Punitive Psychiatry (1977)

Vladimir Bukovsky

Foreword to Bloch & Reddaway, Russia’s political hospitals

The peculiar features of the Soviet political system, the Communist ideology, the uncertainties and difficulties of the science of psychiatry, the labyrinths of the human conscience – all these have weirdly woven themselves together to create a monstrous phenomenon, the use of medicine against man.

Paradoxical though this phenomenon seems, it is, apparently, symptomatic of our times, times in which the highest achievements of human thought, science, and technology have suddenly boomeranged against man, putting his very existence in doubt. The rapid development of technology threatens to break down our ecology, and the discovery and exploration of atomic energy have made possible the complete destruction of life.

bukovsky-1977When Pinel first removed the chains from the mentally ill and thereby freed them from punishment as criminals, who would have guessed that two centuries later prisoners would look with fear at Pinel’s successors, preferring chains to their “care”?

These pernicious phenomena have unexpectedly brought to the fore such apparently old-fashioned concepts as human conscience and man’s moral and ethical principles. Evidently a profound and lengthy reconsideration of habitual values will be needed, a re-thinking of accepted ideas, if we are to find a way out of the situation which has come about. Serious, fundamental research is essential, which will make it possible lo examine every facet of these complex and dangerous phenomena.

One such piece of research is this book. For many years I have studied the question of psychiatric abuse in the Soviet Union, and can therefore judge accurately the enormous amount of work performed by the authors. Without doubt Bloch and Reddaway’s book will be a kind of encyclopaedia, an indispensable source for all those interested in the problem of psychiatric abuse. Among its merits are the impeccable documentation, the detachment of the analysis, and the combination of a scientific method and a fluent, readable style. I believe that all this will ensure for the book a wide readership and will also assist, ultimately, in the cleansing and resurrection of Soviet psychiatry.

For most Western people it is psychologically difficult to grasp the atmosphere of a country in which phenomena like those described in this book have become routine. I often see looks of incomprehension when I describe life in the Soviet Union. Sometimes I deduce from the questions put to me that no understanding exists at all. Occasionally I am overwhelmed by despair and lose faith in the power of the human word. It is virtually impossible to explain the degree to which life in the USSR is unreal. It is not, there, theories and conclusions which develop out of the raw material of life, but, on the contrary, the raw material of everyday life is created to fit in with the ruling theory. Life does not develop normally and naturally in accordance with its inner laws, but is created artificially in ways calculated not to undermine the basic principles of the ideology.

The ruling doctrine asserts that being determines consciousness. As Socialism has been built in the USSR, and Communism is being built, the consciousness of people must be exclusively Communist. Where, then, can belief in God appear from, if for 60 years atheism has been propagated and the preaching of religion outlawed? And from where does an opponent of Communism come – in a Communist society ?

Within the confines of Communist doctrine there are only two possible explanations: the cause must lie either in subversive activity directed from abroad (i.e., every dissenter has been bought or recruited by the imperialists) or in mental illness: dissent is just a manifestation of pathological processes in the psyche.

As life in the USSR does not develop freely, but is “interpreted” by the Party, these two principles mean that every dissenter whom it is difficult or inconvenient to pursue under the first heading is automatically assigned to the second.

The Soviet psychiatrist is a part of the Soviet system. He cannot say, “I find no symptoms of illness in this person”. He cannot reach his conclusions inductively, he must follow the prescribed deductive method. He cannot regard dissent as a normal phenomenon generated by the realities of Soviet existence: if he did, he would become a dissenter himself. And not everyone is capable of that: family, children, professional career and the quiet life are automatically put at risk. Ahead lies nothing but harassment, persecution, condemnation, quarrels and lack of understanding in his family – relatives accusing him of selfishness, and of indifference to his children. Also the incomprehension of those around him, his colleagues – “What’s the point of it all? Do you really think you can change anything like that? You can’t shift a mountain with a shovel!” And in truth, one has to be decidedly “different” to become a dissenter in the USSR.

Now, when I hear from all sides so many high-sounding words and assurances of sympathy and support, when I hear condemnation of dishonest Soviet psychiatrists, when I see amazement in people’s eyes – “How could doctors be so venal?” – I involuntarily find myself wondering: who among you, if you suddenly lived in the Soviet Union, would choose the freedom to be different? Would many of you be so eccentric as in want to be persecuted for the sake of an abstract honesty before your conscience?

I fear that not many would prove capable of acting out in such conditions the righteous incomprehension which they voice now. Evidence for this view is the outcome of the World Psychiatric Congress in Mexico in 1971, when the question of Soviet abuse was simply swept under the carpet. A sad episode, which, I trust, will not be repeated this year in Honolulu.

Bonn, 22 January 1977

Sidney Bloch & Peter Reddaway dedicated Russia’s political hospitals (1977) to “Vladimir Bukovsky, Semyon Gluzman and all defenders of humane psychiatry in the Soviet Union”