Commentary Magazine

Soviet Dissent, by Ludmilla Alexeyeva; Soviet Psychiatric Abuse, by Sidney Bloch and Peter Reddaway

Dissidents in Decline

Soviet Dissent: Contemporary Movements for National, Religious, and Human Rights.
by Ludmilla Alexeyeva.
Wesleyan University Press. 521 pp. $35.00.

Soviet Psychiatric Abuse: The Shadow Over World Psychiatry.
by Sidney Bloch and Peter Reddaway.
Westview. 288 pp. $25.00.

In the opinion of many Western observers, the decline of the Soviet dissident movement coincided with (and was largely caused by) the collapse of détente, an event usually dated from the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and the ensuing sanctions imposed by the Carter administration. Yet as these two books make clear, this interpretation is seriously flawed. In fact, the persecution of dissident intellectuals and activists was a defining feature of Soviet political life during the era of détente. By December 1979, when the Afghanistan intervention was launched, the movement for democratic reform—the dissident strain most familiar to Westerners—was in a state of paralysis, with its leading figures in prison camps, psychiatric hospitals, or foreign exile.

The Kremlin's intolerance toward its internal critics carries important implications for the current debate over U.S.-Soviet relations. Even today it is often argued that President Reagan's policies and (especially) his rhetoric have worsened the dissidents' plight. Hard-line policies here evoke hardline policies there, the argument goes, suggesting that a more accommodating American stance would encourage Moscow to relax its anti-dissident offensive.

This sort of glib reasoning ignores one of the central realities of the Soviet system: an inability to permit any challenge to the orthodoxy of the day that is not controlled from the top. Dissidents are punished because they are dissidents, and not because the United States restricts the sale of computers or describes Communism as a doctrine slated for the junk heap of history. It is true that détente—or rather the promise of détente as embodied in the human-rights provisions of the Helsinki Accords—played an important role in emboldening liberal-minded Soviet intellectuals to speak out against the injustices built into the system. But if anything, détente can be said to have raised false expectations over the possibility of change.

Basically, the Soviets fear dissent because of Communism's inherent weakness as a socioeconomic system and, more importantly, because of the fragility of the Soviet empire. Of the various currents of dissent examined in Ludmilla Alexeyeva's remarkable study, hardly any offers a direct challenge to the Communist party's monopoly of political control. Religious dissidents want nothing more than the right to worship free from state control and raise their children in a religious way. Certain nationality groups seek to live in ancestral homelands from which they were forcibly deported during World War II. Jews and ethnic Germans seek to emigrate; Ukrainians, the Baltic peoples, and other groups want enhanced linguistic and cultural autonomy. Even the agenda of the democratic movement is, by Western standards, decidedly unradical.

To be sure, a few dissidents have drawn obvious connections among such disparate concerns as Jewish emigration, the cultural rights of nationality groups, and Soviet obligations to adhere to the Helsinki pact. Not surprisingly, it has been these figures—Anatoly Shcharansky, for example—who have been the principal targets of state oppression. Yet Shcharansky's fate has been matched, or nearly matched, by that of devout Christians, Roman Catholics from Lithuania, and Ukrainian nationalists whose names mean little to the outside world.

One is reminded by Alexeyeva just how seriously conditions have deteriorated since the downfall of Khrushchev. In 1965, for example, the fact that the poet Joseph Brodsky was placed on trial was a notable event. In hindsight, an even more notable fact was that three members of the writers' union in Leningrad actually testified in Brodsky's behalf. Moreover, when the union's chairman reprimanded the three, he, the chairman, was removed from office by vote of the members while Brodsky's three supporters were named to the organization's executive body.

By the early 1970's, open rebelliousness of this sort had become unthinkable for those intellectuals who cherished the hope of leading a “normal” life in the Soviet Union. Initially, the punishment for dissident intellectuals was deprivation of livelihood, a practice which created a class of “stokers with university degrees”—writers, scientists, and artists who were compelled to accept menial jobs or face prosecution under the notorious anti-parasite laws. Later, a term in the Gulag became the usual punishment, with the conditions of incarceration growing increasingly difficult.

Yet despite the current gloomy state of dissent, Alexeyeva reminds us that the dissident phenomenon is much wider, and thus more durable, than is generally thought in the West. While the democratic movement failed to gain a mass following among the Soviet people, the various movements for religious and nationality rights are supported by millions of people. Here again, the official attitude contrasts sharply with the comparatively tolerant mood which predominated under Khrushchev. Indeed, a number of the current group of Kremlin leaders—particularly those promoted by Andropov and Gorbachev—demonstrated their leadership qualities by successfully repressing nationality movements in the Ukraine, Georgia, and other non-Russian republics. This is a telling commentary on the nature of the Gorbachev era which has somehow eluded most Western observers.

Alexeyeva is good at describing how the official machinery of control smothers and grinds down protest movements, obviating the need for overt repression. Consider the case of the Crimean Tatars. During World War II the regime expelled the Tatars from their centuries-old homeland on the grounds of collaboration with the Germans. After Stalin's death, the regime acknowledged, grudgingly, that the charge of collaboration had been unjustified. Nevertheless, scrupulous care was taken to ensure that the Tatars would not be able to reclaim their former homes, or even to live in the Crimea. Employers in the region were instructed not to hire Tatars, and notaries were told to refuse to register deeds of sale.

