Yuri Dmitriev is a Russian historian who has spent three decades unearthing evidence of the crimes of the Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin. Now, because of his dedication to uncovering the graves of the persecuted and creating a culture of historical accountability in Russia, he is in danger of falling prey to a sadistic, neo-Soviet form of abuse: punitive psychiatric treatment.
Dmitriev, who is associated with the famed human rights and civil society activism organization Memorial, which was awarded VOC’s Truman-Reagan Medal of Freedom in 2017, became internationally known for unearthing a Stalin-era mass grave in northeastern Russia. Sandarmokh is the final resting place of over 9,000 victims of Stalin’s Great Purge. But in today’s Russia, shedding light on the misdeeds of the old USSR (mass killings ordered by Stalin in particular) is no longer welcome—Vladimir Putin’s politics of national greatness can allow for no critical reflection on negative aspects of the past, not even on Stalin’s bloody dictatorship.
Dmitriev was arrested in December 2016 on clearly spurious child pornography charges. Now, a year later, after an expert group has denied having found anything criminal, Dmitriev ought to be released. Instead, he is scheduled for mandatory psychiatric tests.
Why is this so sinister? To understand the dangers Dmitriev currently faces, we must look back to the war on dissent waged by the Soviet Union in the years after Stalin’s death.
As international scrutiny of the USSR increased during the postwar years, it became increasingly inconvenient to lock up or blatantly assassinate political opponents of the communist regime.
A new, superficially legal method of disposal needed to be found. The method Soviet authorities concocted was “punitive psychiatry,” or spuriously administered psychiatric treatment designed to punish, incarcerate, silence, and kill meddlesome dissidents.
How did it work in practice? Dissidents were diagnosed with “sluggish schizophrenia” or another bogus disease and jailed inside mental wards for years at a time. “The psychiatric instruments of combating dissent were honed to perfection,” writes Andrei Kovalev, a reform-minded diplomat who played a role during the Gorbachev years in dismantling the punitive system, in a recent memoir. “Psychiatrists were free to act as arbitrarily as they pleased… One’s neighbors, one’s boss, or anyone at all could demand that someone be isolated in a psychiatric hospital because of ‘urgent symptoms.’”
“On basis of the available data, one can confidently conclude that thousands of dissenters were hospitalized for political reasons,” attests Dr. Robert van Voren in a 2010 article about the punitive psychiatric practices of the former USSR.
Dmitriev, sadly, is in good professional company. During the Soviet Union, historians like him were often the targets of punitive psychiatry. Some were institutionalized merely for writing inconvenient books.
Vadim Shavrov, a Christian writer and former Gulag inmate, was forcibly hospitalized in a psychiatric facility in 1982 after his involvement in a samizdat history of the Renovationist Church of the 1930s and 1940s.
Mikhail Bernshtam was arrested in 1973 for writing a book on Soviet history and spent a year in a psychiatric hospital.
Sergei Pisarev was jailed between 1953 and 1955 for sticking to the historians’ principle of demanding evidence—in this case, demanding evidence of the “Doctors’ Plot” that Stalin used to purge Jewish members of the Soviet regime. After being released, Pisarev became an active dissident and activist against the practice of punitive psychiatry.
Finally, the case of Petro Grigorenko is particularly striking, both because it demonstrates that no one was safe from punitive psychiatry and because it proves the utter falsity of the medical rationale that justified the torturous treatment.
A professor and a general in the Red Army, Grigorenko criticized the Soviet government in 1964 by arguing that it did not live up to the ideals laid out by Vladimir Lenin. For this he was demoted to the rank of a common soldier, expelled from the communist party, and declared insane. He was interned in a psychiatric hospital from 1964 and 1965. The punishment, however, did not dissuade him—it pushed him into the ranks of the dissidents.
In 1967 he wrote a samizdat history of Stalin and the Second World War and wrote a letter to the historical journal Voprosy Istorii entitled “The Concealment of Historical Truth—A Crime before the People.” He was again incarcerated in a psychiatric facility between 1970 and 1974. Physically devastated by the punitive “treatment” he had received, he was finally allowed to go to the US for medical attention in 1977—and was simultaneously stripped of his Soviet citizenship.
In 1979, a team of psychiatrists, including the President of the American Psychiatric Association, examined Grigorenko. They found no evidence of mental illness.
It is a disgrace that frank historical discussion of the Soviet period is less and less possible in today’s Russia. But it is more ominous still that historians are threatened with a punishment that once was confined to Russia’s past: the political abuse of psychiatric treatment.