Sergej Tschachotin: Anti-fascist scientist who used ‘Pavlovian Reflex’ to understand propaganda

German documentary Sergej in the Urn by Boris Hars-Tschachotin explores Sergej’s scientific contributions and his courageous political activism.

Published : May 23, 2024 15:56 IST - 8 MINS READ

Sergej Tschachotin the scientist, circa 1907.

Sergej Tschachotin the scientist, circa 1907. | Photo Credit: By special arrangement

At a time when science and scientists are increasingly being yoked to the services of the state and the capital for their aggrandisement, it was illuminating to learn about a scientist who came out openly against fascist powers and devoted his life for the upliftment of humanity.

On April 29, the India International Centre, New Delhi screened a documentary film titled Sergej in the Urn. Directed by the German filmmaker Boris Hars-Tschachotin, the documentary presents the personal history of the scientist Sergej Stepanowitsch Tschachotin (1883-1973) by placing him within his social and familial context, examining the fissures in his personal relationships, and highlighting his strength of character and conviction in his political stances.

Born into a privileged family in Tsarist Russia in September 1883, Sergej began training in medical sciences in 1900 at the Moscow State University. He went into exile after participating in a student protest in 1902. Thereafter he studied Zoology in Munich, and was awarded a doctorate in Zoology in 1907. In a paper published in 2007 in the scientific journal Methods in Cell Biology, the authors attribute the first use of “a focused light beam to destroy chosen cellular components” to Sergej Tschachotin, “who in 1912 developed a method which came to be called ‘micro-photo-surgery’.”

Despite the advances in technique, this recent paper tells us, some of the “tricks” employed by Sergej continue to be effective in laser microsurgery in the 21st century. In another article in the same journal which is devoted to Sergej’s contribution as an experimental cytologist, it is stated that he developed miniature surgical tools to operate on individual cells that were “quite advanced even by modern standards”, as well as “a series of experimental techniques that are still being used in cell physiology, among which are microperfusion, cellular transplantation, and instantaneous fixation of individual cells on the microscope stage.” Clearly, he was a well-respected scientist who made a name for himself in the field of microbiology.

Age of catastrophe

This scientist’s political critique of the social turmoil as a member of the Socialist Democratic Party (SPD) and the Iron Front against the Nationalist Socialist Party in Germany, and his efforts to raise a political counter to the developments in Europe in the first half of the 20th century, are equally well-documented. The historian Eric Hobsbawm has referred to the times Sergej lived in as the “age of catastrophe”, when Europe was ravaged by two major wars in which countries from across the world got involved as a result of European colonialism and imperialism. This was a period that saw a complete collapse of liberal values and institutions, and the rise of dictatorships and absolute rule. Equally striking was the electoral support for the votaries of militarism, and the rise of anti-labour forces at a time when capitalist growth was manifest across the industrialised world.

A mass rally of the anti-fascist group Iron Front in Heidelberg, Germany, circa 1932.

A mass rally of the anti-fascist group Iron Front in Heidelberg, Germany, circa 1932. | Photo Credit: By special arrangement

In this context, Sergej , whose political commitment to social democracy and scientific temper was well-established by the 1920s, became drawn to the examination of political action and behaviour from a scientific, specifically biological, perspective. The Nobel laureate Ivan Pavlov gave Sergej shelter in the 1910s, after he returned to Russia following the completion of his doctoral studies. Sergej became Pavlov’s laboratory assistant, and was given full run of the lab, which perhaps emboldened him in his activist efforts.

Pavlov had demonstrated on the basis of canine behaviour that ideas and actions have a physical basis and manifestation. Hence a dog salivating on merely seeing food is simply a physiological reflex based on the nervous system’s transmissions—an adaptation of the animal that was nothing more than a response to a situation. Pavlov’s path-breaking analysis lay in his noting another kind of response—the “conditioned reflex”, where the synchronising of a bell to the feeding of a dog, for instance, would, over a period of time, cause the dog to salivate upon just ringing the bell. This was also termed the psychical reflex, where repeated conditioning elicited a structured physiological response.

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Further—and for Sergej this was the crucial element—as the synchronisms disappeared, the conditioning receded, until it finally disappeared. Pavlov used the same technique with a paramecium, placing it in a drop of water on a microscopic slide, allowing it to swim at first. Thereafter, when an obstruction was placed, the paramecium began to avoid that end, continuing on its new course even after the obstruction was removed, proving the conditioned reflex.

