The Case of Dr. Koryagin

Fears are mounting that the psychiatrist Anatoly Koryagin is near to death in the notorious jail of Chistopol in central Russia. Letters that have reached the West from his wife and a friend indicate that he is so weak that unless he is given expert medical care he could die at any time.

Dr. Koryagin has been in prison for the last four years for actively opposing the political abuse of psychiatry. The abuse takes the form of labeling dissidents as mad and forcibly treating them with drugs in mental hospitals.

Koryagin is an unfanatical man of forty-seven, married to another doctor and the father of three boys. His motives are human compassion and a strong concern for medical ethics. His sentence of seven years’ hard labor plus five years’ internal exile was longer than those imposed on other members of his human rights group, evidently because he was the only psychiatrist in it and the authorities were anxious to intimidate his fellow psychiatrists into silence.

Koryagin had examined sixteen dissidents who had been labeled mentally ill for their dissent, and found that the diagnoses were false. His main report on his work was published in the British medical journal The Lancet, and has just been printed in the book The Breaking of Bodies and Minds, edited by Eric Stover and Elena O. Nightingale (W.H. Freeman). In recognition of his work and his courage Koryagin has been elected an honorary member of the World Psychiatric Association and of leading psychiatric and scientific bodies in Britain, America, France, Canada, and elsewhere.

Ever since his arrest Koryagin has been subjected to a gradually escalating series of psychological and physical pressures, then to outright beatings. The unconcealed aim has been to force him to sign a false statement denouncing his own evidence of psychiatric abuse. Since this aim has been thwarted by his consistent refusal to go against his conscience, the authorities have evidently begun to consider bringing about his death.

Their technique has been to isolate him from other prisoners; then, by putting mental and physical pressure on him, provoke him into his only means of self-defense, the hunger strike. Then, although Soviet regulations require them to keep him alive through force-feeding, they keep him hovering on the brink of death, too weak to start eating again without expert help, even when he wants to. The apparent hope is that his heart will eventually give out and he will die. In that event the authorities will have documentation to “prove” that they did everything they could to preserve his life. This interpretation of their behavior is confirmed by the new letters from Russia I have mentioned as well as by the fact that several other political prisoners have died in similar circumstances in the USSR in recent months.

No friend or relative has seen Koryagin since September 1983. For a year up to last June no communication of any sort was received from him. Then his wife got a letter containing …

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