Russia’s Asylums for Dissidence

I’m quite a fan of Kim Murphy’s reporting on Russia in the Los Angeles Times. She always handles an interesting, and often human side of Russia that I don’t see in many English language publications. Sometimes the stories she tells border on the bizarre. Other times they verge on the chilling. Her recent story published in the May 30 edition of the Times qualifies as both. Yet I think that the astonishment that this article conjures should not serve as yet another platform to further concretize the “abnormality” Russian Other vis-?-vis our “normality”. Rather, I would suggest that Murphy’s article identifies universal methods of designating Others through means of categorization that rely on legal, scientific, cultural and governmental discourses.

In “Speak Out? Are You Crazy?”, Murphy reports that the Soviet practice of condemning the political dissident to mental asylums continues in the cities like Moscow and St. Petersburg as well as in periphery of the Federation. Those seeking to pose an electoral challenge to local notables, speak out about corruption, women who want to divorce their powerful husbands, and those who complain about acts of labor, civil, and personal injustice are either condemned by local judges or are forced to sign consent forms to be institutionalized. While this practice is not systematic, “it seems quite clear that such abuses are on the rise, and that this is a trend,” says Iurii Savenko president of the Russian Independent Psychiatric Association.

In one of the many cases Murphy recounts, one Albert Imendayev, a candidate for the legislature in the Volga region was sent to an asylum for nine days. A judge determined that his campaign, which focused on exposing local corruption, was an act of insanity. Similar cases abound.

Murphy recounts:

In another case here in Cheboksary, a four-term opposition deputy in the regional parliament, Igor Molyakov, spent six months in jail on libel charges in 2004. While incarcerated, he was ordered committed for psychiatric hospitalization after a judge agreed with government lawyers that Molyakov’s repeated writings about corruption among local authorities reflected an outlook so “somber” that it might constitute a “mental disorder.”

In St. Petersburg, Ivan Ivannikov, who lectured for 38 years at the State University of Economics and Finance, found himself wrestled to the ground, handcuffed and dragged to the city psychiatric hospital in December 2003 after a protracted dispute with a well-connected contractor over repairs to his apartment. An influential state psychiatrist signed the recommendation for commitment without ever having met Ivannikov, deciding that his multiple legal complaints against the contractor constituted an “obsession” with “revenge.” He was released after 60 days.

In Moscow, Natalya Kuznetsova was fired from her job at the federal audit chamber not long after charging that $140 million had been siphoned out of the federal budget in 2001 and 2002. A subsequent set of quarrels with her supervisors led to her firing, and when she filed suit seeking disability compensation, a state psychologist reported she had a mental disability.

“When they finally fired me on the 25th of January, 2005, they threatened to call a psychiatric ambulance for me,” said Kuznetsova, who successfully fought against commitment. “This is all because of flourishing corruption. These corrupt people are using psychiatric persecution to destroy people.”

In some cases, people who families and friends insist had no overt signs of mental illness have been committed for more than a year, sometimes drugged with sedatives and tied to their beds when they resisted, and prevented from attending the often-perfunctory court hearings that extended their hospitalization.

In many of these cases, patients were talked into signing consent forms. The rate of involuntary hospitalizations is so suspiciously low in at least 51 facilities across Russia that the Helsinki commission concluded that coerced consent through “persuading” and “falsification of signatures” was widespread.

Such practices were part and parcel of the Soviet attempt to squash dissident. Soviet dissidents were often sent to mental asylums for speaking out against the regime. Authorities justified this practice on the grounds that a person who condemned life in “socialist paradise” had to be insane. Within the logic of Soviet socialist ideology dissidence was categorizes as wholly illogical. However skeptical one may be of the Soviet justification, and many at the time went further than skepticism and rightly condemned the practice, the Soviets explanation fell squarely within the context of albeit flawed Soviet logic. It was backed by Soviet law, science, medicine, and culture. Dissidence fell outside of Soviet truth.

