Concerning the Vocabulary on Personality in Russian Psychology: “Subjekt” vs. “Personality”

Concerning the Vocabulary on Personality in Russian Psychology: “Subjekt” vs. “Personality”

DOI: 10.11621/pir.2019.0204

Mironenko, I.A. St. Petersburg State University, St. Petersburg, Russia


Background. In the context of the current globalization of culture and civilization, international science has become global. Formation of a global science, able to comprehend the emerging global world, is impossible without the full integration of “local” scientific traditions and systems of social and humanitarian knowledge, which are new to the Western-centered mainstream. This situation challenges “local” psychological schools, and at the same time opens up new perspectives for their development. A prerequisite for integration is overcoming language barriers. For Russian psychology, the language factor is of special significance, because the conceptual apparatus here has formed based on the Russian language, and translating Russian texts into foreign languages requires not only language skills but also hermeneutics in relation to the conceptual apparatus.

Objective. Of special difficulty is the translation of the concept of “субъект” (Subjekt), which is central to the Russian psychological tradition. Like the concept of “Personality,” it relates to the sphere of integral aspects and manifestations of human existence. The question of how these two concepts relate, remains acutely debatable, despite the fact that the Russian scientific community has already spent considerable efforts on the methodological elaboration of each of them. This makes it difficult for scientists to communicate and impedes translating scientific texts. This article concentrates on the problem of translating the concept oi“Subjekt’.’

Conclusion. Difficulties encountered by foreign colleagues are analyzed; the different interpretations of the concept in contemporary Russian psychology are highlighted. A solution to the problem of translation of the concept is proposed.

Received: 18.01.2019

Accepted: 04.03.2019


Pages: 45-57

DOI: 10.11621/pir.2019.0204

Keywords: vocabulary of science; scientific translation; Russian school of psychology; subject; Subjekt: personality; global science; Ananievs theory; Yaroshevsky’s categorical system


The current development of culture and civilization demands the transition from the monocentric structure of psychological science, where the Western mainstream has traditionally dominated, to a polycentric structure (Danziger, 2013; Bhambra, 2014; Jahoda, 2016; Zhuravlev et al, 2018a, b). In the context of the general globalization of culture and civilization, the formation of a global science, able to comprehend the emerging global world, is impossible without the full integration of “local” scientific traditions and systems of social and humanitarian knowledge (Marsella, 2012; Bhambra, 2014; Vessuri , 2015; Hwang, 2016; Mironenko, 2017b; Zhuravlev, Mironenko &Yurevich, 2018a,b). The formation of a global psychological science challenges “local” psychological schools, which are new to the Western-centered mainstream, and opens up new perspectives for their development (Mironenko, 2015; Mironenko & Sorokin, 2015). Integration requires special efforts. A prerequisite for integration is overcoming language barriers, both in terms of the language as a whole and in relation to the conceptual system (Mironenko, 2014, 2017a). 

In the context of the current integration of international psychology, the position of Russian psychology is unique. On the one hand, it is radically different from schools which previously were not part of the West-centric tradition of international science, but are now entering the mainstream as “developing’ psychologies of Asian and African origins. The Russian school has always been a part of international science since the history of psychology as an academic discipline began. It formed in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, in the period when the main scientific schools of the 20thcentury were in the making. Russian psychology has contributed much to the development of world science and has noticeably been influencing Western trends. The international recognition of its founders (Behterev, Berdyaev, Pavlov, Soloviev, and others) and frequent citation of Lev Vygotsky by foreign colleagues indicate the high level of interest that it attracts in the international academic community.

On the other hand, Russian psychology is not part of the contemporary West-centric mainstream. Because of its unilateral [1] isolation during the Soviet period, the theories and methodology developed in our country remain poorly known beyond its borders. 

The language factor is of special significance. This is not only because most Russian psychologists speak and write only in Russian, but also because the conceptual apparatus has formed based on the Russian language, and even translating Russian texts into foreign languages requires not only language skills but also hermeneutics relative to the conceptual apparatus (Mironenko, 2014). As soon as developments in the Russian psychology of the second half of the 20thcentury began to disseminate into international scientific circles in the late 1970s–first of all,  through the translations of the works of A.N. Leontiev (e.g., Leontiev, 1973, 1978, 1981)– despite the interest his Activity Theory (AT) aroused in the international scientific community 

(Mammen &Mironenko, 2015), foreign colleagues were faced from with substantial difficulties in their quest to comprehend the Russian theoretical approach. The main predicamentwas the conceptual apparatus, the language, which was very different from the one used in international science.

