When dissidents were put in mental hospitals

In Stalin’s time, Russian political prisoners actually wanted to be sent to a mental hospital instead of the prison camps, because once you recanted and agreed with the diagnosis, you might be released. But after Stalin, the next leader of the USSR, Khrushchev, wanted to build Communism without the horrors of Stalin.  In Communism, criminality was supposed to disappear, and everyone was supposed to agree with the ideology. So he said that those who expressed dis-satisfaction with Communism must be mentally ill. This wasn’t just a remark, it was a directive, and special psychiatric hospitals began to spring up like mushrooms.

Vladimir Bukovsky was one of the dissatisfied, and a panel of doctors asked him:

  1. Why was he in conflict with society and its accepted norms?
  2. Why did his beliefs seem more important than his liberty, his studies or his mother’s peace of mind? For instance, he had been warned not to go to Mayakovsky Square, but he kept going there.

Bukovsky could have said that “society was at fault” for his conflict with it, but then that would be saying that everyone else was wrong, and he was right. That would make him sound like a madman. If he mentioned persecution by the KGB, then he would get “persecution complex” put in his dossier. He says that one dissident quoted Lenin who had also been in conflict with society, but that tactic would “only get you a note in your case history ‘Suffering from delusions of grandeur, compares self with Lenin.'”

Bukovsky was put in the “Special Mental Hospital” in Leningrad. The orderlies were criminal convicts. He says they were like savage dogs. There were real madmen in the hospital too, one of whom kept calling out loud for a free Ukrainian state. The guards would beat him, and Bukovsky sometimes tried to intervene and got punched so hard he was sent flying under the bed. The prisoner would be listed as violent, (though it was the guards who had been violent) so he would be injected with “aminazine”.

Bukovsky says that the true masters in the mental hospital were the junior service personnel: the orderlies, the nurses, and the guards. If you did not come to terms with them, they would torture or even kill you.

Bukovsky being interviewed on “Firing Line”

Bukovsky was then moved to a cell with two murderers. He says that the hospital was so poorly constructed that you would hear shouting from all sides, including the cries of people being beaten.
“In a cell opposite ours, a young fellow would keep yelling intermittently: “Soviet spacemen will be the first to land on the moon!”. This fellow’s cell mates would tease him, so he would yell louder and louder, until the orderlies would burst in and beat him. The nurses then duly noted that he was violent, and he got pumped full of aminazine.

In the mental hospital, there was total lack of any rights, and compulsory treatment. There was also no one to complain to, for every complaint got added as one more proof of your insanity.

To get a discharge, you had to acknowledge your sickness and condemn your previous behavior.
One prisoner, a geophysicist and winner of a Stalin Prize, refused. As a result his health had been undermined by the beatings and injections.

The three remedies for “violence” were:

  1. “aminazine” which made the patient fall into a  stupor
  2. sulfazine – which inflicted excruciating pain on the patient and induced a high fever for two days
  3. the “roll-up” – a prisoner would be wrapped in a wet sheet, and when the sheet dried, it shrank, inflicting terrible pain. Usually this would cause the prisoner to lose consciousness, so the nurses would loosen the roll-up slightly, so he could breathe and come-round, and then tighten it again. This would be repeated several times.

A few of the doctors called the hospital “our little Auschwitz.” Bukovsky said that “it went without saying that the patient was not human, that he couldn’t and shouldn’t have any desires or human feelings” and the staff were inured to cruelty.
The prisoners were under a hanging sword that could fall at any time. Bukovsky says the staff injected on such a mass scale that after awhile the needle would no longer go into your buttocks.

Bukovsky was lucky. He did not get a single pill or injection during his stay. He got transferred to a section run by an old man, Kalinin, who did not believe in the Moscow school of psychiatry. Schizophrenics, in his view, must either be psychopaths, alcoholics, or malarials. So he asked Bukovsky if he had ever been bitten by mosquitoes, and if he had ever drunk alcohol, and Bukovsky, despite having been in Siberia where there are clouds of mosquitoes, of course said he had never seen a mosquito.

Another humorous (or horrible) story was that of the person who tried to get into the American embassy. To do this, he had made himself up as a negro. But the embassy told him he needed permission from the Soviet authorities, so he had to leave.
“At this point, it started to rain, and he started to turn streaky under the noses of some policemen. Soviet judicial psychiatry justly concluded that only a madman would voluntarily wish to change from being white to being black, and then apply to go to America, where, as is well-known, they lynch even their own blacks. Now these racial whims of his were being eradicated by injections.”

Some patients had tried to flee the USSR using imaginative methods such as rubber dinghies, in Aqualungs underwater, in homemade helicopters, and gliders. Obviously they were demented, for who would want to be free at a time, when, “after all the mistakes, the contours of true communism were at last beginning to grow visible?”
Even when prisoners were considered for release, traps were set for them. Staff began to insult them and try to make them lose their tempers. There were instances when a man was actually led out to the gatehouse for what looked like his final release. He would say good-bye to all his friends, pick up his bags, and walk off to freedom. Only, on the way out, the nurses would still be trying to provoke him, and it was known for a man to be turned back at the very gate if he rose to the provocation.

In 2016 Bukovsky mysteriously contracted a rare infection that attacked his heart valves, and was not expected to live. While this was going on, the British Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) had authorized prosecuting him, for five charges of making (their odd way of saying downloading) indecent images of children, five charges of possession of indecent images of children and one charge of possession of a prohibited image.
Bukovsky believes that Putin’s operatives planted what he says are some 20,000 indecent images of children on his computer and then tipped off the British police using Europol, the EU’s law-enforcement agency.

He was unable to appear as summoned on May 5, 2015. By then, he was suffering multiple internal-organ failures. He was flown to a Munich clinic for emergency heart surgery, after which he remained in a medically induced coma. In August 2015, Bukovsky appeared in court, in a wheelchair, to plead not guilty to all the charges.

People are still put in mental hospitals for believing the wrong things. It happened to a Muslim who decided he was an atheist. According to an article in the Guardian in 2002, it happens in China. It may even be finding a renaissance in Russia.


https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SBoAEhnKiU8 (a speech by Bukovsky and William Buckley)

To Build a Castle: My Life as a Dissenter – January 31, 1979 by Vladimir Bukovsky


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