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I. F. Stone Reports: Betrayal by Psychiatry

Let History Judge

by Roy A. Medvedev
Knopf, 584 pp., $12.50

A Question of Madness

by Zhores Medvedev, by Roy Medvedev
Knopf, 223 pp., $5.95

A Chronicle of Current Events Republished in English by Amnesty International Publications, Turnagain Lane, Farringdon St., London EC4, England

Journal of the Soviet Human Rights Movement
Published Bi-Monthly in Samizdat in Moscow. Issues No. 16 to 21, $10.00 a year

The essence of the struggle, in my view, is the struggle against fear—the fear that has gripped the people since the time of Stalin and which has still not left people and thanks to which this system continues to exist.

—Vladimir Bukovsky


The voices of dissent filtering through from the Soviet Union should have a double interest in the West. They are the beginnings of a struggle to achieve a synthesis of socialism with freedom. They are also a warning of what can happen elsewhere. For what the non-conformists in the Soviet bloc are up against is more than a reflection of Russian backwardness and Marxist degeneration.

The habits and mentality bred by bureaucracy and by any secret political police are universal phenomena; technology has improved the means of surveillance and repression everywhere; new methods for dealing with nonconformists, like the Soviet practice of committing them to insane asylums, may spread from their society to ours. The theory that communism and capitalism will converge was put forward by optimists in the hope that the former would become more liberal and the latter more socialistic. But the convergence—unless the independent-minded everywhere are on their guard—may develop less happily. The capitalist and soviet forms of industrial society may borrow the worst rather than the best from each other. The struggle to reform society there is linked with the struggle to prevent its deformation here. This is a common, a planetary, cause.

Fifty years of experience with communism have demonstrated that socialism without freedom, whatever its declared intentions, turns into a suffocating nightmare. Yet a third of the human race lives under it and the Third World is moving in the same direction. The full mobilization of productive resources in the under-developed countries seems unattainable without some form of socialism and—to be honest about it—some form of coercion of the labor force, the most important resource of all. Many of the features of Stalinism reappear under Mao in China and Castro in Cuba. The problem of achieving a synthesis of socialism and freedom is matched only by racism among the urgent problems of mankind.

The underground discussion in the Soviet Union may contribute to a solution at two different stages of social development. How does a communist society find its way back to free expression and the rule of law after its industrial plant, the substructure of a better life, has been built up? How can a developing society learn from the Stalinist era to avoid the pitfalls in which so much human energy, idealism, and labor power may be destroyed or squandered by the easy acceptance of stereotypes about the dictatorship of the proletariat?

Law and freedom exact a price and may indeed slow development. But the story of the Stalin years, as told by Roy A. Medvedev in Let History Judge, shows that official lawlessness and lack of freedom exact a price, too, and a heavy one. Perhaps the heaviest of all is that law and freedom, once lost, are difficult to regain. This is implicit in A Question of Madness by Roy and his twin, “Zhores,” i.e., Jaurès.1 The experience they relate is another warning of the drift into neo-Stalinist habits within the Soviet Union. The Chronicle of Current Events, now available in English thanks to Amnesty International, is the underground samizdat publication—impressively sober and factual—of a heroic little army of dissenters trying to combat this undertow and establish human rights in the Soviet Union. They are writing one of the great chapters in the history of the struggle for freedom, and their ultimate success or failure will have worldwide repercussions.

Intellectuals in the West can and must help. In A Question of Madness one can see how important protest and publicity abroad are to the embattled handful of Soviet nonconformists. Letters and telegrams from foreign scientists—and publicity on the BBC and other foreign broadcasts—helped win the release of Jaurès Medvedev from the mental hospital to which he had been railroaded for his book attacking Lysenkoism and for his efforts to increase contacts between Soviet scientists and foreign colleagues.2

The book is itself an extraordinary narrative, as tense as a good novel, in which the twin brothers, Jaurès inside a mental hospital, Roy outside it, describe in alternate and contrapuntal chapters how the fight to free Jaurès was won. Unfortunately no other dissident has had the energy and prestige, and a twin, to marshal so large a sector of the Soviet scientific elite and of scientists abroad. Clearly the Medvedevs even split the bureaucracy. Foreign protest made it possible for wiser and more conciliatory elements to argue intramurally that the continued incarceration of Jaurès was making an impression abroad the Soviet Union could ill afford.

Roy Medvedev was even told by an informant he identifies only as “R” that inside the Ministry of Health the chief psychiatrist, Dr. Andrei V. Snezhnevsky, angrily told the doctor in charge of Jaurès’s commitment, “In a year’s time there is going to be an international psychiatric congress in Mexico City. How do you think this is going to make our delegation look!”3 We shall meet Dr. Snezhnevsky again.


The Mexico City congress has been inadequately reported in the West, but it turned out to be a sequel to A Question of Madness. The outcome may dishearten Soviet dissidents unless psychiatrists organize independently to act on their appeal. On the eve of the congress (November 28—December 4, 1971) there were two messages to it from the Soviet Union. One, signed by Andrei Sakharov and three other Soviet scientists, was from the Human Rights Movement which has been publishing the Chronicle since 1968 and is trying to create a Soviet equivalent of the American Civil Liberties Union. In an open letter which was published in The Times of London last October 23, they asked the congress to launch an inquiry into “the complex of questions concerning the rights of people ruled to be mentally ill,” adding pointedly, “It should not be forgotten that such abuses can be practiced as a means of political persecution.” It made no direct reference to the commitment of dissenters to mental institutions and special prison “hospitals” in the Soviet Union but asked that commissions be set up “in various countries” to study the problem.

