Soviets' 'Abhorrent' Practice of Punitive Psychiatry Returns

Attributes of the Soviet system have been returning to Russia gradually, one by one, since Vladimir Putin assumed power in late 1999—from symbolic (such as the memorial plaque to Yuri Andropov and the Stalinist national anthem) to very tangible ones, including media censorship and political prisoners. This week, the Russian authorities have returned to one of the most horrid and frightful practices of the Soviet era: punitive psychiatry.

Forced “psychiatric treatment” as a means of punishing political dissenters was used by the Soviet regime since its earliest days (notably, in the case of Maria Spiridonova, the leader of the Left Socialist Revolutionary Party, in 1919), but the practice became widespread after Nikita Khrushchev’s statement in the late 1950s that only the “mentally ill” could be opposed to the Communist government. Under Andropov’s chairmanship of the KGB in the 1960s and 1970s, dozens of prominent political dissidents, human rights activists, and “disloyal” cultural figures—including Vladimir Bukovsky, General Pyotr Grigorenko, Natalia Gorbanevskaya, Joseph Brodsky, Viktor Fainberg, and many others—were declared “insane” and subjected to often torturous “treatment” (some of their stories are shared in the second episode of my documentary They Chose Freedom.)

The fight against punitive psychiatry was a central theme both for human rights activists inside the Soviet Union and for international groups. In 1983, faced with imminent expulsion for their misuse of psychiatry for political purposes, the Soviet Union left the World Psychiatric Association. It was only readmitted in 1989 after officially acknowledging and condemning its past practice of punitive psychiatry. The same acknowledgment was contained in laws passed by the newly independent Russia in 1991 and 1992.

There have already been warning signs that Russian authorities are thinking about a return to the old practice. In 2007, opposition activist Larisa Arap was forcibly hospitalized in Murmansk. But an active pushback by the media and human rights groups, and the spotlight put on the case by Vladimir Bukovsky, by then a presidential candidate, helped both to bring about Arap’s release and to prevent other such cases.

This week, the Russian authorities moved again—this time, in a political show trial, which makes parallels with the Soviet era difficult to refute. Mikhail Kosenko, one of the accused in the “Bolotnaya Square case”—the case against pro-democracy demonstrators who are, despite the evidence, facing absurd charges of “inciting riots”—was declared “mentally ill” and ordered to undergo, for an indefinite period of time, compulsory psychiatric treatment. The decision was taken by Judge Ludmila Moskalenko, of Zamoskvoretsky Court in Moscow, based on the conclusions of medical experts S. Oskolkova, I. Ushakova and M. Tsvetaeva—all of them from the Serbsky Institute that had become infamous in the Soviet era because of its role in punitive psychiatry.

“Mikhail Kosenko is a prisoner of conscience put behind bars for peacefully exercising his right to protest and should be released immediately,” affirmed Amnesty International, which—like many Russians—views the Kosenko verdict as “an abhorrent return to the Soviet-era practices used to silence dissent.” Just as in Soviet times, the Kremlin should not be allowed to get away with this. This time, the response from Western democracies should be swifter and more forceful—especially considering that effective instruments to counter the abusers, such as the Magnitsky Act, are already in place.

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