The problem of understanding the vocabulary of Russian psychology

It was clear that the scientific potential of the Russian school would not be realized by English-speaking users if sufficient attention was not given to clarifying the meanings of the fundamental terms of AT. Appropriate attempts were immediately taken.  An important example of efforts to comprehend the vocabulary, was Tolman's “The basic vocabulary of Activity Theory”(1988), which provided definitions for various terms used in Activity Theory literature. Tolman’s work is still referred to in the 21stcentury (Ballantyne, 2002). Nevertheless, problems related to understanding the terminology of Russian psychology remain relevant to the present day. 

Terminology was a matter of principal importance in the Russian psychological school. The conceptual apparatus was sophisticated and subtly crafted in the cause of the paradigmatic development of Soviet psychology[2]. In the 1970s and early 1980s, specially organized methodological discussions took place in Soviet Psychology, which resulted inthe preparation and publication of thesaurus dictionaries edited by leading methodologists. The most popular was A Concise Psychological Dictionary, which was edited by two luminaries of scientific methodology, academicians Petrovsky and Yaroshevsky (1985).  This dictionary was meant for professional use only, more for clarifying the difficult and contentious issues which abounded in the AT discourse than for introductory reading. Working with this dictionary required  substantial knowledge of AT. That is why the Dictionary, although translated into English.

(Petrovsky & Yaroshevsky, 1987), was of little help for English-speaking colleagues, and was hardly ever used in the mainstream.

The source often referred to by translators, Activity, Consciousness, and Personality(Leontiev, 1978),is different.  Itis a great example of apopularbook written by an outstanding scientist. It was printed on a large scale, and there are good reasons to believe that the book was meant to promote Soviet psychological science abroad, which was a matter of importance for the Soviet ideology. The flip side of its accessibility to the general public’s understanding is that its presentation of AT ideas is lax and over-simplified; difficult momentsand contentious issuesare simply omitted.

Tolman based his “Vocabulary” on English translations of two other Russian books: Leontiev's Problems of the Development of the Mind (1981) and Dictionary of Philosophy(1984). The first one was meant for professionals, and presumes that the reader is well acquainted with the AT apparatus. Many details are omitted as they are presumed obvious to the reader. The definitions of the basic terms used need supplementary explanations and are not complete enough to make a dictionary for the international community. As for the Dictionary of Philosophy, it was written for the public at large, and thus was not used by Soviet psychologists; it was not meant for professional use. 

It became clear that interpretation of the Russian conceptual apparatus is not possible without relying upon adequate published sources, and taking into consideration the oral tradition, which was an important characteristic of psychological education in the Soviet period. There were no tutorials and textbooks for future psychologists. Their studies were based on monographs and papers which were written in "Aesopian" language, due to the uptight censorship of the press by the authorities. The texts of our classics require hermeneutics even from a Russian reader, and require learning by reading together with the teacher. That knowledge had to be transmitted directly from teachers to students.

Of special difficulty is the translation of the concept of “субъект” (Subjekt), which is central to the Russian psychological tradition. Thus, it was not by chance that Tolman in his “Vocabulary” did not offer a translation of this concept. The problem is getting worse due to the ambiguous interpretation of the concept in contemporary Russian psychology.

The concept of “Subjekt” in contemporary Russian psychology

Psychological research in contemporary psychological science focuses on Personality and “Subjekt”. The vast majority of publications today are addressed specifically to the sphere of integral aspects and manifestations of human existence, and thus to the subject area denoted by the above two concepts (Grishina, Kostromina, & Mironenko, 2018; Valsiner, 2017).At the same time, despite the fact that the Russian scientific community has already spent considerable efforts on the methodological elaboration of both concepts, the question of their relationship remains acutely debatable, which makes it difficult for scientists to communicate, and creates difficulties in understanding scientific texts.In the context of the divergence within the contemporary professional community of psychologists in Russia, this becomes a problem worthy of attention.