These simple bureaucratic steps were all that was necessary legally to prevent the Tatars' return to the Crimea. Without a deed of sale, the Tatars could not acquire a residence permit; without a residence permit, they were denied jobs, could not enroll their children in schools, or even receive birth certificates for newborns. Ultimately, those living in a city or region without residence papers could be jailed for violation of internal passport regulations. As a result, many Crimean Tatars have abandoned the struggle, financially exhausted from the burden of supporting those trying to resettle, and psychologically drained by the seemingly insurmountable barriers erected by the state.

Alexeyeva calls the tactics of the regime during the 1970's “Stalinism without physical elimination.” The Soviets do not execute political prisoners, although there are a number of cases where dissidents died under circumstances similar to the Popieluszko case in Poland, in which members of the security police killed a Catholic priest. The principal innovation employed to terrorize domestic critics has been psychiatric abuse—the sentencing of otherwise sane men to indefinite terms in mental institutions. Although instances of psychiatric terror were recorded during Stalin's time, psychiatry as an instrument of political oppression became commonplace only in the 1970's.


According to Sidney Bloch and Peter Reddaway, the number of political prisoners subjected to psychiatric abuse has not been enormous—500 or so over the past two decades. But the intimidatory power of psychiatric abuse is incalculable. Dissidents consider the prospect of consignment to a mental hospital far more frightening than a comparable term in a prison camp. The sane person fears for his own mind. He must coexist with inmates who really are insane; he is subjected to drug treatments with dangerous side-effects; and he never knows when, or if, he will be released, since release is granted only upon his being “cured,” a judgment which often depends on the recantation of political convictions.

Soviet Psychiatric Abuse, the second study on the subject by Bloch and Reddaway, specifically deals with the worldwide campaign against the psychiatric oppression of dissidents that was waged during the 1970's and 1980's. The culmination of this campaign was the 1983 withdrawal of the Soviet Union from the World Psychiatric Association, an action taken in response to an expulsion move that stood a good chance of success.

There are important lessons in this story for those who despair of the democratic world's ability to influence the Soviet machinery of domestic oppression. For as described by the authors, the drive against psychiatric abuse ranks as a model of anti-totalitarian struggle.

It will come as little surprise that those principally responsible for carrying out the campaign outside the Soviet Union—mainly psychiatric groups from Great Britain and the United States—were forced to confront not merely the Soviet psychiatric establishment but those from the democratic world who were staunchly opposed to the “politicization” of world psychiatry. That Soviet policies were ultimately condemned is the result of exhaustive, scientifically rigorous documentation compiled by Western psychiatrists and by Soviet psychiatrists opposed to the political use of psychiatry. The most compelling evidence emerged from psychiatric examinations of the victims of abuse; in practically every case the examining psychiatrists found no evidence to warrant a judgment of mental disorder.

The Soviets might still have avoided censure had their counter-strategy been carried out with greater flexibility. The Soviets stonewalled, lied, distorted, and fabricated statements by visiting Western psychiatrists, and refused to permit contacts between foreign psychiatric bodies and Soviet doctors who were not considered totally reliable members of the official apparatus. This latter step proved particularly damaging, since it destroyed the fall-back argument of those opposed to sanctions. That argument was that punishing Soviet psychiatry would make contacts between Western psychiatrists and their ordinary (i.e., non-political) Soviet colleagues impossible.

The authors stress that those in favor of sanctions were not motivated by anti-Soviet sentiments; they would have been pleased to drop the whole matter if progress had been made toward the end of psychiatric abuse. And, in fact, some progress on this score was made. There does appear to have been a decrease in the political use of psychiatry during the 1980's, a time when the anti-dissident offensive was at its most ferocious. Presumably the worldwide outcry against psychiatric abuse played a role here. Moreover, the fact that psychiatric terror has not been widely employed by other Communist countries suggests a certain sensitivity to world opinion. On the other hand, Soviet citizens who publicly protested the political use of psychiatry were either forced into exile or sentenced to long periods of confinement. The most significant figure in the internal struggle against psychiatric terror, Dr. Anatoly Koryagin, in 1981 was given a twelve-year sentence, one of the harshest punishments meted out to a dissident in the post-Stalin era.

In urging the West to treat the Soviet psychiatric establishment as pariahs, Dr. Koryagin observed that foreign contact conveys the message that these men “are accepted internationally, not as violators of medical ethics and norms but as colleagues and equal partners.” Reading these words, and pondering Dr. Koryagin's fate, heightens one's dismay at a report that one of his tormentors has been rehabilitated by the international medical profession. In attendance at a recent symposium in Washington, D.C. on the “medical implications of nuclear war” was Dr. Marat Vartanian, director of the All-Union Scientific Center for Mental Health, and described by Bloch and Reddaway as having had “a distinctive role for over a decade as chief apologist for Soviet psychiatry to the world medical community.” A paper co-authored by Vartanian on the psychological after-effects of nuclear war was cited approvingly at the gathering. It would thus appear that Dr. Vartanian has earned a promotion. Having for years defended one of the most inhumane practices of an inhumane system, he has now been given the assignment of advancing the cause of peace, Soviet-style.

About the Author

Arch Puddington is director of research at Freedom House and the author, most recently, of Lane Kirkland: Champion of American Labor.

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