Political Psychiatry in the USSR

The blatant abuse of psychiatry in the Soviet Union already has a long history. Special psychiatric hospitals as prisons for “political criminals” were first established in the late 1930s by Andrei Vyshinsky, the Soviet Prosecutor-General and ringmaster of the Stalinist show trials as a way of dealing with some of the victims provided by Nikolai Yezhov, the head of the secret police. These hospitals were entirely a Soviet invention: the incarceration of innocent people in insane asylums was a rarity in Tsarist days.

The death of Stalin gave rise to a glimmer of hope that the situation would be rectified. In the mid-1950s, a commission set up by the Central Committee of the Communist party to investigate the position of psychiatric institutions in the Soviet Union, reported that hundreds of normal, healthy people were inmates of such institutions. Hospitals in Kazan and Leningrad were filled with victims of the Stalin purges plus a few genuinely mentally-ill people, dubbed “political prisoners” to create a semblance of credibility.

The commission which included several well-known professors of psychiatry and leading communists, concluded that a fundamental reappraisal of the method of psychiatric diagnosis was urgently needed. It also recommended that the existing psychiatric hospitals be converted into first-class medical institutions under the supervision of the Soviet Ministry of Health.

The findings of the commission were not even considered by the central Committee. It is believed that the report was sat upon by the Stalinist members of this committee and then quietly put into the archives.

Although repairing many of the effects of Stalin’s misrule, Nikita Krushchev clearly accepted the use of mental hospitals to deal with people who were a nuisance to him. “A crime”, he declared, “is a deviation from generally accepted standards of behaviour, frequently caused by mental disorder. Can there be any diseases, mental disorders, among certain men in a Communist society? Evidently there can be. If that is so, then, there can be delinquencies characteristic of people of an abnormal mind.” (Pravda May 24 1959)

One of the most notorious places for such abuses is the Serbsky Institute of Forensic Psychiatry in Moscow. Yaakov Khansis “a Prisoner of Zion” spent some time there at the beginning of 1972 and emerged a completely shattered man. (Last month Khansis was transferred from a prison camp in Kirov to the psychiatric section of a prison hospital in the same city)

The Serbsky Director, Professor Daniel Lunts, has worked at the Institute since the early 1950s. It is normally attached to the Ministry of Health, but Lunts has often been seen at work in the uniform of a colonel of the KGB, the Soviet secret police.

The London Economist, reporting on the findings of Professor Norman Hirt, a well-known Canadian psychiatrist, made the following observations about Lunts in its issue of May 8 1972:

He is said to have told patients that “when I say a man is schizophrenic, he is schizophrenic. Just as if I say an ashtray is schizophrenic.” And this man is responsible for perfecting a system whereby virtually every Soviet citizen who has ever undergone any psychiatric examination may find himself pronounced neurotic or psychotic on the flimsiest grounds.

So pervasive is the power of the KGB that it may at any time decide to arrest a political dissident, merely on the basis of former illnesses and confine him within the notorious special psychiatric clinic, or, after a bogus trial, to an indefinite term in one of the notorious special psychiatric hospitals. It is Dr Lunts who has built up the techniques of mock “medical investigations” and who is most frequently responsible for the forced medical “treatment” of people against the wishes of their relatives, despite contrary evidence adduced by lawyers and acquaintances and even regardless of other medical judgment.

The sad case of Yan Krilsky, at present is a special psychiatric hospital in Sychyovka in the Smolensky region, is even more revealing. Krilsky grew up in the Perlovka suburb of Moscow in an anti-Semitic atmosphere. He was the only Jew in his class at school and was always being beaten up by the other pupils to the cries of “Zhid”. Constant attacks and harassment led to a growing awareness of his Jewishness and eventually to a desire to emigrate to Israel.

Krilsky’s first brush with the authorities came at a football match when he criticised the performance of a team which was being cheered by some policemen. When they shouted “You bloody Jew” to Krilsky, he answered back and was jailed for fifteen days for hooliganism.

Since then Yan Krilsky’s quick temper had erupted more than once and caused him trouble with the authorities. In October 1971, Krilsky was attacked by a drunkard, Bykov, on his way to the cinema with a Russian girl. Bykov came up and asked for a light. Krilsky politely refused as he didn’t smoke. Bykov suddenly assailed the girl, shouting, “Why do you go out with a yid?” A fight ensued and when the militia arrived, both men were taken to the nearest police station where witnesses testified that Bykov had been the culprit.