The concept of “Subjekt” (and “Subjektnost” for a quality to be a Subjekt) refers to the work of Sergey L. Rubinstein, whose main idea was that the Psyche is a procreation of the active interaction of the individual with his/her environment. Subjektmeans somebody who is choosing and pursuing his/her own aims, serving his/her own purposes, a self-determined and self-actualizing agent. Rubinstein did not delimit his work to dealing with the content of the concepts of “Subjekt,” Personality, and Human Being. To be a personality and a “Subjekt,” for him, are properties inherent to the human being. Rubinstein calls a human a “Subjekt,” when emphasizing the initiating, self-determined nature of human activity, and calls a human a Personality, when emphasizing human sociality. The development of the Russian psychological tradition, however, required clarification of the question of the relationship between these concepts. Almost all Russian methodologists, including the most brilliant ones like Abulkhanova-Slavskaya, Antsyferova, Brushlinsky, and others, addressed this question. (Problema sub”yekta…., 2000)

A comprehensive review of the different opinions on this point is given in a monograph by Morosanova and Aronova (2007), so we confine ourselves here to the general conclusion that there is no consensus in the literature regarding the following points: 

  • Whether and how the contents of these concepts overlap: The opinions range from the assertion of a complete absorption of one of the concepts by the other one, to attempts to absolutely dissolve their content;

  • How the levels of these concepts correlate: Both concepts are assigned to a “high” level in the structure of the psyche; however, there are frequent attempts to put one above the other, and in particular, to present one as the highest level of the other.

An essential factor preventing, in our opinion, a consensus on the question of the relationship between the concepts of Subjektand Personality, is that the context for the definition and distribution of the content of these concepts is not clear. All concepts exist and can be comprehended and correlated with others only in the context of a certain conceptual system. The literature suggests that each concept denotes a subsystem in the mental organization of a human being. Therefore, we assume, the solution to the question of the relationship between the concepts of "Subjekt" and "Personality" necessitates the definition of an integral theoretical model of a human's mental organization, which provides the basis and structure within which the concepts can be analyzed and correlated.

There is one example in the literature which states the problem of correlating the concepts of "Subjekt" and "Personality" in these terms. This is the theory of Boris G. Ananiev (Ananiev, 1968). Ananiev, following Sergey Rubinstein, uses the notion of “human” as his initial baseline category. “Human” for psychological science is an objective category, which directly relates us to the physical reality. The concepts “Subjekt” and “Personality” refer to the subject area of psychology; they are elaborated by psychological science and embody not only (and, perhaps, not so much) objective reality, but also theoretical models, logic, and the apparatus of science itself. Taking into account modern methodological pluralism, when trying to correlate these concepts, we find ourselves in a kind of hall of mirrors, in a situation of infinite multiplication of reflexive constructions, with no way out. The category of "human" takes us out of the looking-glass into reality, and provides the potential for not just comparing one theory with another theory, but with reality, thus allowing the possibility of its empirical testing.

Ananiev’s theory is based on a holistic model of human psychological development, which incorporates the categories of “Subjekt” and “Personality”, and provides the context in which these categories clearly relate to each other (Ananiev, 1968). 

Categories of “Subjekt” and Personality in Ananiev's theory of human development

Human development is represented by Ananiev in three expressly separate aspects:

  • The ontogenetic evolution of psycho-physiological functions (the human as a natural being - individual); 

  • Life course, biography – the history of the personalityor person(the human lives a social life in a cultural context);

  • Development of man’s activities and history of his/her formation as a Subjekt(agent) of labor, cognition, and communication (the human is civilized; he acquires the skills necessary for civilized consumption and production).

Thus, human development bases itself on the confluence of three different contexts: Nature, Culture (social life) and Civilization, each having its own laws and mechanisms.

