A Test Case

The unexpected release of Andrei Sakharov from forced exile in Gorky within days of the death, under harrowing circumstances, of the writer Anatoly Marchenko, who had been held in the infamous Chistopol prison, raises in particularly striking form the question of the future of internal dissent in the Soviet Union.

Despite the contradictory nature of recent events, about which much is still unknown, there is a temptation to be optimistic. When Dr. Sakharov returned to Moscow, the studios of Soviet television were made available to him for an interview with American correspondents. Besides Dr. Sakharov, the poet Irina Ratushinskaya and the Crimean Tatar leader, Mustafa Dzhemiliev, have been released from Soviet labor camps, and Soviet officials have hinted that the largescale liberation of political prisoners is imminent.

Nonetheless, optimism should be tempered with realism. The euphoria created by the release of Dr. Sakharov conveniently smothered nascent outrage over the death of Marchenko; and Marchenko was not the first but rather the seventh wellknown Soviet political prisoner to die of medical neglect since the accession of Mikhail Gorbachev to power twenty-three months ago. There were only five such deaths under Gorbachev’s two predecessors, Andropov and Chernenko, and only one death in the last years of the Brezhnev period when political prisoners who were known in the West, no matter how mistreated, were almost never allowed to die in the camps.

In truth, the situation is uncertain, and because of this, attention has now concentrated on Anatoly Koryagin, the Soviet psychiatrist who has been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize and is in emaciated physical condition in the Perm 35 camp for political prisoners about 700 miles east of Moscow.

Just as the next few months will tell whether Gorbachev is serious about improving the lot of political prisoners it may also be the period during which, for purely physical reasons, it will become clear whether Dr. Koryagin, who has undertaken repeated hunger strikes, can survive. In his most recent notes, smuggled out of the camp, Dr. Koryagin said that Khasanov, the head of the section where he is being held, told him, “You’ll die like a dog here,” and his wife, Galina, whom I met in Moscow in June, said, “With his character, I’m afraid that if he does not get out of there soon, he won’t survive. He is not going to make any compromises.”

I have more than an academic interest in the matter because I knew Dr. Koryagin well in the Soviet Union and consider him a close friend. More to the point, I have no doubt that he is one of the most important Soviet political prisoners. His readiness to state publicly in 1979 and 1980 that political prisoners in Soviet psychiatric hospitals were sane had an important effect on the decisions of national psychiatric associations to demand the expulsion of the Soviet Union from the World Psychiatric Association (WPA). His arrest, which presented the world with the spectacle of a psychiatrist being arrested for his…

This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Try two months of unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 a month.

View Offer

Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our complete 55+ year archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 a month.

If you are already a subscriber, please be sure you are logged in to your nybooks.com account.