Soviet Citizen Group Investigates Political Abuses of Psychiatry Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Concerns about the increasing use of psychiatry for political purposes led a small group of concerned Soviet citizens to form a working commission to monitor and publicize such practices.

Summary of Event

During Leonid Brezhnev’s tenure as general secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, many political, religious, ethnic, and professional groups dissented from Soviet policy. Brezhnev’s government used a wide range of tactics in dealing with this opposition, among them toleration, co-optation, harassment, exile, and imprisonment. The Working Commission for the Investigation of the Use of Psychiatry for Political Purposes was founded by Vyacheslav Bakhmin, Irina Kaplun, Kaplun, Irina Alexander Podrabinek, Felix Serebrov, and Dzhemma Kvachevskaya. Kvachevskaya, Dzhemma It was affiliated with Moscow’s Helsinki Watch Group Helsinki Watch;Moscow Group and worked closely with General Pyotr Grigorenko, Grigorenko, Pyotr a dissenter who had been involuntarily committed for psychiatric care. Working Commission for the Investigation of the Use of Psychiatry for Political Purposes Soviet Union;psychiatry Psychiatry;abuses Human rights abuses;psychiatry Human rights activism [kw]Soviet Citizen Group Investigates Political Abuses of Psychiatry (1977-1981) [kw]Citizen Group Investigates Political Abuses of Psychiatry, Soviet (1977-1981) [kw]Political Abuses of Psychiatry, Soviet Citizen Group Investigates (1977-1981) [kw]Abuses of Psychiatry, Soviet Citizen Group Investigates Political (1977-1981) [kw]Psychiatry, Soviet Citizen Group Investigates Political Abuses of (1977-1981) Working Commission for the Investigation of the Use of Psychiatry for Political Purposes Soviet Union;psychiatry Psychiatry;abuses Human rights abuses;psychiatry Human rights activism [g]Soviet Union;1977-1981: Soviet Citizen Group Investigates Political Abuses of Psychiatry[02710] [g]Europe;1977-1981: Soviet Citizen Group Investigates Political Abuses of Psychiatry[02710] [g]Russia;1977-1981: Soviet Citizen Group Investigates Political Abuses of Psychiatry[02710] [c]Civil rights and liberties;1977-1981: Soviet Citizen Group Investigates Political Abuses of Psychiatry[02710] [c]Psychology and psychiatry;1977-1981: Soviet Citizen Group Investigates Political Abuses of Psychiatry[02710] Podrabinek, Alexander Koryagin, Anatoly Bakhmin, Vyacheslav Serebrov, Felix Voloshanovich, Alexander Brezhnev, Leonid Snezhnevsky, Andrei

The working commission proclaimed its intention of working within the Soviet legal system and of effecting Soviet commitments to the Final Act of the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe Final Act of the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe (1975) (the Helsinki Accords of 1975). Helsinki Accords (1975) The commission routinely sent copies of its bulletin to the Procuracy (Soviet legal officials) and the Ministry of Health. Although the commission proclaimed that it was nonpolitical, the government considered it to be a political danger; the government claimed that organs of the Communist Party could guarantee human rights and that independent monitoring groups would undermine the role of the party.

By focusing on the cases of persons who had been illegally detained, the commission acknowledged that psychiatric detention is sometimes justified and that some dissidents might be mentally ill. The commission’s objection was that neither proper legal procedures nor proper psychiatric procedures were employed in some cases.

The working commission was always a small group. Its largest membership was five, with others serving as consultants. The expertise of the commission members varied. Members included industrial workers and health workers, but the commission also drew on psychiatrists and lawyers, some working anonymously to avoid losing their jobs. Those without psychiatric backgrounds had intense curiosity regarding psychiatry, and the accuracy and detail of commission reports impressed leaders of the world psychiatric community.

The commission took on three tasks: to win the release of individuals illegally and forcibly detained in mental hospitals by publicizing their detention, to aid such people and their families, and to improve the conditions in mental hospitals. Mental hospitals The commission focused public attention on Soviet psychiatric practices. Political dissidents were frequently subjected to psychiatric examinations, and hundreds were interned in psychiatric institutions, where drugs were often forcibly administered. Many dissidents were sent to hospitals in remote areas of the country.

Dissidents were frequently diagnosed as schizophrenic based on the writings of Andrei Snezhnevsky, director of the Soviet Institute of Psychiatry in Moscow, which implied that nonconformity and antisocial behavior required treatment. Working commission cofounder Alexander Podrabinek argued that Snezhnevsky and his associates were not sincere in their claims. Podrabinek claimed to know of only one psychiatrist who honestly regarded dissidents incarcerated in special psychiatric hospitals as mentally ill.

Commission members used a variety of tactics. They visited psychiatric hospitals and gathered data on patients and the treatment they received. They wrote to psychiatrists on commission stationery about particular patients. This sometimes resulted in improved treatment because of the impression that the commission was a state-sanctioned body. The commission also offered advice to citizens who risked commitment to a psychiatric hospital.