Nothing more was heard about the incident until Krilsky’s father, Julius, submitted documents for emigration to Israel in January 1972. In mid-January Yan Krilsky was dragged from his bed by a number of KGB men. Two months later, a Moscow judge accused Krilsky of “hooliganism” and rejected Bykov’s written confession that he had, in fact, been responsible for the incident. A commission of experts, called in to diagnose Krilsky’s condition cited one symptom of his illness as being “militant Zionism”. The judge committed Yan to a mental hospital.

Yan was then transferred to the special psychiatric hospital in Sychyovka. “The Chronicle of Current Events”, the journal of the Soviet Human Rights movement has committed on this institution: “People who land in this colony are reduced to a condition of complete mental collapse.”

On arrival Krilsky was kept in a room where eighteen other people, many of them dangerous criminals and not allowed to leave the building for six months. At the end of last year, he was transferred to a special ward and strapped to his bed. This was supposed to be a punishment for this alleged incitement of other prisoners against the hospital orderlies.

In other cases where such punishment has been meted out, prisoners are not allowed to go to the toilet and bedpans are not provided. It has also been reported that Krilsky has been injected with sulphazine, a substance not used in normal medical practice, which consists of a one per cent solution of purified sulphur in a peach-oil base. The drug induces fever, headaches, rheumatism of the joints, and pains in the buttocks where the injection is usually administered.

Two months ago, Krilsky’s father came to London and consulted leading psychiatrists about his son. A specialist in psychological medicine, Dr Harold Merskey of the National Hospital for Nervous Diseases, observed afterwards:

Assuming that Mr Krilsky’s account is correct – and it does appear to me to be truthful – one can say that perhaps his son has a hot-bloodied temperament, but there is no evidence of schizophrenia, none to justify compulsory confinement in a mental hospital which he is now reported to be having.

When Krilsky’s case was published in the British press, many concerned people sent protest telegrams to the hospital in Sychkovka. Within a few days, Krilsky’s mother was called to the hospital and told that if any more cable s arrived from Britain, her son would be charged with anti-Soviet activities. The cables continued to come in increasing numbers. Krilsky was later unstrapped from the bed and the conditions under which he was held improved.

The hospital regime is that of a prison: in theory, one hour’s exercise a day, visitors once a month to relatives, one parcel a month. Krilsky’s reality is something different. Medieval torture wrapped in the mantle of twentieth century science is designed to make the victim admit that he had been wrong. But Yan Krilsky is stubborn and continues to refuse to confess to the men in white coats.

Even if the prisoner is relatively sane when he enters such an institution, the beatings and the medical punishments do not gurantee that his mind will be normal when he leaves or rather if he leaves. Other drugs, used at Sychkovka, include aminazine and reserpine. The former causes complete lack of muscular control, destruction of the memory system and the complete exhaustive collapse of the victim, who sleeps for days on end. Reserpine destroys the protein structure of the brain.

The use of wet canvas has been reported in the Serbsky Institute. Long strips of the material are wrapped around the victim from head to toe. As the canvas dries, it contracts and causes considerable pain.

Psychiatrists all over the world have gradually begun to understand the methods of Professor Lunts and other KGB officials posing as professional men. Initially psychiatrists were reluctant to criticise colleagues in another country and official discussion of the problem was politely ignored at the World Psychiatric Association’s congress in Mexico in 1971.

Since then there has been a growing awareness and horror at the malpractice of certain Soviet psychiatrists, more fundamentally, the abuse of the moral basis of the profession.

Last January a group of 28 psychiatrists in Geneva sent an open letter to Soviet health Minister Petrovsky, calling for ‘a broadly based enquiry to be initiated into the issue of normal people who have been interned in such institutions.

Yet there are still those who remain unconvinced at the sufferings of a man like Yan Krilsky and abide comfortably in the respectability of their work, they should read what Alexander Solzhenitsyn:

It is time to think clearly: the incarceration of free-thinking healthy people in madhouses is spiritual murder. It is a variation of the gas chamber, but even more cruel: the torture of the people being killed is more malicious and more prolonged. Like the gas chambers, these crimes will never be forgotten, and all those involved in them will be condemned for all time, during their life and after their death.

Jerusalem Post 22 June 1973



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