Punitive psychiatry on agenda in Belarus again. How it was used by tzar, Nazis and communists

At least one Belarusian who, according to the prosecutor’s office, publicly criticized and insulted Alyaksandr Lukashenka, was sentenced to compulsory treatment in a psychiatric hospital. Palina Sharenda-Panasyuk, a prisoner in another political case, accused the authorities of using criminal psychiatry. In Belarus, where, as you know, “sometimes the law doesn’t matter”, punitive psychiatry can become a reality.

Illustrative photo: SCANPIX / RIDDLE

What is punitive psychiatry?

This term refers to the abuse of psychiatric diagnosis, treatment, and solitary confinement in order to restrict fundamental human rights. A person who for some reason interferes with the authorities or some influential political group can be attributed a false diagnosis to inflict moral or physical suffering, to isolate him or her from society, to break the psyche by unnecessary medical measures.

This is usually typical of totalitarian countries, where the authorities are free to manipulate court decisions, the actions of law enforcement agencies and the assessments of medical experts.

Sometimes power groups take such measures when they do not want to or cannot put pressure on a person in another way: for example, when they repress only for a person’s views and cannot find a suitable article in the existing legislation.

Russian Empire: tsar as chief psychiatrist

Perhaps the first well-known case of abuse of psychiatry for political purposes was in 1836, when the Russian philosopher and publicist Peter Chaadaev, who criticized the government, was proclaimed mentally ill.

Tsar Nicholas I himself called Chaadaev demented.

Peter Chaadaev. Source: wikimedia.org

For his first and only “Philosophical Letter” published during his lifetime, Chaadaev was placed under house arrest as a madman and was forced to undergo regular medical examinations by a state doctor. Nicholas I allowed the publicist to leave the house on the condition “not to write anything more.” It was forbidden to visit Chaadaev, as well as to publish his works.

Nazis: euthanasia of the “unnecessary”

Like the Marxists, the German National Socialists considered themselves adherents of the most modern science. They transferred Darwinism and the principle of “the strongest survives” to the level of ethnic groups. Accordingly, the German ethnic group had to defeat everyone else, including by the purification of the Germans themselves from the ill (including mentally) and the disabled.

This is how the infamous secret program T4 arose. According to this plan, from 1939 “politically reliable” doctors had to evaluate patients, and those patients who were recognized as incurable and unnecessary burden for the state, were secretly killed. Thus, it was planned to simultaneously “improve the blood” of the German people and reduce spending on social needs, increase the number of free places in medical institutions. Mentally ill people were also massacred in German-occupied territory, simply to save money.

Nazi eugenicist Ernst Ruedin. one of T4 authors. Source: wikimedia.org

In addition, the term “disguised weakness of mind” was introduced, which could be applied to anyone who disagreed with the political ideas of Nazism. The poor, the chronically unemployed, in whom some true professors of medicine found the “genetic” causes of their condition, could also be destroyed as the inferior or the terminally ill.

It was from the euthanasia program that the Nazis began using poisonous gases to massacre people. In total, up to 300,000 people were killed under the program.

The T4 program continued until the collapse of Nazism, but gradually lost momentum as rumours of it spread among the general population of Germany, and Catholic and Protestant hierarchs openly opposed euthanasia.

Communists: from executions to psychiatric terror

In the first decades of Soviet rule, cases of the use of psychiatry for political purposes were relatively infrequent. Thus, on the orders of the chief officer Felix Dzerzhinsky, one of the leaders of the Left Socialist Revolutionary Party, Maria Spiridonova, was imprisoned for several months in a psychiatric hospital. She later lived under the surveillance of the communist secret services, was repeatedly imprisoned, and in 1941 was shot.

Prison psychiatric hospitals of the NKVD – in Kazan, Leningrad, Tomsk and other cities – were used for political purposes. In particular, the first President of Estonia Konstantin Päts, former Chief of Staff of the USSR Navy Lev Galer, the famous aircraft designer Andrei Tupolev were imprisoned there..

Serbsky Central Institute of Forensic Psychiatry in Moscow. Source: Author: A.Savin / Wikipedia

As the Soviet Union moved away from the Stalinist period, the authorities sought to make repression less visible to society: they avoided mass imprisonments and executions. And here the imprisonment of people in psychiatric hospitals has become a convenient way to isolate dissenters – both with or without trial.

In 1961, the “Instructions for Immediate Hospitalization of Mentally Ill, Dangerous to Society” came into force, which actually legitimized extrajudicial deprivation of liberty and was used when there was no legal basis for arrest or the authorities did not need a trial. The person could be kept in the hospital for an unlimited period of time, there was no right to defence by a lawyer or periodic review of the decision on involuntary hospitalization.

Accurate estimates of the number of victims of criminal psychiatry in the USSR do not exist, the number ranges from several thousand to two million.

Among the most famous victims are Iosif Brodsky, Valeria Novodvorskaya, and Vladimir Bukovski.

A Belarusian prisoner of punitive psychiatry

Dissident Mikhas Kukabaka speaks at Dzyady in 1990 in Minsk. Photo: wikimedia.org

The most famous Belarusian who suffered from such repressions is Mikhas Kukabaka, the author of journalistic works that were distributed underground through self-publishing. He condemned the entry of Soviet troops into Czechoslovakia in 1968, and in 1970 was declared sick with schizophrenia for refusing to cooperate with the KGB and sent to forced “treatment.”

The “treatment” lasted 6 years. In 1978, in Babruisk, Mikhas Kukabaka wrote an article “Stolen Fatherland”, in which he criticized the Russian assimilation policy in Belarus: “…When going down the railway crossing, I saw the inscription: ‘Beware of trains!’ and immediately remembered: 25 years ago it was written in the Belarusian language, and only below was the Russian translation. Now the Belarusian expression has disappeared. And strangely, I was unpleasantly affected. Unexpectedly, I realized I was a Belarusian.”

From 1978 to 1988, Mikhas Kukabaka was imprisoned under the articles of the Criminal Code: “Anti-Soviet agitation and propaganda” and “Failure to report crimes that are being prepared or committed.”

View of the entrance gate of the psychoneurological dispensary. Ivanchino, Russia. Photo: Alexander Rumin / TASS / Forum

In 1989, an independent psychiatric examination in Moscow testified to Kukabaka’s mental health.