Anindividualas a representative of homo sapienshas the appropriate genotype and falls within the range of phenotypic variability. The two classes of primary individualproperties are: a) age and sex characteristics; and b) individual typological features of a biological nature (physique,  neuro-dynamic properties). Based on the interaction of the primary properties,  secondary individualproperties are formed: a) the general dynamics of psycho-physiological functions and b) the structure of organic needs. The integration of these individualproperties results in the person’s temperament and the natural aptitudes. The basic form of development of the individualproperties is ontogenetic evolution, which proceeds according to a certain phylogenetic (species) program. This program does not remain universal and unchanged, but is constantly modified because of individual variability; its range continuously grows, both in the course of the social history of humankind and in the process of individual ontogenesis, because of the impact of the personality’s social history.

The starting point for the development of personalityis the person’s status in society; that is, the social, economic, legal, and political characteristics of the family, and the status of the community (group, subculture) in which the baby was born and is developing. Based on that status, a system of social roles and value orientations are formed.

The properties of the primary personality–status, social roles, and value orientations– form in interaction with the social environment, and are internalized in the process of socialization. Based on the primary personality’sproperties, the secondary personality’sproperties form the motivesand dispositions for social behavior.

The integration of the personality’sproperties results in the person’s character and general dispositions. The main form of personal development is the life course of the person, his/her social biography.

The initial properties of Subjektare consciousness (the capacity for reflection on objective reality) and activity (the capacity for transformation of objective reality). We may see thus that this line of human development is assumed to begin later in life than the first two, assessed above. Ananiev does not give us a concrete answer as to when. However, in the 1980s I participated in a number of discussions on that issue, where it was generally agreed that the beginning of the Subjektcould not be earlier than when speech appears, since, in the Soviet psychological tradition, consciousness was assumed to be inseparably connected with speech.

Subjektis characterized not only by a person’s own properties, but also by the knowledge, skills, and technical means of labor which he masters. The integration of Subjekt properties comes from human creativity, manifested in the person’s abilities and talents. The main form of the development of the Subjektis the history of human productive activity, starting from the early stages of education and training.

The concept of individualityappears central in this theoretical model. The name “theory of individuality” stuck to the latter. Individualityis not just individual uniqueness–what makes one human being different from all others–or individual differences, which we may observe when comparing people. Individualityis a holistic unity, the integration of all levels and aspects of human organization, which is the result of the confluence of natural and socio-cultural human development.

Individuality begins to take shape from the first moments of human life. A baby initially has certain biological characteristics. From birth (if not earlier), it is immersed in social relations, since all its needs can be satisfied only through the process of interaction with the social environment; its life is socially and culturally mediated. The caregivers of the infant have their own ideas (enshrined in culture) on how the infant should behave, and while caring for the child, they purposefully assume the corresponding "social roles" vis-à-vis the types of behavior of the infant. Those can be very different. In some cultures, the mother wouldnever part with the baby, and would satisfy all his/her needs immediately; in others, parents train the child not to bother them too much, and to spend considerable time alone.

Socially desirable forms of behavior may more or less correspond to the natural inclinations of the infant, or may contradict them; therefore, the child’s secondary individualand personproperties are the result of the confluence of biology and culture. The result of such integration of biology and culture is the human’s individuality. Having begun to form from infancy, individuality goes through a long process which never ends, because throughout life, a human experiences challenges both from the social requirements of new activities and new living conditions, and from the side of biological changes, in particular in older age, as a human is subject to aging.

The process of the formation of individuality can be more or less successful. Not everyone can become a truly developed individuality, which gives human personality the property of integrity, and provides good self-regulation and stabilization of psycho-physiological functions with aging, as well as the harmonious interrelation of human tendencies and potencies. A well-developed individuality manifests itself in a holistic self-concept and integrated self-consciousness, a pronounced general individual style of activity. Ananiev considered the most important practical task of psychology to be psychological support and provision for the process of becoming a harmonious individuality.

In other words, it is possible to present the process of the formation of individuality as follows. From birth, the human inherits a number of developmental programs: biological, inherent in his/her genotype; and cultural and educational programs, rooted in his/her society. The focus of the process of individual development, according to Ananiev, is the integration and coordination of these programs of various origins into a single harmonious whole: the structure of individuality which embodies the unity of all levels of human organization. Individuality is primarily a harmony of human properties, their coordinated unity. There is no Universal Law of human development; there are only a number of relatively independent factors, and their influence is mediated and integrated by the individuality of each human being. It is the individuality, the uniqueness of the personality, that defines the vector, direction, and route of human development.

