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I. F. Stone Reports: Betrayal by Psychiatry

But the congress did keep silent. Unnamed “sources suggested” to The Times of London that “efforts to propagandize the psychiatrists”—certainly an invidious and itself propagandistic way to describe the matter—“were judged as ‘an attempt to involve a scientific association in the cold war.”’8 This seemed to echo an interview which Professor Andrei V. Snezhnevsky, chief psychiatrist of the Soviet Ministry of Health and a member of the Soviet delegation at the congress, gave the Mexico City daily, Excelsior. This, of course, was the same Dr. Snezhnevsky who had worried about the effect of the Medvedev case on the Mexico City congress. He called the appeals “a maneuver of the cold war, carried out at the hands of experts.”9

Indeed, according to Dr. Snezhnevsky, the appeals revived a Western calumny well known long before the cold war. He said that at the beginning of the twentieth century in a Russian Congress of Psychiatry, a Professor Bazhenov had stated that the press, especially in Western Europe, often talked of the commitment of sane people to psychiatric hospitals in Russia. “They do this,” Professor Bazhenov said, “for selfish and political motives.”10

The czarist regime had indeed experimented long before the revolution with the therapy of treating radicals as lunatics. There may be a reason Dr. Snezhnevsky found it necessary to whitewash even the prerevolutionary regime as a victim of “selfish” Western political propaganda. Solzhenitsyn, in his public protest June 15, 1970, against the commitment of Jaurès Medvedev, recalled that this is what the Czar Nicholas had done to the philosopher Chaadaev in 1836 after the latter in one of his “Philosophical Letters” criticized the oppression he found in his native land on his return from Western Europe. Even then this was an old Russian custom. Jaurès Medvedev in A Question of Madness11 relates that under Alexander I the cadet Zhukov was declared insane because he wrote a collection of verses about freedom, a branch of poetry still hazardous in the Soviet Union today.

If the Soviet authorities wanted to prove all this was calumny, Dr. Snezhnevsky was the man and the congress the place to do it. A Question of Madness shows that he played a leading role in the Medvedev affair. He emerges as quite a smoothie, adept at playing both sides of a question. At one private meeting with a friend of Jaurès, Dr. Snezhnevsky said he did not doubt that the psychiatric commission which put him away was right in finding him a psychopathic personality, but tried to open the way to his release by adding that he did not think the diagnosis necessitated compulsory hospitalization.

When five of the Soviet Union’s most prestigious Academicians including Sakharov and the famous physicist Peter Kapitsa went to see Petrovsky, the Minister of Health, to ask for the release of Jaurès, they were greeted by Dr. Snezhnevsky. He said that if the psychiatrists who committed Jaurès had erred, the Ministry of Health had enough power to correct the mistake without the interference of “outsiders.” He spoke nevertheless of “obsessive reformist delusions” as a variety of mental illness serious enough to require hospitalization, “and at this point he shot a penetrating professional glance at Sakharov,” as if to let the Academician know that he, too, was under observation.

The Minister of Health, Petrovsky, however, was indisposed to compromise. He contradicted Dr. Snezhnevsky by asserting that the Ministry did not interfere in such matters. He accused Sakharov of “unpatriotic behavior” for raising the question at all, “and somebody even recalled what Pavlov had once said about an earlier case of violation of the law: ‘This is our own Russian shit, and we will sort it out ourselves without any help from abroad.”’12 This was authentic, if inelegant, parteinost.

Roy Medvedev writes that “at the very beginning of 1953,” i.e., before Stalin died, Petrovsky made a speech to a group of young doctors in which he urged them “to repudiate outdated ideas about the role of the doctor in society and to master the ideals of ‘Stalinist humanism.”’ He still seems to be that kind of humanist. But so great was the pressure from the scientific elite of the Soviet Union and from influential scientists abroad that Jaurès had to be released in June, 1970, after less than a month of incarceration.

Nobody at Mexico City knew the whole story better than Dr. Snezhnevsky. Nobody was in a better position to defend the Soviet Union if the charges were indeed cold war calumny. As the congress opened, a third appeal to it was released in Moscow and given wide publicity in the Mexican press.13 In this open letter nine members of the Soviet Human Rights Committee called the attention of the delegates to the prominent role Dr. Snezhnevsky had played in the Medvedev case. The Latin-Reuters dispatch also quoted from an interview Dr. Snezhnevsky gave Izvestia in October in which he had denied all charges and said that it was “absolutely impossible” for healthy persons to be committed to mental hospitals in the Soviet Union!

The congress was the place to say this, if true, loud and clear, especially since a pamphlet in English, Spanish, and French containing the findings of the forty-four British psychiatrists was circulating widely among the 7,000 psychiatrists attending and provoked more discussion than any other topic before the congress.

But the day after this appeal, when speakers demanded that the congress go on record against the commitment of dissenters to mental hospitals, Dr. Snezhnevsky and the Soviet delegation at once walked out. They said that they could not discuss the matter because the congress lacked official interpretation into Russian. “Dr. Snezhnevsky,” an aide said, “has no confidence in any unofficial translation.”14 Dr. Snezhnevsky decided instead to give an interview to Excelsior, and this was the only occasion on which he mentioned the subject publicly. “Ask me all you want about this matter,” Dr. Snezhnevsky told his interviewer, “we can talk for many hours.” But the interviewer never asked a single searching question, and Dr. Snezhnevsky was soon vigorously but gratuitously rebutting the charge (made two decades ago) that the Soviets engaged in “brainwashing” American prisoners in the Korean war.