The other appeal originated with Vladimir Bukovsky, a hero of the struggle for freedom in the USSR, a young man who has spent seven of his twenty-nine years in lunatic asylums, “corrective labor” camps, and prisons. He was first arrested in 1963 for having copies of Djilas’s book The New Class in his possession. He was declared insane and spent a year and a half in the Leningrad prison hospital. In December, 1965, he was again arrested and sent to the Serbsky Institute for Forensic Psychiatry, which is notorious in the growing underground literature of protest as a KGB institution.4

Bukovsky’s offense that time was organizing a demonstration of 200 people in Moscow who unfurled a banner reading “Respect the Constitution” and asked for an open trial for the writers Sinyavsky and Daniel. He was held in the Serbsky until the following August and released without explanation after Amnesty International sent a representative to Moscow and threatened an inquiry into the affair. In January, 1967, he was arrested again and this time given three years in “corrective labor” camps after organizing another demonstration in defense of other arrested writers. After his release in January, 1970, this intrepid young man sent abroad 150 pages of documentation including copies of the diagnostic reports made by psychiatrists who committed six Russian civil liberties crusaders to mental hospitals. Among them was the report on the famous Major General Grigorenko. With the documents, he sent a letter appealing to psychiatrists abroad.

I realize,” Bukovsky wrote,5 “that at a distance and without the essential clinical information it is very difficult to determine the mental condition of a person, and either to diagnose an illness or assert the absence of any illness. Therefore I ask you to express your opinion on only this point: do the above-mentioned diagnoses contain enough scientifically based evidence not only to indicate the mental illnesses described in the diagnoses but also to indicate the necessity of isolating these people completely from society?” Bukovsky said he would be happy if the matter could be placed on the agenda of the Mexico City congress for discussion. He appealed to psychiatrists to give some time to the problem of this abuse of their science, “just as physicists find time to combat the use of their science in ways harmful to mankind.”

Two weeks after the news of these documents and the letter were published last March in The Times (London), Bukovsky was again arrested. But the materials he sent abroad were translated and last September forty-four British psychiatrists sent a letter to The Times summarizing their study of the documents. They declared themselves “impelled to express grave doubts about the legitimacy of compulsory treatment for the six people concerned, and indefinite confinement in prison mental hospital conditions.”6 They declared that four of the six “do not appear to have any symptoms at all which indicate a need for treatment, let alone treatment of such a punitive kind.” In the case of the other two, Gobanevskaya and Fainberg, the official diagnostic reports showed they had had symptoms of mental illness earlier in their lives. But the illness had occurred in one case seven years and in the other eighteen years before their arrest for taking part in a protest in Red Square August 25, 1968, against the occupation of Czechoslovakia. The records showed no recurrence in the intervening years.

The forty-four British psychiatrists concluded that the diagnoses of the six seemed to have been “made purely in consequence of actions in which they were exercising fundamental freedoms—as set out in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and guaranteed by the Soviet Constitution.” They praised Bukovsky for his courage, asked the Soviet government to reconsider his case, and called on colleagues “throughout the world to study the voluminous material now available, to discuss the matter with their Soviet colleagues, some of whom we know to have doubts as grave as our own,” and to raise the issue, as Bukovsky requested, at international conferences such as that of the World Psychiatric Association in Mexico City.

Medvedev had been set free by the time the congress convened. But the other dissidents—and, of course, Bukovsky—were still being held. Yet the congress took no action on these appeals, though Dr. Ramon de la Fuente, president of the congress and president-elect of the Mexican Academy of Medicine, in his opening address said numerous documents had been received about “some places in the world” where political oppositionists were treated as mentally ill. “To keep silent about such an ignominious situation,” Dr. de la Fuente said, “would weigh heavily upon our conscience.”7

  1. 1

    I think it downright silly to use this transcription into the Latin alphabet of a transcription into the Cyrillic alphabet of the French name Jaurès, and will in the future refer to “Zhores” as Jaurès. He was named for the great French Socialist, as his twin brother was for the Indian Communist leader, M. N. Roy. I notice that the British press refers to the former as Jaurès Medvedev. That is really and understandably his name.

  2. 2

    The Rise and Fall of T.D. Lysenko by Zhores Medvedev was reviewed by David Joravsky in The New York Review, January 29, 1971, and The Medvedev Papers, also by Zhores, by Professor Joravsky in The New York Review, September 23; 1971.

  3. 3

    A Question of Madness, pp. 62-3.

  4. 4

    If the complaints in the Chronicles are correct, the Serbsky is the one place where the secret police can get a verdict of lunacy when psychiatrists elsewhere in the Soviet Union decline to certify dissenters as ill.

  5. 5

    For the text of the letter and background material here summarized see The Times (London), March 12, 1971.

  6. 6

    See The Times (London), September 16, 1971, for the text.

  7. 7

    The Mexico City News, November 30, 1971.

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