Some will say that nothing has changed. The many of the structures of the Soviet system continue to exist in a different context but are still deployed for similar ends. This is Murphy’s contention. Her byline bills the practice as a “throwback to Soviet times.” I don’t disagree with this. However, I think it would be a mistake to simply write off this practice as a “throwback” because it reveals something inherent to our modern condition. No matter how instrumental the condemning of dissidents (and do not let the term “dissident” conjure images of high profile figures like Andrei Sakharov. The majority of those sent to these psychological hells are regular people often without an overarching political agenda), an ideological justification remains. Sending someone to a mental institutional is often justified in terms that make it plausible that the condemned is indeed insane. And it is these terms that are placed in a discourse that employs a vast array of legal and medical institutions, experts, and state power. Having cynicism toward the use discourse therefore should not lead one to reduce the power of that discursive structure to nil. That is to say, just because the powerful silence dissent through corruption does not remove the fact that the silencing occurs within a matrix of legal institutions and structures. The condemnation of someone as insane requires the condemnation to fall within the parameters of what is coded as insane behavior.

This attempt to place the act of speaking out within an institutional and cultural context of madness is evident in case of one Molyakov, an opposition lawmaker who challenged the iron grip former Russian Justice Minister Nikolai Fyodorov has had on the reigns of power in Chuvashia since he became its governor in 1994. Molyakov was charged with slandering Fydorov during an electoral campaign in 2004. Using the levers of power at their disposal, Fydorov’s people have since tried to get Molyakov condemned to a mental institution. What is interesting about this case of power and corruption is what Fydorov’s lawyers argued in their appeal to federal Judge Oleg Zhukov’s overturning of a lower court’s psychiatric referral order.

Murphy reports that Fydorov’s lawyers asserted that Molyakov’s standing as an author and philosophy professor didn’t mean that he wasn’t insane. Quite the contrary, those accomplishments made his insanity more likely:

“The court ought to know that even being a personal genius doesn’t rule out a mental disorder … (Van Gogh, F.M. Dostoevsky, N.V. Gogol, etc.). As has been established by scientists, the risk of a mental disease in gifted people … is seven to eight times higher.”

Such a passage should be so quickly dismissed. Notice what is being referred to here. First there is a correlation of “genius” with “mental disorder” by way of referencing insane, and more importantly, culturally authoritative geniuses like Van Gogh, Dostoevsky, and Gogol. One is a bit surprised Nietzsche wasn’t also included in such a venerated list. Second, the lawyers back up their cultural assertion with science. “Geniuses” are “seven to eight times higher” to be mentally insane. The appeal to experts is to give the cultural claim the weight of empirical and scientifically validated truth to push the subject from the parameters of normal to that of abnormal.

If one thinks that this practice of pushing a subject from a position of normal to the abnormal is particular to Russia, I recommend considering the fact that what is categorized as normal and abnormal is based on a post-Enlightenment discourse whose domain encompasses the entire West. The issue is not whether any of those in Murphy’s article actually and objectively committed a crime. We, who pride ourselves on the fact that we cherish the sanctity of human rights and the inviolability of the sovereign, individual subject should not so quickly revel in how the actions of the Russian Other reinforce our liberal sainthood. Instead the Russian case should rather reflect universal discursive structures that allow for the innocent to be transformed into the guilty through a process of re-categorization. Here I am thinking of the stripping of American citizens of their right to habeus corpus through their re-categorization as “enemy combatants.” A similar border crossing between the realms of “normal” and “abnormal” is also occurring in the American case through similar appeals to culture, legality, social-scientific expertise, and state power.

Make no mistake. I am not equating the Russian and American cases. To do so would be to nullify their particularities. My point is a larger and I think more profound one. It is one inspired by Michel Foucault’s and Giorgio Agamben’s thinking on the confluence of law, social science, medicine, culture, and state institutions as a means to discipline, condemn, and manage bodies. This process is not one that requires objective acts of criminalty, insanity, or even terrorism but rather the categorization of certain acts through the use of an array of apparatuses that do not exist outside the boundaries of legality as some human rights activists might argue (and however much I may agree with their arguments), but rather exist inside the very structures that supposed guarantee human rights. The act of condemning exists within a matrix of already existing “regimes of truth,” to use Foucault’s words, that allows the possibility of the normal subjects in Murphy’s article to suddenly become abnormal and thus condemned and silenced.

Scroll to top