III

Dr. Snezhnevsky ended his interview by saying that not only psychiatrists but judges, above all from the United States, had studied Soviet psychiatric penal procedure. He added that a book on the subject had been published in the United States as a result of these visits and studies, and implied that this really answered all charges. The book, which was cited by defenders of the Soviet Union in behind-the-scenes discussions at the congress, is The Report of the First US Mission on Mental Health to the USSR, which was published in February, 1969, by the US Department of HEW.15 Chief Judge David L. Bazelon of the US Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia was the one lawyer or jurist on the seven-man delegation.16

But the HEW report nowhere discusses or even mentions the possibility that dissenters may be committed as mentally ill. The visit took place in September, 1967, when there had been little publicity in the West about this method of repressing opposition. Since. then “hundreds of mentally healthy workers, students, artists, and intellectuals,” according to a recent AP dispatch from Moscow,17 are reported to have been committed to mental institutions “for disagreement with official doctrine.”

When a representative of the delegation visited the Serbsky Institute in Moscow he seems to have been completely unaware that among dissidents this is regarded as a KGB institution. The HEW report describes it as the most “prestigious examining institution” in the USSR. “It is an old building with an entrance barred by forbidding iron gates. These gates,” the report says, “which slide electrically along tracks to admit visitors, are part of a very tight security system, which includes the use of soldiers as guards.” The unusual electric gates and the presence of soldiers guarding a mental hospital may have struck the visitor as odd because the report goes on to say, “Such elaborate precautions, it was explained, were necessary because the Serbsky examines some of the most difficult cases in the Soviet Union.” It is a pity no one asked whether soldiers were often called in for consultation.

When the American on his first visit was denied permission to observe an expert examination in process, his guide seems to have come up with an explanation of comparable ingenuousness. “The reason,” the report continues, “may have been an overly literal interpretation of a Ministry of Health instruction which threatens psychiatrists with criminal action if they divulge the contents of an examination report in anything other than a judicial context.” Circulated in samizdat, this theory should provide Soviet political prisoners with one of their merrier moments.

The notion of a delicate, “overly literal” concern for the patient’s rights is ludicrous in the light of what is now known about the way the secret police run the Serbsky Institute. In addition, it hardly seems consistent with what the HEW report itself has to say about the lack of judicial review in civil commitment. “The delegation representative was puzzled,” the report says, “by the failure to provide an appeal to the courts in the civil commitment process. Soviet law provides no judicial review of civil commitment practices.” The report goes on to say that the “Russians explain away this failure in several ways. They contend first of all that the health ministries keep a constant watch over the civil commitment system, to ensure that it is operating correctly…. Next the Russians contend that judicial review is unnecessary because the psychiatrists have no motive to commit or detain a patient unjustifiably.”

This is the quintessence of bureaucratic jurisprudence. It did not go down well with the visiting delegation. For the report commented, in deadpan fashion, “The absence of judicial review in the Soviet Union may reflect a belief that there is no need for the public at large to oversee government officials and ensure that they respect all substantive and procedural rights. Americans would have some difficulty with such a notion. We do not share this faith with respect to our government officials.” Neither, to judge by the Chronicle, do a lot of Soviet citizens.

Since this report is being cited by Soviet apologists in the current controversy over a fundamental question which never arose during their visit, Judge Bazelon and his colleagues owe it to themselves and to the cause of justice to examine the diagnostic reports and the other documents received in England from Bukovsky and to make public their evaluation of them. The New York Review at my suggestion has asked Amnesty International in England to supply the full documentation and we will make it available to Judge Bazelon and his colleages when it arrives.

  1. 8

    The Times, December 4, 1971. By some boo-boo the dispatch was datelined Buenos Aires instead of Mexico City. British copy-editors are sometimes a little vague on the Western Hemisphere.

  2. 9

    New York Times, December 3, 1971.

  3. 10

    Excelsior, December 1, 1971. The first Russian Congress of Psychiatry in this century, according to T. I. Yudin’s History of Russian Psychiatry (available in Russian at the Library of Congress), was in 1911. Nikolai Bazhenov (1857-1923) was a leading psychiatrist in czarist days. The phrase he used, “especially in Western Europe,” seems to indicate that there were protests in the Russian press too, and may serve as a sad reminder that under the czars the press had more freedom—restricted though it was—than it does today in the USSR.

  4. 11

    See pages 135-6 for Solzhenitsyn’s letter and pp. 181-2 and 196-7 for other prerevolutionary cases.

  5. 12

    See A Question of Madness, pp. 128-32.

  6. 13

    See Latin-Reuters dispatch from Moscow in Excelsior, November 29, 1971.

  7. 14

    See Excelsior, November 30, 1971, where it was page one news. I want to thank the Mexican Embassy library for kindly making its newspaper collection available to me.

  8. 15

    Public Health Service Publication No. 1893. Superintendent of Documents, $3.50.

  9. 16

    The others were Dr. Walter E. Barton, Medical Director of the American Psychiatric Association; Mike Gorman, executive director, National Committee Against Mental Illness; Dr. Alan D. Miller, Commissioner, New York State Department of Mental Hygiene; Dr. Harold M. Visotsky, director, Illinois Department of Mental Health; and Dr. Stanley F. Yolles, director, and Dr. Philip Sirotkin, associate director, respectively, of the National Institute of Mental Health.

  10. 17

    Roger Leddington, New York Post, January 12, 1972.

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