The commission issued more than one hundred statements and appeals. Its Information Bulletin circulated secretly in the Soviet Union and openly in the West. Excerpts from the Information Bulletin were summarized in the Chronicle of Current Events, the journal of the Soviet human rights movement. Radio listeners were acquainted with the commission’s work through Western stations’ Russian-language broadcasts. The commission regularly requested additional information about listed individuals so that it could update or, if necessary, correct its reports.

The commission gained respect internationally as well as in the Soviet human rights community. Amnesty International Amnesty International reviewed a draft of Podrabinek’s book Punitive Medicine (1980) Punitive Medicine (Podrabinek) and called it an important new source of information and understanding. To help disseminate the material, Amnesty produced a twenty-five-page summary of the draft for distribution to psychiatrists attending the 1977 World Psychiatric Congress, World Psychiatric Congress (1977) a meeting sponsored by the World Psychiatric Association World Psychiatric Association (WPA), in Honolulu. That congress unanimously passed a set of ethical guidelines, the Declaration of Hawaii; Declaration of Hawaii (1977) it narrowly passed a resolution specifically criticizing Soviet psychiatry.

After the Soviet delegation to the World Psychiatric Congress voted in favor of the Declaration of Hawaii, the working commission sought to demonstrate that Soviet psychiatrists regularly violated the declaration’s guidelines. An analysis in the commission’s Information Bulletin compared the declaration’s standard requiring psychiatrists to keep their patients well informed with the Moscow region’s form used in ordering civil commitment. That form categorically forbade the sharing of any information contained in the order with the patient or the patient’s relatives.

The commission was an organized effort to carry on the work of such dissidents as Vladimir Bukovsky, who sent extensive information about Soviet psychiatric abuse to the West in 1971. Bukovsky’s information was the basis for initial queries into Soviet practices at the World Psychiatric Congress. The commission was one of several Soviet groups advocating ostracism of Soviet psychiatrists at the 1977 congress. Western psychiatrists did act, but slowly, and were reluctant to impose a total boycott.

The commission encouraged Western governments to protest Soviet psychiatric practices at meetings of the United Nations and of the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe. Along with the Moscow Human Rights Committee, the commission provided reliable data and analyses of abuses. American and Western European committees worked in common cause with the commission. The International Association on Political Uses of Psychiatry, the Working Group on the Internment of Dissenters in Mental Hospitals, the Vladimir Bukovsky Foundation, the International Podrabinek Fund, and a host of other groups publicized psychiatric abuses in the Soviet Union.

Until the commission’s demise, its members kept professional associations apprised of new developments. Two months after the 1977 World Psychiatric Congress, the commission reported to the WPA on five new forcible commitments to mental hospitals. Five months later, it appealed to national sections of the WPA, complaining of WPA inaction. In a 1979 letter to the American Psychiatric Association, Bakhmin urged that psychiatrists not keep quiet about the problem. Soviet hospital and government officials, as well as representatives of the All-Union Scientific Society of Neuropathologists and Psychiatrists, routinely denied working commission members’ requests for information. The commission was, however, credited with occasional successes by independent observers. For example, the Serbsky Institute, a Moscow psychiatric institution, acknowledged detainees’ legal right to receive parcels.


The Working Commission for the Investigation of the Use of Psychiatry for Political Purposes, as one of many forces agitating for an end to human rights violations in the Soviet Union, increased public awareness of psychiatric abuses. Although the commission’s members were imprisoned or exiled, and government persecution led to the group’s demise, the commission’s goals were eventually achieved.

Commission members were subjected to repression. The Soviet government and many Soviet psychiatrists attempted to dismiss the commission’s efforts as slanderous and unscholarly. Late in 1977, Serebrov was charged with falsifying his labor documents and sentenced to a year’s imprisonment. Podrabinek’s writings, reconstructed in Punitive Medicine, were confiscated. Podrabinek was “administratively detained” for two weeks in April, 1977, then jailed in May, 1978. The reported charge was “dissemination of fabrications known to be false which defame the Soviet state and social system.”

The Soviet government’s practice of “punitive medicine” and its actions against dissidents who challenged such practices intensified and then diminished. In October, 1978, the official Soviet psychiatric organization set up its own commission to investigate cases presented by working commission consultant Alexander Voloshanovich. That commission’s operations seemed designed to mollify foreign critics rather than to reform psychiatry. The working commission’s bulletin reported that at one meeting, all Voloshanovich’s references to specific violations of the directives of the Ministry of Health were ignored. Voloshanovich concluded that the hidden intent was to discredit him personally and to deprecate the results of his examinations.

