended his first year back to Gomel.

In January 1919, Russian rule was reestablished in Gomel. Right away Lev Vygotsky began to teach literature, aesthetics, philosophy, and Russian language in the newly opened vocational school and then psychology and logic in a local teachers college. The range of his activity was quite broad. He soon assumed an official position of the Head of Art and Aesthetic Education of the town Department of Education in Gomel. He was attracted by everything that contributed to the development of culture and education. Lev Vygotsky had two passions to which he stayed faithful all his life: literature and theater. It was during these years, however, that he showed the most enthusiasm for them. He often presented literature critiques and reviews of a particular piece of literature or a creative work of a particular author. He ran a weekly group of readers where novels and poems (both classic and contemporary) were read, discussed and analyzed. The city papers of those times reported about his lectures, presentations on literature meetings, essays on literature themes. His lectures were attended by all the intellectuals of the town. He also worked in publishing companies editing pedagogical literature. As the theater was once just an interest, it now become his responsibility. He was deeply involved in all aspects of this activity from choosing the repertoire and looking after the production to visiting other towns recruiting acting troupers. The newspapers often published his theatrical reviews, where he tried to include every new production. His reviews attracted the attention of many theatergoers who wanted to compare impressions.

In one of the local papers of that time I found an interesting announcement. The newspaper in conjunction with the local Department of Education was looking for a nominee as the best teacher of the province. All were encouraged to send to the editor profiles of those teachers seemed to be the most worthy of that title. Lists of names were published once a week. Soon after Lev Vygotsky's name appeared as the best teacher of the Gomel province. In one of the documents issued by the local Pedagogical Council, the significance of L. S. Vygotsly's work was highlighted as: " ... showed pedagogical tact, eagerness, and erudition in teaching... He organized a psychological laboratory where he conducted scientific experiments". It was there that Vygotsky completed his first psychological investigations and prepared reports, three of which were presented at the Second All-Union Psychoneurological Congress.

In January 1924, the 2nd All-Union Congress on Psychoneurology held its session in St. Petersburg. The names of those attending were listed in the program. Among many well-known scientists, such as V. Bekhterev, G. Russolimo, A. Ykhtomsky, K. Kornilov, G. Chelpanov, there was mentioned (three times) a name unknown to most participants: Lev Vygotsky. This was the first time the psychological world saw and heard him: on January 6th and 10th he presented three reports. As Alexander Luria remembered (many times in our conversations and in writing as well), Vygotsky's presentation was a surprise for the audience. It was about a very "hot" topic of the day: "Methods of reflexological and psychological investigation" and listeners were impressed first by the manner of presentation. The speech was smooth, crystal clear, and very logical. In his hand a presenter had a small piece of paper. When Alexander Luria approached him after the presentation, he was surprised to find the paper blank. But the most surprising was the fact that this speaker, for whom this was the first time in front of such a qualified audience, was not afraid to (as A. Luria put it) "go against the tide".

This discourse was proof that Vygotsky was already an accomplished researcher. Right on the spot, he was invited to join the staff of the Moscow Institute of Experimental Psychology. In Moscow, having taken exams for the position of a senior scientific research associate, he started his work at the Institute. He moved into the basement of the same building where the Institute was located and lived there until the fall of 1925. From this moment on, research was the primary content of his life. He turned 27. Ahead was 10 more years of life and work. Only 10 years...

It is impossible to describe within a brief article what was accomplished by him in these 10 years. I will try to summarize only the most important.

Alexander Luria recalled the beginning of Vygotsky's work at the Institute: "Me and A. Leontiev (another colleague of Vygotsky who become lately one of the leading Soviet psychologist - Transl.) held L. S. Vygotsky's talent in high regard, and were very happy when he was included in our working team which we called "troika" (threesome). With Vygotsky as our acknowledged leader, we undertook a critical review of contemporary psychology". In the summer of 1924 L.Vygotsky began work in the center for physically handicapped and mentally retarded children at the Department of People Education. In 1925 he was sent to London to participate in an international conference on education of deaf-and-mute children, where he presented a comprehensive report. On his way to England, he visited France, Holland, and Germany where he familiarized himself with the works of psychological laboratories and special schools.

Upon his return from abroad he fell ill with tuberculosis. The fall of 1925 was dedicated to defense of his dissertation entitled "Psychology of Art", but due to the seriousness of his illness he was excused from a public defense but was granted the right to teach at institutes of higher education. For a while Vygotsky was very seriously ill: he was literally between life and death and doctors measured his remaining life in terms of months. He knew it: he began feverishly work at a methodological essay entitled "Historical meaning of the crisis in psychology", a work that was published only 55 years after its creation.

After regaining his health, Vygotsky began, in addition to his continuing research, to teach psychology at various medical psychological, and pedagogical institutions. In 1926 he published his first major work, a book titled "Pedagogical Psychology". He was working on books "Thought and Speech", "History of the Development of Higher Psychological Functions", "Problems of Mental Retardation", and others. He also edited numerous books and manuscripts of Russian and foreign scientists, wrote many introductions, prologues, and critical comments.