Studying fascism ‘scientifically’

Sergej applied Pavlov’s theory, proven by his own experiment, to understand the rise of fascism, and particularly the role of propaganda in inducing certain actions and affecting consciousness. He saw people’s fascination with demagogues and the rise of fascism, and Hitler in particular, as indicative of the conditioned reflexes elicited through continuous and notorious, substantively fake, political propaganda. In a tract that he wrote in 1938 in French, which was translated into English and published a year later with the title The Rape of the Masses, Sergej identified four basic physiological instincts that had behavioural/psychic manifestations: the instinct to struggle in the face of danger; the hunger or alimentary instinct; the sexual instinct; and the maternal instinct.

Of these, the reflex associated with danger, real and perceived, was seen as primary. The reflex connected to food, while important, elicited a reaction more gradually. Sergej argued that unlike these, the sexual and maternal instincts were not common to all, and hence had a more limited impact on social behaviour. The role of political propaganda in tapping these instincts, especially the first, is highlighted.

Sergej Tschachotin in Moscow, circa 1962.

Sergej Tschachotin in Moscow, circa 1962. | Photo Credit: By special arrangement

For instance, feelings of fear and distress, or fury and aggression, are induced through threats or claims of pride. Once these instincts are tapped, a formidable technological battery against/on the masses further embeds fear or pride through the state machinery. Military parades, Hitler’s Nuremberg crosses (medals of bravery for the First World War), Mussolini’s hate speeches—all these formed a continuous projection of the spectre of might and violence while feeding on people’s fears, constituting, according to Sergej, a “psychical rape”. In a prescient observation, Sergej states that the phenomenon represented by Hitler could well return in some other form, at some other time, somewhere else, because of the exploitation of these physiological and psychical instincts. Across the world today, we see xenophobia and the vilification of communities that is leveraged as justification for all manner of atrocities, including annihilating a country in the name of revenge and security.

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Given the times we live in, Sergej’s own political commitment and courage, as well as his intellectual framing of the fascist challenge and the possibilities of raising a counter to this challenge, especially the propaganda he witnessed in his times and we witness in ours, it is important to commemorate him and his intellectual critique of fascism. For those of us who move between despair at the present state of affairs and hope for the future, Sergej’s strategy of counter propaganda, especially the comical projection of the swastika symbol on the run with the resistance symbol of three arrows hot in pursuit, is satisfying and rejuvenates our own struggles against fascism.

A great-grandson’s tribute

Boris Hars-Tschachotin pays his tribute as a great-grandson through a poignant and humorous interweaving of Sergej’s personal, professional and political life, all of which are inextricably linked. Sergej was married and divorced five times, and the father of eight sons. It is interesting to see how four of his sons viewed his achievements and the man himself—with anger and suspicion, devotion, matter-of-factly, and admiration.

A collage of the protagonists of Sergej in the Urn: Sergej Tschachotin (centre), his sons Venja, Eugen, Andrei, Petya, and great-grandson Boris Hars-Tschachotin.

A collage of the protagonists of Sergej in the Urn: Sergej Tschachotin (centre), his sons Venja, Eugen, Andrei, Petya, and great-grandson Boris Hars-Tschachotin. | Photo Credit: By special arrangement

Boris is the founder of the Liquid Blues Production Company, which facilitates independent and meaningful cinema, a great challenge at all times for those who do not want to bow down to the whims of financiers and the box-office. He has two short fiction films to his credit, as writer, director, producer: Lurch (1999-2001) and Calling Bill (2007); and one fiction film that he co-produced in 2004. Sergej in the Urn is Boris’ first full-length documentary and took about five years to make, from 2004 to 2009.

  • Sergej in the Urn, a documentary directed by the German filmmaker Boris Hars-Tschachotin, reconstructs the life and work of the scientist and anti-fascist Sergej Tschachotin (1883-1973).
  • Sergej Tschachotin applied Ivan Pavlov’s theory of the conditioned reflex to understand the rise of fascism and the role of political propaganda.
  • A testimony to Sergej’s political commitment and courage, this award-winning documentary reminds us of the importance of critiquing fascism and fighting for freedom in our own times.

Winner of the Best German Documentary at the International Documentary Film Festival in Munich in 2009, this 102-minute film, shot on a HDCAM, is engrossing and captivating due to the interesting techniques that Boris uses to help us time-travel across four generations and several parts of Europe. The dispersal of the ashes of Sergej in accordance with his wishes in Corsica provides the entry point for intimate disclosures, deep hurt, and paternal legacies, conveyed through discussions with Sergej’s sons. The montages of photographs of Nazi soldiers, marches, and counter-rallies from those times, the efforts of the SPD in organising against Hitler, and the fascinating narrative strategy of photographs talking to each other, vividly bring to life the age of catastrophe. The life of the mind of Sergej Tschachotin, as this documentary shows us, inspires us to struggle for the reinstating of the core human values of freedom even, or especially, in our critical times.

R. Mahalakshmi is Professor, Centre for Historical Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.

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