In mature age, the individuality factor becomes dominant. It constitutes the holistic structure of the human being, bringing to harmony one's tendencies and potentials, and determining the structure and development of a person’s psychophysiological functions. Ananiev derives the substructure of an "individual" from his/her biological characteristics; that of a "person" from specifically sociological characteristics; and that of a "Subjekt" from the tools created by civilization. Biology, society, and civilization sprout into the human being, and tend to form his/her psyche, each in accordance with its own laws. Moreover, individuality constitutes the integrating foundation and nucleus, vector, and law of human development

Ananiev's theory of individuality sounds similar to Gordon Allport's ideas on proprium. However, Allport regards proprium as a purely psychological phenomenon, and his seven characteristics of a mature person, who has a well-developed proprium, relate to the psyche. Ananiev sees a human being in flesh and blood, with his/her personality’s unity and integrity manifest not only in the soul, but also in physical reality, in the organization of the body. This makes Ananiev’s approach unique (Mironenko, 2013).

Ananiev considered the relationship and interaction of the “Subjekt” and the “Personality” in the context of the holistic theoretical model of human development. In the context of his theory, a clear and definite answer is presented to the question of how the meanings of the concepts correlate:

  • The personality originates and exists in the context of the interactions between the human individual and society, in the context of culture; the Subjekt exists in the context of civilization and is rooted in productive activities[3].

  • Specific psychic qualities attributable to each of the concepts are described.

Is it possible, however, to expect that the contemporary psychological community will adopt this answer to the question of the relationship between the concepts of “Subjekt” and “Personality?” This is highly unlikely. The differences in the contents of the concepts are polemically pointed out at the price of the obvious narrowing of their meanings; moreover, the meanings clearly differ from the comprehension established in modern Russian psychology.

Notably, the properties that modern researchers are primarily interested in –properties which are attributed both to the Subjektand to the Personality, and which scientists today are trying to “divide” between the concepts of self-regulation, self-consciousness, etc.–Ananiev considers to be beyond the limits of both the Personality and the Subjekt. These properties are the result of the integration of the Personality and the Subjektin the process of individual development.  However, the methodological soundness of Ananiev’s theory, its logic and empirical evidence, deserve attention in the context of contemporary discussions about the relationship between the concepts of “Subjekt” and “Personality.” The conclusion which results through considering the theoretical model elaborated by Ananiev is the need to change the traditional statement of the problem of how to relate the concepts. Both the concept of "Subjekt" and the concept of "Personality" in modern scientific language denote a holistic human psychic organization. Therefore, it is necessary to abandon attempts to consider those as subsystems of a certain whole, and to “divide” mental and other properties between the Subjektand the Personality. These are two aspects of human psyche.

The notion of “Personality” is generally used in international science to designate a holistic human psychic organization. In this regard perhaps the narrower meaning of the concept of “Personality” in Russian Soviet psychology, which focused on the social functions of personality, should be mentioned,  because the notion of “Subjekt” occupies part of the semantic space which Western psychology has given to the “Personality.”

Seeking a Solution: Conclusion

In contemporary Russian psychology, the concept of “Personality” is close in meaning to the Western context. The coexistence of the notion of “Subjekt” along with it makes it difficult to translate Russian texts, and hampers the integration of Russian psychology into the context of the international science. 

The concept of Subjekt(and “Subjektivity” as a qualification to be a Subjekt) refers to Rubinstein. Subjektmeans a self-determined and self-actualizing agent. The proper language equivalent might be the German word “Subjekt,” which was actually used by Rubinstein, who was educated in Marburg as a German philosopher. The active Subjektin German contrasts to the passive Objekt. 

Today “Subjekt” is often translated as subject, and “Subjektivity” as subjectivity, which greatly distorts the meaning of the text; moreover, it deprives the text of any meaning, since in English the meaning of the word “subject” lacks focus on the active role. On the contrary, a subject is something or somebody which is exposed to somebody else’s actions. For example, we can discuss a subject; we use subjects in our research... Such a translation, I believe, is unacceptable for Russian psychological texts. While seeming to conform to the original, such a translation is a travesty.

