Aleksandr Podrabinek: Worse than any prison. On punitive psychiatry [Radio Svoboda]

7 June 2024

by Aleksandr Podrabinek

Source: Radio Svoboda 


There has been no miracle. Russia’s return to its Soviet condition has already reanimated many institutions of the totalitarian Communist regime, among them the use of psychiatry for political purposes. No, there has yet to be a wave of psychiatric repressions and mass reports of torture using neuroleptics. According to people and organizations monitoring this problem, there have been approximately 30 such instances in the last few years. The system is still not running smoothly. All this is just the beginning.

Why the state needs this is not entirely clear. Previously, the Communists used psychiatry with a sly glance at the West, as if to say, the dissidents we have aren’t enemies so much as they are ill. In our great mercy, we are treating them. Today’s state frankly doesn’t give a damn about the free world’s opinion; it has ceased to pretend. Previously, it was cases like this that could be brought to a legal decision in the virtually total absence of any evidence whatsoever. The simplified judicial procedure was the solution to a failed investigation. But today even ordinary courts don’t require that kind of evidence; everything has been maximally debased and turned into caricature. There’s no need to simplify judicial procedure, which in Russia has become a mockery of the law.

The return to the practice of psychiatric abuses may have been dictated by the punitive organs’ desire to enrich their instrumentation, to expand their options. Just in case. A skilled master can always use another instrument. Nor can it be ruled out that the authorities are once again taking a closer look at the old ways of intimidating society. Prison and labor camps have become banal. They need more frightening, terroristic threats. And what could be more frightening than a madhouse?

Today’s psych hospitals for coercive treatment are prisons, too, just with a different sign out front. Added to all the traditional horrors of Russian prison are four circumstances that make political prisoners in psych hospitals dream of prison and labor camp.

First. Coercive treatment using neuroleptics is more terrible than the harshest punishment cell in the most sinister prison. The threat of that treatment alone can break the will of a psych hospital prisoner.

Second. The absence of a release date. In prison, the zek knows how many years the court has meted out to him; in a psych hospital the punishment is open-ended. Every six months, a commission of psychiatrists gathers, takes a quick glance at its victim, and issues another decision to extend his imprisonment.

Third. A psych hospital prisoner is stripped of his legal personality. He is no one: not a citizen, not a zek, not a human being. Any complaints he makes about his custodial treatment or violence against him are considered the ravings of a madman and bring punishment in the form of tortuous “treatment” or compulsory attachment to his bed for weeks or even months.

Fourth. In prison, a zek who has not admitted his guilt or started down the path of rehabilitation still gets out at the end of his sentence. A psych hospital demands from the political prisoner repentance and admission that he is ill. That is the term of his release. In the Soviet era, unbroken political prisoners spent many years in special psych hospitals without the slightest hope of ever being freed.

Today, the investigators conducting political cases are looking for psychiatrists prepared to obediently carry out the investigative organs’ instructions. This is not a simple process and takes a lot of time. Far from all doctors are prepared to neglect their professional duty and rubber-stamp the psychiatric diagnoses of political defendants. We know quite a few instances when forensic psychiatrists have refused to determine defendants in political cases to be psychologically ill and of diminished responsibility. How long their persistence will last is hard to say. The selection process is still under way, and, unfortunately, it almost certainly will lead to the creation of a body of doctors prepared for unlawful collaboration with law enforcement organs. It is by no means mandatory that all Russian psychiatrists as one declare their loyalty to the present regime. All it takes is finding a few dozen or hundred such doctors in the country for the punitive psychiatry machine to start operating at full steam.

It should be noted that punitive psychiatry begins not with the political prisoner’s “treatment” and not even with the establishment of a psychiatric diagnosis for him but at the moment his rights are restricted allegedly due to his psychological condition. A good illustration of this is the case of Petersburg resident Aleksandr Skobov, a former Soviet dissident, incarcerated three times in the Soviet period for compulsory treatment and now arrested anew and once again on a political charge. In late May he was sent to Syktyvkar for inpatient forensic psychiatric examination, but at the stage of ordering that examination his procedural rights were violated. The temptation to send Skobov down the beaten path of repressive psychiatry proved too great. And although no psychiatric grounds for sending him for examination were found or even invented, the Petersburg FSB [Federal Security Service] investigator, Justice Major A.V. Kozhukhov, decided to ignore this “trivial detail.” The grounds for ordering expert examination became the fact that during the Soviet years Skobov was sent more than once for compulsory “treatment” for his dissident activity. The decision gives no other reasons for ordering the examination. The KGB is passing the baton of psychiatric repressions from the era of Soviet totalitarianism to its heirs in the FSB.


Translated by Marian Schwartz

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