During this time L. Vygotsky never let up in his psychological research, focusing mainly on the deliberating problems of psychology of normal and abnormal child. Sensing a need for some medical education, he enrolled in medical school and managed to complete three years of medical training. In 1926 Vygotsky founded a laboratory to study the psychology of abnormal children. In 1929 this laboratory was upgraded to be the Experimental Institute of Defectology. Vygotsky was appointed the head of the research and remained in this position to his last days. One of the aspects of his work there deserves special attention. These were the consultations he had with children referred to the Institute for evaluations. These consultations were held at special conferences that attracted the attention of not only coworkers at the Institute, but also teachers, doctors, psychologists, students from all over Moscow. Many teachers told me that these conferences were for them very important events. They recalled that having finished their teaching at school, they hurried to the Institute so they could witness these conferences. Since the auditorium could not fit all those who wanted to be present, in the warm times of the year they just opened the windows, and people stood for hours, listening to what was going inside the auditorium. There were usually many such people and they all had to stand close together, keeping still so as to not disturb others. And so after a whole day of work at the school, the teachers of Moscow stood for hours, listened as Lev Vygotsky gave a detailed analysis of each case, pointing out the difficulties or deviations in the development of the child, planning pedagogical efforts to help this child, describing practical recommendations to the parents and teachers.

Lev Zankov (a student of Vygotsky, a well-known child psychologist - Transl.) recalled that "many observers were amazed how Vygotsky conversed with the child while examining him. These conversations were unique in comparison with the way the child was asked and answered questions during a regular evaluation. This was an involving, very personal converse with the little one, and always with an underlying theme: this child is not well, he needs to be helped. Vygotsky was always able to establish an atmosphere of trust in his rapport with the children, he always talked with them as though they were equals, always paid attention to their answers. In turn, the children opened up to him in a way they never did with other examiners". Michael Yaroshevsky (a prominent historian of psychology in Russia, a scholar of Vygotsky's legacy - Transl.) wrote in his "History of Psychology": "Vygotsky dedicated enormous efforts working with abnormal children. We are indebted to him for creating defectological services in our country (defectology is somewhat similar to special education in the USA - Transl.). In the history of psychology there were no other known examples where such intellectual giant so naturally combined theoretical research with direct practical participation in building a new culture".

Lev Vygotsky worked feverishly and left behind a great deal: just think of how he must have worked to create, lived only 37 years, 270 pieces of scientific work! He was, as described by M. Yaroshevsky, "...the most creatively unsettled figurehead in the history of psychology". His energy was drained by never-ending severe sickness of tuberculosis. He first fell ill in 1920, and since then had many relapses. In 1925-26 he was barely saved, but in spring of 1934 came the final relapse. I remember a conversation between my parents that I overhead. My mother was saying that the doctor was insisting on hospitalization and was trying to convince my father to follow the doctor's recommendations. And I remember the unexpectedly abrupt and categorical answer: "I can't cut short my students' semester. When it's over, then fine, I'll go...". But the fate has other plans...He was not destined to finish this school year. In the beginning of May he fell deathly ill and was brought home from work suffering a throat hemorrhage. He died shortly after, on June 10th. Lev Vygotsky left life very young, he was only 37. He could still "live, think, feel, love and make discoveries..." (a line from Boris Pasternak, one of Vygotsky's favorite poets - Transl).

* * * * *

Now that so much time has passed, I would like, the honorable reader, to share with you a few personal recollections.

Nobody in our family studied or took up religion. I only knew from the nanny, who took care of us, that there was a God, whom she, according to her words, feared and respected. On several occasions, unknown to my parents, she even took me to a church. When my father found out, he, to much to nanny's surprise, did not get angry. Upon finding from me that I liked church, and from the nanny that I did not disturb anyone there, he decided that in the future we could go to church whenever we wanted. I remember well how proud I was when we walked openly to church, wearing our best bonnets.

Later the nanny told me that every girl should know a prayer, and I learned one from her by ear, without understanding a single word. To all my questions she always answered: "I am illiterate, when you get educated you will understand everything". But I did not want to wait until I grew up and was educated, and so I went to my father to clear things up. He seemed to be surprised when I recited the prayer from memory, and asked where I learned it. He did not express any feelings towards the whole matter, but simply explained that the prayer thanked the Virgin Mary for giving birth to the Lord Jesus Christ. This however did not yet mean anything to me, and I went about my business as before. One day Leonid, my older cousin, who lived with us, did something that was strictly forbidden. The nanny then warned him to never do it again or "God will punish you". To this the boy quickly replied: "God does not exist". The nanny was horrified, and began to tell him how you can't say things like that. Leonid was unimpressed and stubbornly stuck by his comment.