Is there a solution for this very important problem? Should we do without the concept of “Subjekt” or replace it with some other category?

An interesting case is the well-known categorical system of Michail Yaroshevsky, where the concept of the Subjektis not used (Yaroshevsky, 1971). Yaroshevsky was one of the main theorists in the Russian psychology of the second half of the 20thcentury. He laid the foundations for the Russian school of the history of psychology. All psychological education in the USSR, since the first faculties of psychology opened in Moscow State University and in Leningrad State University in 1966, was grounded on his books on history of psychology.

Yaroshevsky considered the development of psychology as initially multiparadigmal and fragmented. Thus, the history of psychology should serve as the “memory” of psychological science, linking together fragmented knowledge. His theoretical model of the multilevel categorical system (Yaroshevsky, 1971) aimed at the integration of psychological knowledge through revealing the connections and interrelations between different fields of psychology. 

Table 1 

Yaroshevsky’s categorical system of psychological science

Types of categories












Human being 















Basic psychological


















requirement of an organism









The core of Yaroshevsky’s model consists of seven “basic” categories: Self, Motive, Action, Image, Experiencing, Interaction, and Situation (Table 1). These are psychic phenomena. Their main characteristic is their subjective, introspective nature. The categories of the meta-psychological and proto-psychological levels are not psychic phenomena, but psychological, constructed by psychological science in the process of its development, and constituting the subject of psychological science. Meta-psychological categories connect psychology to the social sciences and humanities, and proto-psychological to natural sciences. Each of the basic phenomena can be traced “downwards” and “upwards”; e.g., Organism (biological);  individual (proto-psychological);  self (basic);  personality (meta-psychological); and Human being (Societal). Here, instead of the “Subjekt,” the meta-psychological category of Activity relates to “Personality”. Thus, Personality becomes a synonym for the “Subjekt.”

In contemporary international science, concepts similar in meaning to “Subjekt” have appeared, such as Agency (Gallagher, 2000;Haggard  & Eitam, 2015)  and Actorhood (Frank & Meyer, 2002; Meyer, 2010), which also emphasize the active nature of the individual. Note that the emergence and growing popularity of these concepts in world science testifies to their relevance in the context of the developments of the Russian school, where the concept of the “Subjekt” and the related issues have been elaborated for nearly a century.

Should we use one of these notions when translating the “Subjekt”? I believe such a solution would be no good. Each of these concepts is based on its own logic and history of scientific thought: “The categorical, object-constituting, language of disciplinary communities is, like all language, historical in character…” (Danziger, 2013, p. 836).

In our opinion, the concept of the “Subjekt” must be preserved. For the Russian school, this is one of those concepts that Danziger calls object-constituting. It is grounded in the history of the Russian school and is an indispensable element of its theory.

The best solution seems to be to preserve the German version of the spelling of this concept: the “Subjekt.” Andrey V. Brushlinsky suggested this at the European Congress of Psychology in 2000.  This translation option is still not in use, although examples of preserving the name of a concept in a certain language in psychological discourse abound. The English international discourse contains the concepts Id, Ego, ‘etant, ‘entre,and others. The use of the German word “Subjekt” in the translation of Russian texts will preserve the meaning of the texts and convey  it to the reader, which is worth doing, even if our computer insists on turning it into a “subject” and underlines it with a red line...


This research was supported by Russian Foundation of Basic Research (Project No.17-06-50086)


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1. The relative isolation of Soviet psychology since the 1930s was unilateral. Soviet scientists could familiarize themselves with the development of science in the West either directly orthrough reviews. We can be certain that our scientists knew substantially more about Western science than their foreign colleagues knew about Russian science.

2.The view that Soviet psychology in its development has reached the level of a paradigm is not universally accepted; however, it is shared by a large part of Russian academic community (Zhuravlev & Koltsova, 2008).

3.It is interesting that in the theory of Ananiev the differentiation of culture and civilization is clearly traced, about which culturologists began to speak only at the end of the twentieth century

To cite this article: Mironenko I.A. (2019). Concerning the Vocabulary on Personality in Russian Psychology: “Subjekt” vs. “Personality”. Psychology in Russia: State of the Art, 12(2), 45-57.

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