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Where there is no law, but every man does what is right in his own eyes, there is the least of real liberty
Henry M. Robert

Punitive psychiatry in the USSR

Book by Dutch human rights champion tells about cruel treatment of dissidents in the 1970s-1980s
6 February, 2013 - 18:12

A new book by Dutch political scientist, human rights champion, political essayist Robert Van Voren (pseudonym; real name Johannes Baks), On Dissidents and Madness: From The Soviet Union of Leonid Brezhnev to the “Soviet Union” of Vladimir Putin was launched in Kyiv. It contains the data about the phenomenon of “punitive psychiatry,” which was widespread in the 1970s-1980s.

It happened so that Robert Van Voren, at that time a very young man, who did not have any relation to the USSR, started gathering information about Soviet dissidents who were placed into psychiatric hospitals to be completely broken. And those included many thousands victims. In such a way he became a courier between Ukrainian, Russian, Polish, Baltic dissidents and foreign countries, transferring something “more than bouillon cubes, warm clothes, and medicines.”

During his “subversive” activity, Robert Van Voren made over 100 publications in foreign newspapers and magazines (in Europe and the US), which gave facts of political abuse of psychiatry in the USSR. That was how the human rights champion met Petro Hryhorenko, currently a well-known general, when he was living in emigration, the then dissident Semen Hluzman, and many other dissenters.

“Apart from General Hryhorenko, I managed to talk to a former nurse from the mental hospital he was kept in,” the author of the book says, “And this elderly woman emphasized that he was a very refined, handsome man, a real military man, very accurate, well-bred, organized, clever, who kept telling about his children and wife. But for some reason she did not ask herself, if he was so intelligent, what was he doing in the clinic?”

The book consists of 27 chapters, which recount in a chronological manner the information about the then life in the USSR, memories about communication with dissidents, psychiatric clinics’ staff, human rights activists, etc.

“During Stalin’s rule, the time of mass repressions, manmade famines, and murders, there was no need to take people to psychiatric hospitals. General Nestaiko told me once that Vladimir Ilyich showed him the documentation of Socialistic competition between Kirovohrad and Vinnytsia NKVD divisions. The Kirovohrad NKVD division stated they were planning to detain a certain number of spies, and their colleagues, on the contrary, promised to catch 10 persons more. This is the way the country was living, and there was no need for punitive psychiatry,” human rights activist, psychiatrist, former dissident Hluzman explained. “Apparently, the idea of repressive psychiatry emerged, in the later period of Khrushchev’s time and in the time of Brezhnev, because people were no more afraid. A phenomenon we call dissident movement emerged. In fact it was not a movement: those were few persons in the crowd who said ‘The king is naked!’ Each of them said this in their own way. And it was clear that it was no more possible to implement ‘execution’ articles, punishment of Stalin’s type, because the country had changed: it was quite open, compared to the previous decades. Apparently, in this situation – and I say ‘apparently,’ because there were no witnesses or documents, but there are surmises and versions of serious experts – repressive psychiatry was initiated by the Andropov group: that was a way out for them. What does repression in a special mental facility mean? It is when the term of treatment is not defined, it may last for 2 or 10 years, or it may become an ‘eternal psychiatric hospital bed,’ as they used to say at that time. These are horrible conditions: you are kept in a huge ward with people who have grave mental disorders, who have eaten or killed somebody (with people, who have been terribly ruined by the disease and do not understand what they do and what they say), where nurses are criminals and drug addicted, who beat you for refusal to give them some of your personal possessions or food, and many other things. And one day you feel like a ‘vegetable.’ This is truly a horrible repression.”

Semen Hluzman said that he served his sentence in a strict-security Soviet camp and it was a recreation facility compared to the psychiatric clinics where dissidents were kept. That is why former victims of punitive psychiatry now refuse to give evidence, because these memories are too hard for them and it is practically impossible to become free from the horror you experienced.

“We know that starting from 1973 a lot of mental hospitals were being constructed, and new buildings were added to already existing clinics. Apparently, the decision was made at that time to ‘broaden psychiatry,’” – says Van Voren. According to the data of the author of the book and his colleagues, about one-third of dissidents at that time were taken to mental hospitals. This publication is a “terrifying story about the facts which must be known by historians, psychiatrists, and lawyers,” Robert Van Voren considers.

By Oksana MYKOLIUK, The Day