On February 9, 1983, the Soviet Union left the World Psychiatric Association because of accusations of using psychiatry for political and punitive purposes.
In January 1921, Maria Spiridonova, leader of the anti-Bolshevik party, became the first victim of Soviet punitive psychiatry. She was arrested for terrorism, and Felix Dzerzhinsky, the head of Cheka, the special Soviet security service, ordered to put her not in prison, but in the “psychiatric sanatorium.” According to Spiridonova’s medical record, she was diagnosed with “hysterical psychosis” and was in awful condition when came to the clinic. Spiridonova had been transferred from one prison to another for 20 years, and was executed in 1941.
In 1935, a new special branch of the mental hospital in Kazan, Tatarstan, opened for criminals diagnosed with a mental illness, and the first party of mentally handicapped offenders, mixed with mentally healthy political criminals, was admitted for compulsory medical treatment. In 1939, the government placed the whole hospital under the control of the People's Commissariat for the Interior, and criminals became the only patients. Military men, instead of doctors, headed the hospital. Between 1940 and 1970, about 2,000 patients died there. Among them were people charged with having relatives abroad, spreading panic rumors during World War II, anti-Soviet agitation and other not clearly defined crimes. The Kazan Prison Mental Hospital was the most infamous of all the psychiatric clinics in the Soviet Union.
One of the documents necessary for sending someone to the psychiatric hospital was the mental examination report. The majority of such examinations were carried out in the Serbsky Institute of the Forensic Psychiatry in Moscow. Initially after its foundation in 1923 the institute was a rather normal scientific organization, but in the 1930s it became a tool of the government. The staff members of the institute often participated in investigative actions – they gave criminal and political suspects drugs to make them talk at the interrogations. The special laboratory of the institute studied such drugs and searched for the best ways to numb one's consciousness and to force one to speak. Lawyers for the suspects had no right to be present at the examinations.
After Stalin’s death in 1953, Nikita Khrushchev came to power. He started the campaign against “the cult of personality” and let people openly speak about Stalin’s repressions. People embraced the freedom, and started to speak openly not only about Stalin, but also about the situation in the country and the drawbacks of Khrushchev’s reality as well.
Khrushchev was not ready for this stream of freethinking, and decided to get rid of the dissidents. He could not use the Siberian concentration camps for it – the camps were part of Stalin’s regime, which he criticized. Khrushchev needed other ways to prevent the upcoming disturbance, and so he proclaimed that only crazy people dislike socialism, thereby giving a green light to punitive psychiatry.
In 1961, new instructions for dealing with a mentally ill offender were developed. According to those instructions, anti-Soviet agitation, slanderous talk about the government and sacrilege against the hymn and the flag of the Soviet Union were considered socially dangerous acts. Mentally ill people guilty of such actions could be hospitalized against their will.
In the beginning of 1960s, psychiatrist Andrey Snezhinsky described a new type of schizophrenia – so-called continuous sluggish schizophrenia. All the symptoms of this disease were described as “light” or “ill-defined.” Unsociability and reticence were named among the basic symptoms, so almost everyone could be diagnosed with this illness.
Hundreds of people were hospitalized with this new diagnosis. The new prison hospitals were founded in different districts of the country. In 1963, a dissident and prisoner in one such hospital, the translator and literary critic Valery Tarsis, published in Germany a novel about this system, “The Ward 7.” Two other dissidents, Vladimir Bukovsky and Semyon Gluzman, wrote “The Dissidents’ Guide to Psychiatry,” where they gave recommendations for the arrested, taught them how to speak with doctors and police investigators, and what to write in documents. “Do not give way to despair! In spite of all the psychopharmacological remedies and shock therapy, contemporary science still is not able to destroy the human personality” advised this book to those who were, in spite of the entire struggle, sent to a hospital.
In 1964 Josef Brodsky, the famous Russian poet and recipient of the Nobel Prize, spent two weeks in a psychiatric clinic in Saint Petersburg, and later described those weeks as the most awful time of his life in the Soviet Union. The doctors injected him with tranquilizers, though he was considered healthy, and applied a method of the “wet pack” to him. This method of treatment was very simple – the nurses wrapped a patient tightly into a wet sheet and left him in this condition for several hours.
Only in 1988 were the psychiatric hospitals returned from the control of the Security Service to the Department of Health. 776,000 patients were considered healthy and taken off the books in psychiatric clinics. The doctors who participated in carrying out executions were not punished.