Grigory Pasko: Independence Punished by Psychiatry in Russia, Part 3

[The following is the final installment of Grigory Pasko’s reporting on punitive psychiatry and interviews with journalist Andrei Novikov. See Part 1 and Part 2.]

“Psychiatry for the state is a supplementary element of the police system, convenient when it isn’t possible to prove somebody’s guilt, but when the person is just really getting in the way of the state.” – from I. Girich’s foreword to V. Nekipelov’s 2005 book «Institut durakov» [Institute of Fools]

“You can’t understand Russia with the mind…” By Grigory Pasko, journalist Some men were sitting next to me in the train back home from Yaroslavl, drinking beer. One was reading a book about chekists (you can’t even imagine how many of them are being published in contemporary Russia!), the other was talking incessantly: about railroads, about perestroika (which had “destroyed the USSR”), about how the toilet was perpetually closed… I recalled a phrase from Anton Chekhov’s tale «Ward No. 6»: “‘Which one of us two is insane?’, he thought with aggravation. ‘Is it I, who an trying not to trouble the passengers in any way, or is it this egoist, who thinks he’s smarter and more interesting than everybody here, and therefore isn’t giving anybody any peace?’” bol-star1228.jpg Main building of the psychiatric hospital in Rybinsk (photo by Grigory Pasko)

It goes without saying that I was still thinking about my meeting with the journalist Andrei Novikov, who had been locked up in a nut-house for his articles. And I couldn’t help myself – my mind kept returning to Chekhov’s renowned creation. Truth to tell, Russia has been compared for a long time already to Ward No. 6 – that is, to a madhouse. It is enough to recall Tyutchev’s famous aphorism: “You can’t understand Russia with the mind…”And then there’s the adage about the two eternal troubles: fools and roads. And I also recall reading somewhere: “In a land of fools, the smart have always been regarded as nutcases”.And there you have it, Russia and fools – sounds like an excellent topic for an entire politico-sociological research project. All the more so if you consider the existence of such a unique system as Soviet psychiatric establishments.I actually often visited one of them in my day. Once upon a time, as a young lieutenant, I rented an apartment in Vladivostok. My landlady worked in the audit department of Primorsky Kray. After each audit of how state funds were being spent, she would fall into a depression, and would talk without prompting about the embezzlement of fantastic sums and kept on threatening to tell the truth about the bureaucrat-thieves. She never did manage to do this: one fine day, an ambulance came for her, and two burly orderlies drove my landlady off to the nut-house. There, they asked her about relatives. She, the fool, named me. And one fine day they came for me as well. They brought me to the office of the head doctor. A commission was sitting there. They started to interrogate me: had I been a relative a long time (!); how had citizeness G. behaved; how often had she had episodes, and so on.Soon, of course, it emerged that I wasn’t any relative, but I still continued to carry parcels to my landlady for a long time thereafter. And for a long time I observed the life of a madhouse as an outsider. I saw the patients and the methods with which they were treated. The nut-house left an oppressive impression on me. It was back then, I recall, that I re-read «Ward No. 6» yet again. There’s a passage there: “Having inspected the hospital, Andrei Yefimich came to the conclusion that the institution was devoid of morals and was in the highest degree harmful to the health of the inhabitants. In his opinion, the smartest thing that could be done would be to release the patients, and to close the hospital down…” And another one: “There is nothing on earth that is so good as to not have originated from something nasty.”They let my landlady out in a year. Then they invited me to the Kray party committee and asked me to move out of the apartment. When I came by to visit citizeness G. a month later, there were already some other people living in her apartment.Even back then I understood: inspector-auditor G. was unwanted, and that was why they locked her up in the madhouse.By the way, many years later, I once again found myself in that same office of the head doctor of the hospital on Shepetkov street. When they had already arrested me and charged me with espionage “in favor of Japanese journalists”, they took me for a psychiatric examination. The interrogated me for a long time, trying to get me to turn to the thought myself: can a person who is resisting the KGB and the entire vast machinery of state be in full possession of his faculties? But my thought, like a cruise missile with a faulty guidance system, simply could not be turned. As a result, they wrote in their expert report, as I recall today, that I was “steady in the Romberg’s test position” and something about mental overexertion.Later I found out that disposing of the unwanted in such a sophisticated method – placement in forcible treatment in a psychiatric hospital – is a totally unique policy and distinctive art of the Soviet state of workers and peasants.There is a wonderful book about the Institute of Forensic Psychiatry Named After Serbsky. It was written by a former inmate of this institution, the human rights advocate and writer Viktor Nekipelov. In the book, «Institut durakov» [Institute of Fools], he writes: “The doctors… are responsible for their criminal acts of locking up people known to be healthy in psychiatric hospitals for their convictions and a way of thinking that does not coincide with the state standard. …I believe that one day, a real trial will be conducted of these people… I believe in a free, democratic Russia, in which such a trial will be possible.”I too believe in a democratic Russia. But I know that this will not happen tomorrow, and not even the day after. Because right now, the country is being run by the NKVD/KGB/FSB – the very agency that is the employer of those on the Rybinsk psychiatric hospital building (photo by Grigory Pasko)Twin casesThe “Nikipelov case” was conducted by the Vladimir Oblast procuracy, but prompted by the Oblast KGB. The “Novikov case” was conducted by the Rybinsk procuracy, but prompted by the FSB.In the capacity of “criminal acts”, imputed to Novikov were unpublished articles supposedly with calls to extremism.Nekipelov was alleged to have written “slanderous” articles and poems, a sketchy outline of a plan for a book yet to be written, the transmission of a samizdat magazine to another person. Nekipelov was tried for thinking differently. They found him mentally competent and able to stand trial, but he sat eight years in a strict regime camp and got out in 1987 a gravely ill person. He died in 1989 at the age of 60 years.In one of his articles, Nekipelov wrote: “I believe that Russia will cleanse itself, will recover its sight, will outlive the fear and will take away once and for all from its rulers the age-old habit of poking around in books and minds!”Russia has not cleansed itself. The age-old habit remains. Because the power still has an organization that isn’t subject to anybody’s control – the KGB.Larisa Arap, Artyom Basyrov, Andrei Novikov – these are but three instances during the course of one year of people unwanted by the KGB being put in the nut-house. But how many others are there in all Russia? How many Apatits and Rybinsks there are on this huge territory! And everywhere there is the KGB, and procuracies and psychiatrists subordinate to them.They’re all still poking around in our books and our minds.