Victims of Soviet Psychiatry: A Report from Honolulu

Psychiatric Terror: How Soviet Psychiatry Is Used to Suppress Dissent

by Sidney Bloch, by Peter Reddaway
Basic Books, 510 pp., $12.95

In the Soviet Union today, Marxist and psychiatric ideologues work together efficiently, even smoothly. This is a fairly recent development. During the power struggles of the 1920s and the mass purges of the 1930s, there was no need for the Kremlin’s self-proclaimed Marxists to summon assistance from psychiatrists. In Stalin’s time, his enemies, real or imaginary, were subjected to mock trials, then shot or locked up for good; there was no inclination to call them crazy. The Soviet ideological system had its convenient designations of “bourgeois” or “capitalist” or “reactionary,” which were quite enough. The NKVD ran its own psychiatric hospital in the 1940s, but a substantial number of those confined in it were political prisoners who were obviously in bad shape psychologically—plagued by hallucinations, delusions, etc. The Russian poet Naum Korzhavin told Sidney Bloch, a psychiatrist, and Peter Reddaway, a political scientist, both English and co-authors of Psychiatric Terror, that up until “1948 at least, the practice of placing healthy people in mental hospitals was not malicious in intent but benevolent.”

Korzhavin should know. He was arrested that year and thrown in a Soviet “forensic psychiatry” hospital for writing “anti-Soviet” poems. He believes he was shielded there by members of the staff, who knew only too well that the alternative for him was Stalin’s labor camps. Eventually he was deprived of his psychiatric sanctuary and sent to Siberia. Indeed, in the late 1940s, elements of Stalin’s bureaucracy were worried that psychiatrists were letting a few “renegades” or “traitors” off too easily—pampering them in hospitals when they belonged in labor camps. A new group of sterner psychiatrists was given power whose task it was to emphasize the difference between mental and political deviance and, in the event of any uncertainty or blurring, to favor the latter.

To be sure, in the early 1950s, before Stalin died in 1953, there were isolated instances of psychiatric abuse of a political nature—the confinement to a mental hospital of a person who had offended the state authorities. But doctors were not ordered to deal systematically with political dissidents—to call them crazy. Nor did they suggest or demand confession and recantation as part of a cure. Dissenters were not pressured to say: yes, I was out of my mind when I (allegedly, needless to say) said this or did that. Stalin, who believed various doctors were conspiring to be rid of him, was not about to entrust his major obsession, the liquidation of various “enemies,” to a group of psychiatrists.

On May 24, 1959, Pravda carried some remarks by Khrushchev on the communist world of the future. What would it be like when the “permanent revolution” had, at last, achieved its central objectives? Would there be a new kind of human being, living a radically different kind of personal and social life? Khrushchev was not an unqualified optimist, and he had a degree of candor that may have been responsible for his abrupt demise. There might still …

This article is available to Online Edition and Print Premium subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:
If you already have one of these subscriptions, please be sure you are logged in to your nybooks.com account. If you subscribe to the print edition, you may also need to link your web site account to your print subscription. Click here to link your account services.
Letters

Psychiatry and Politics March 9, 1978

Psychiatry and Politics March 9, 1978