THE LEGACY OF PSYCHIATRIC ABUSE IN THE USSR – Helsinki Watch
PSYCHIATRIC DETENTION IN THE SOVIET SYSTEM There are two types of psychiatric detention in th e Soviet system: 1) civil commitment , or involuntary placement in a regular psychiatric clinic by relatives or police without a judicial proceeding; and 2) criminal commitment , when an arrest on criminal charges under the penal code is followed by compulsory psychiatric examination, a determination that the defendant is not fit to stand trial for reasons of insanity, and placement by court order in a special forensic psychiatric hospital. Most of the well-known cases of political abuse of psychiatry fall into the second category.
BACKGROUND In the late 1960s and 1970s, procuratorial and KGB agencies increasingly began to send dissidents from the scientific and humanitarian intelligentsia as well as the independnt labor movement to psychiatric detention. The usual pattern was to arrest a dissident on a political charge such as Ar t. 70 (“anti- Soviet agitation and propaganda”) or Art. 190-1 (an ti-state slander), subject him to compulsory psychiatric examination (usually at the Serbsky Institute of Forensic Psychiatry in Moscow), hold a perfunctory trial in absentia , and immediately assign the defendant to indefinite detention in special psychiatric hospitals under the jurisdiction of the Ministry of Internal Affairs. The advantage of forensic psychiatric detention is that no case has to be built in court, behavior can be controlled with drugs, and the “sentence” is indefinite. Hundreds of dissidents went through this torment. Some, like Vladimir Bukovsky and Leonid Plyushch, who managed to get to the West, gave testimonies about sane dissidents who remained incarcerated and about the cruel practices of the mental health system.
There was another, much-less publicized aspect to abuses of psychiatry that affected greater numbers of people — the unlawful incarceration of ordinary people not involved in dissent. They were the victims of disgruntled bosses or spouses who took advantage of a corrupt psychiatric system and an all- powerful and unlawful criminal justice system to rid themselves of troublemakers.
Helsinki Watch does not know the exact number of persons who remain in psychiatric hospitals as political prisoners. The Moscow Helsinki Group includes 47 cases of alleged psychiatric imprisonment in its list of political prisoners (see Appendix I ). In 36 of these cases, there are question marks before the names: it is not clear whether or not they are sane, or, i f they are sane, whether they were incarcerated for political reasons. These cases are of concern to Helsinki Watch because 26 o f the patients were first arrested under the same political articles that have been used to send many well-known dissidents to prison in the past.
On January 9, 1990, Izvestiya followed up a story it had run in the summer of 1989 about a clear example of “telephone justice” used to put one Yury Sobolev of Slavkino V illage into a mental hospital before a voters’ meeting. It quoted the report of A. Loginov, deputy chief of Nikolayevsky Rayon Internal Affairs Department (the police):
I received a telephone call from V. Panasenko, first secretary of Nikolayevsky Party District Committee , who said that Sobolev was hatching some nasty plans for the election campaign meeting. He said that Sobolev must be put away. I telephoned psychiatrist V. Kamalov and explained the situation. He said that he would issue an admission order to a mental hospital.