A BLAST FROM THE PAST
Editor’s Note: Many members of my family were shot by the Bolsheviks, and most of the rest were part of the mass exodus of “white” Russians in 1917. But, typical of the Russian émigrés, there was always a certain “nostalgia” for mother Russia. Growing up in the US, I remember the great interest that my parents, grandparents, and their émigré friends had for anything that was happening in the Soviet Union—the excitement they felt when they learned that Cliburn had won the first Tchaikovsky competition, their excitement that Yevtushenko was coming to the US to give readings of his poetry—but in particular, the fate of dissidents who found the strength to speak out about the government and were either sent off to the gulag or imprisoned in psychiatric hospitals and force-fed psychotropics to keep them quiet.
When the editors of Psychiatric Times were thinking of doing a series of articles from our archives, I came across this article from our January 1988 issue. I found it especially compelling and thought it might still be relevant today, particularly so given the state of today’s Russia, which seems to have, once again, lost many of its freedoms under Putin’s rule. And I wondered, could this abuse of psychiatric patients on the basis of political dogma again be happening without anyone knowing or caring if it is? In an article published in the February 2014 issue of Psychiatric Times, the authors state, “In Russia, treatment of the psychiatric population is at the mercy of government and society.”
“Don’t trust them,” Dr Anatoly Koryagin said of officials in the Soviet government. “You’d have to be an idiot to love the kind of power that imprisons normal people.”
“What about some skeptical optimism?” I asked him. “Isn’t some glasnost better than none?”
“Very skeptical optimism is OK,” he said, “but they’re still at it. How many real, factual changes have there been? They’ve freed me, and they’ve freed a few others; there are still hundreds of ‘psychiatric’ political prisoners; they are still abusing truth, and abusing innocent people.”
Anatoly Koryagin is an astonishing and refreshing man. I have met him twice, once in May 1987 at the APA meetings where we spent an hour and a half together (with Boris Zoubok as a fine interpreter) and again in October, with and without interpreters, when Koryagin gave a lecture in Boston and was my house guest for a day.
Imprisoned for many years in the Soviet Union essentially for being an excellent psychiatrist, Koryagin recently came to the United States for the second time, receiving an award from the American Academy of Psychiatry and Law and giving a series of lectures. He is now living in Switzerland with his wife and 3 teenage sons trying to write an autobiography and a book on Soviet psychiatry.
Koryagin’s major crime in the Soviet government’s eyes was that he, a well-trained, establishment Russian psychiatrist, objected to the political abuse of psychiatry in special Soviet psychiatric hospitals and did something about it: He psychiatrically examined the most prominent political dissidents that the Soviet government was calling mentally ill. These dissidents were usually diagnosed as having “sluggish schizophrenia” and were hospitalized and medicated against their will. Koryagin established and documented that these dissidents were not mentally ill and then published his findings in the British medical journal Lancet.
Now physically and mentally vigorous, he was considered near death last year in prison where he was subjected to treatment that would certainly be called abusive in most of the civilized world. He was, for instance, repeatedly kept in freezing solitary confinement. “The cold made it impossible to sleep,” he recently wrote. “Night becomes endless torment. Sleep consists of brief moments dozing brought to an end by fits of uncontrollable shivering and all-pervasive cold. One’s feet freeze solid. One’s head is shaved bare for the isolation cell. Every cell in one’s body suffers from the cold. Cold seeps through the window, the iron door, the cement floor, the cracks. During the day one’s head is like lead . . . Hopelessness and frustration, outbursts of depression and anger . . . these are common emotions in the isolation cell.”
Dr Hartmann chairs the APA Human Rights Committee. He practices in Cambridge, MA, and teaches at Harvard Medical School.