The harassment of working commission members and consultants continued. After Voloshanovich emigrated in 1980, a court labeled the activities of his successor, Anatoly Koryagin, incompatible with the calling of a Soviet scientist and took away his doctoral degree. Bakhmin was jailed, as were two other members, on charges of slander. By 1981, all of the working commission members were imprisoned or had emigrated. The harshest sentence, seven years of labor camp and five of exile, was reserved for Koryagin. This was likely intended to deter other psychiatrists from following his example. Imprisonment did not stop Koryagin, however; he smuggled letters out of prison camps in which he urged the world psychiatric community to remember the plight of Soviet psychiatric prisoners.

Eventually, the outcry from Western governments and nongovernmental organizations changed the nature of psychiatric repression in the Soviet Union. Such abuses diminished in major cities but continued in remote areas. As the working commission and other monitors became more sophisticated, so did the Soviet government. The government learned to use a range of sanctions, some of them criminal but others supposedly therapeutic. The government could control access to information about sentencing procedures and about the punishments.

There is evidence that the working commission made a difference in individual cases. In some cases, commission intervention was followed by the authorities’ decision not to intern a dissenter. In other cases, commission intervention was followed by changes in treatment; in still others, the result was sentencing to a labor camp or exile rather than detention in a special psychiatric hospital.

Most national and international psychiatrists’ associations came to share the commission’s perspective. By 1983, most national sections of the WPA were ready to isolate and ostracize the Soviet section. The Soviets withdrew from the organization, complaining that the WPA had been turned into a tool of forces, among them the U.S. State Department, that were using psychiatry for their own political goals. Anatoly Koryagin, still in a Soviet labor camp, was given honorary membership in the WPA.

Almost four years after the commission’s demise, Mikhail Gorbachev Gorbachev, Mikhail [p]Gorbachev, Mikhail;glasnost rose to power in the Soviet Union and popularized the theme of glasnost, or openness. Procedures for psychiatric internment were changed, and Soviet officials acknowledged past abuses. Human rights activists greeted these changes with cautious approval. Some questioned whether they went far enough to change deeply rooted practices of leaders in the psychiatric profession, hospital administrators, and government officials. Scientist and human rights advocate Andrei Sakharov Sakharov, Andrei gave the working commission, along with the Moscow Human Rights Committee and allies in the West, much of the credit for new legal safeguards but cautioned that “the assistance of Western psychiatrists is needed to halt psychiatric repression completely.” Working Commission for the Investigation of the Use of Psychiatry for Political Purposes Soviet Union;psychiatry Psychiatry;abuses Human rights abuses;psychiatry Human rights activism

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Alexeyeva, Ludmilla. Soviet Dissent: Contemporary Movements for National, Religious, and Human Rights. Middletown, Conn.: Wesleyan University Press, 1985. Provides excellent, detailed description of a plethora of movements. Discusses the working commission as part of the human rights movement and as distinguished from nationalist and religious forms of dissent. Includes photographs, bibliographic notes, and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Bloch, Sidney, and Peter Reddaway. Soviet Psychiatric Abuse: The Shadow over World Psychiatry. Boulder, Colo.: Westview Press, 1984. Chapter 3 offers a sympathetic description and analysis of the commission’s efforts. Includes index and appendixes containing letters by Bakhmin and Koryagin and a Soviet defense to allegations of psychiatric abuse.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Podrabinek, Alexander. Punitive Medicine. Ann Arbor, Mich.: Karoma, 1980. Classic account of Soviet psychiatric abuses by a leading commission member. Includes index and appendixes containing the text of legislation and administration regulations on hospitalization and treatment of the mentally ill.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Rubenstein, Joshua. Soviet Dissidents: Their Struggle for Human Rights. 2d ed. Boston: Beacon Press, 1985. Well-written description of the varied human rights activities of Soviet dissidents. Addressed to a general readership. Includes useful bibliography and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Sirotkina, Irina. Diagnosing Literary Genius: A Cultural History of Psychiatry in Russia, 1880-1930. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2002. Analyzes Russian psychiatry through the lens of Russian literature. Chapter 5 discusses psychiatry in the early Soviet years.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Smith, Theresa C., with Thomas A. Oleszczuk. No Asylum: State Psychiatric Repression in the Former USSR. New York: New York University Press, 1996. Scholarly account of the abuse of psychiatry in punishing political dissent. Includes bibliography and indexes.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Van Voren, Robert, ed. Koryagin: A Man Struggling for Human Dignity. Amsterdam: Second World Press, 1987. Pays tribute to the Soviet psychiatrist and working commission consultant. Includes excerpts from Koryagin’s trial and contributions from Koryagin and Voloshanovich. Features photographs and informative appendixes.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Wynn, Allan. Notes of a Non-conspirator: Working with Russian Dissidents. London: Andre Deutsch, 1987. A physician’s tale of his efforts, along with those of the British Working Group on the Internment of Dissenters in Mental Hospitals, to call attention to Soviet abuses. Describes the role of the Soviet working commission and other groups. Includes index.

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Categories: History