Meanwhile I was completely confused by the whole matter and had no idea where the truth lay. I began to get upset and to get a straight answer I went to my father, as I always did in difficult situations. I remember well how he was sitting at the table working. I could not hold back the worrying question, and so I came up close, so he would notice me, a favorite tactic of mine. He put down the pen, turned and hugged me by the shoulders, asking what happened. "Dad, is there a God?" - I burst out. "Why do you ask me?" - he replied. I told him of the "discussion" between the nanny and Leonid. He suddenly become very serious. "You see," - he said, "some people, like our nanny, believe that God exists while others reject the idea. Everyone must decide this for themselves, when you grow up you too will decide".

He never forced his opinions on us, unless of course we were doing something really wrong. In most cases he preferred for us to work things out on our own. Often when we asked a question, he did not give a complete answer but rather drew us into discussions that resulted in a commonly agreed on answer or decision.

A few years before his death, my father began to smoke. No one was really bothered by this as he did not smoke often, and it seemed to make him happy. I liked to watch him as he smoked, he had a special sort of smile at these times. One day Leonid told me how unfair he thought it was that we weren't allowed to smoke. He said he tried it himself but only succeeded in burning his eyebrow, therefore we should do it together. He even found a perfect place: between bookshelves, and suggested we go and try it immediately. But I was not used to doing things secretly, and I was always sure of my father's understanding and support in this. I asked Leonid to wait until the night, when he came home. Leonid agreed, but only until the night. I impatiently waited my father came home and, barely letting him take his coat off, came up to him under pretense of injustice: "You smoke, but don't let us!" He paused for a moment and asked: "Have you tried already?" I said no, but that Leonid had. Father said: "You are right, we'll smoke together tonight, just wait until I finish dinner". He went to eat in my grandmother's room, where by now the whole family gathered, and I ran with the shocking news to Leonid. When the two of us burst into the room, my father was drinking tea, while everyone else was sitting by the table or stove, discussing, as usual, the days events. Me and Leonid sat down on either side of Lev Semenovich, and began to wait. He soon finished his tea, and took out the cigarettes giving one to me and one to Leonid. Suddenly everyone in the room went quiet and began to watch us intensely.

He was in no hurry, packing the cigarettes, all the while showing how its done and why its necessary. He then demonstrated how to hold the cigarette in the hand and in the mouth. Finally he lit his, took a drag and brought the lighter to ours. Everyone around us was watching his actions, but not interfere with what was going on. "And now, take a deep breath" - said father. I don't remember much of what happened then, as I almost passed out and got sick. I think Leonid experienced the same reaction. I guess I should add that I never tried smoking again, and Leonid did not try again until he was over 18.

There is one more thing that happened that I will recount. It's still unpleasant to talk about it, but it happened and it taught me a lesson for life. By now I was in school. I remember it was late May. In class we had an important final coming up. I had a very serious attitude toward it, and was rather anxious. It so happened that I did well on the exam and got a high mark. I returned home in high spirit and was doubly over joyed: my father was home! When he asked me what was new in school, I proudly told him of my success, and added with ill-concealed pleasure that the girl sitting next to me could not copy from me as I had turned the page of the notebook, and because of this got a poorer grade than me. I was beaming and expecting praise, looked at father. I was surprised at the expression on his face: he looked very disappointed. I could not understand what was wrong. May be he did not realize I passed? After a short silence he began to speak, slowly and deliberately so I would remember everything he said. He told me that it was not nice to be happy of others misfortunes, that only selfish people enjoyed it. He went on saying that I should always try to help those who need it, and its only for those who help others that the life is rewarding and brings true joy. I remember I was very upset from his words and asked what I should do now. As always in these situations he offered me a solution: he did not want me to feel like once I did something wrong I was now incapable of doing good. He suggested to me that I go and ask my classmate about what she didn't understand, and try to patiently explain it to her, and if I couldn't do it so she would understand perfectly, then he would be glad to help me. "But here is the most important thing", he added, "you must do all this so your friend be sure you really want to help her, and really mean her well, and so it would not be unpleasant for her to accept your help". More than 60 years have passed since this incident and I still remember all of his words and try to follow them as best I can in life.

* * *

I don't believe that "after death there is nothing else". After his death, the person continues his life in memories of those who loved him and in his works. And so Lev S. Vygotsky lives in the memories of those few, still alive, who know him, and most of all, in his writings that, thanks God, are finally available to everyone. As far as his students go..., well, many of them became famous scientists. Luckily, many were granted a long life. But despite their graying heads and elevated scientific status each has reached, they all still consider the 37 year old researcher their teacher. This was something they never got tired of talking about, and always with great love. Now many are gone, but their students, and now even their students' students go on. And so science develops. Even though so many years have passed, Vygotsky's thoughts, ideas, and works not only belong to history, but they still interest people. In one of his articles, A. Leontiev wrote of Vygotsky as a man decades ahead of his time. Probably that is why that he is for us not a historic figure but a living contemporary.