“Worse than prison”: Russian political prisoner Alexei Moroshkin on punitive psychiatry

Alexei Moroshkin spent 18 months in compulsory psychiatric detention for his political views. Here’s his story. RU

10 July 2017
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Alexei Moroshkin was released from psychiatric hospital on 14 June. Source: Facebook.On 14 June, Alexei Moroshkin was released from a psychiatric hospital in Chelyabinsk. Moroshkin, 36, spent more than 18 months here, after being convicted for inciting separatism in November 2016. According to the court, Moroshkin advocated for the creation of a “Urals People's Republic” on social media. But in a peculiar twist of events, the court decided that Moroshkin was suffering from “paranoid schizophrenia”, and was diagnosed as such.

In March 2014, Moroshkin volunteered to participate in the Crimea annexation campaign, and then joined the Vostok separatist battalion. But after becoming disillusioned in the “Russian spring”, Moroshkin returned to Chelyabinsk, and became an advocate of Ukraine online. He has also been charged with vandalism over an incident in which a bust of Lenin in Chelyabinsk was painted in the colours of the Ukrainian flag. According to Moroshkin's mother, there is no evidence that he was involved in the incident, but the investigation continues. Memorial Human Rights Center declared Moroshkin a political prisoner in July 2016.

We spoke to Alexei Moroshkin about his experiences in psychiatric hospital.

What were the conditions like in the hospital?

At the start, they began giving me tablets. I really began to feel terrible. I couldn’t walk.

I had this feeling, you know, like when I stood up, I wasn’t really standing, and when I laid down, I wasn’t really lying down. I wanted to do something all the time, not knowing what that was. A real restlessness. You’re in such a state, it’s like it’s impossible to live.

When they stopped giving me a lot of tablets, everything became better. All this lasted about a month.

Do you know what these drugs were?

No. They didn’t say what kind of medication they were giving me. They look in your mouth, tell you to lift up your tongue — to see whether you’ve swallowed the tablets or not. The worst thing is the injections that are absorbed by the body over the course of a month. The tablets you can hide somewhere, but you can't hide from the injections. They give you the injection, and just one injection makes you shake for a whole month.

After a while, they stopped giving me injections. They evidently were afraid what they were doing to me would become public knowledge

After a while, they stopped giving me injections. They evidently were afraid what they were doing to me would become public knowledge. That’s why they stopped giving me medication, and my conditions of detention became more or less bearable. No one touched me. If there had been no publicity about my case, everything could have been much worse.

Did they talk to you about your trial, did they talk about politics?


But they issued a statement about the fact that you considered yourself a political prisoner.

Yes, that’s true. But it’s the standard thing: a person has to accept they are ill. If you don’t do that, for them it means that you don’t have your critical faculties and your condition hasn’t improved. It’s the general approach to patients. If you don’t recognise you’re ill, you’ll simply never get out.

When the date of your next court hearing became known, at which the length of your stay in the hospital could be extended, did that affect the behaviour of the staff?

Not at all. They told me straight away that the first two times my detention would be extended, they said that’s what always happens.

They said that the charges against me were not minor ones. They said it was because of the political situation in the country, I should understand, because of the threat of extremism. If I’d been sent to prison, they said, my sentence would have been a light one, and I wouldn’t have been in jail for long, but in hospital I will have to stay for longer. They even said that the charges against me were equivalent to terrorism, that extremists and terrorists are pretty much the same.

That’s what the head of a department in the hospital told me.

Was there any pressure put on you from the beginning? Did they put any restrictions on you, in ways they shouldn’t have?

In the hospital they don’t in fact put additional restrictions on you because, in any case, you are restricted in every way!

Apart from the medication, which can make you feel bad, the main thing is the utter boredom. I read magazines, books, of course. But to be honest the atmosphere is not conducive to reading. Everyone says that. In prison you can read. But in the hospital things, on the whole, are worse than in prison. In prison the attitude of staff was also better, they use the respectful “you” form in speaking. And for some reason if you are a “political” prisoner they treat you better. I really had no complaints about staff.

In these psychiatric hospitals, people are not treated, they are simply isolated. In fact, this is just another kind of prison

The fact is that prisons are actively inspected by the POCs [Public Oversight Commissions that have powers to inspect places of detention – OVD-Info], and that has a very real impact in terms of improving conditions. You do certainly feel that they fear the POCs. You can tell that the human rights situation in prisons is markedly improving. But psychiatric hospitals don’t come under the POCs. There is no access. POCs cannot inspect them and they cannot improve conditions there.

In these psychiatric hospitals, people are not treated, they are simply isolated. In fact, this is just another kind of prison.

I saw many people who were being held there illegally. I heard stories about how people were put in there by their relatives, and about how the police send people they want to get rid of. There are, naturally, some who are genuinely ill. The atmosphere in the hospital is, of course, bad because in prison you are, at any rate, among healthy people, while in hospital you are mostly among seriously ill people. For someone who is more or less healthy, this is very depressing. It can even happen that there is no one at all to talk to.

How many people were there on your ward?

I was always in wards where there was only a small number of people. They were called convalescent wards and had only 10 to 12 people. The large wards would hold 20 to 25 people.

And what kind of people were they in the main?

I was in a general-regime hospital, that is the usual kind of hospital, you are mixed in with ordinary patients. There is also a special-regime hospital that holds only criminals, only people who have been convicted. In a general-regime hospital there was some rotation of patients. People would arrive, stay for two months, and then leave. And then there were about ten people there for compulsory treatment [those forcibly detained for treatment who have been convicted of a criminal offence]. People like us are kept there for a long time, for years.

What other reasons are there for compulsory treatment?

I was the only political detainee there. The others were in for murder, theft.

But nonetheless they were not in a special-regime hospital?

The system works like this. At first, these people are put in a special-regime, or even an intensive special-regime, hospital. And then they transfer them out, they move them to a lower level. After the intensive special-regime there is the special-regime, they stay there for two years, then they are moved to a general-regime hospital where they spend two more years, and only after that are they released. It seems to me this is also unfair.

Why should people who are simply ill come into contact with convicted criminals? OK, I’m a political prisoner, but imagine, a man who has committed murder, who is mentally ill, is in hospital along with you, recovering from an illness, so to speak.

I think that if someone is placed in a special-regime hospital, then that person should stay there until they are discharged. But, on the whole, hospital staff treat those sent there for compulsory treatment as prisoners, not as patients. Everyone understands that we are simply serving our sentences, we are not recovering from an illness. They only take the offence into account. How long you have to stay in prison, that’s the length of time you will be there. In the given case, as a patient. This is what they all say, they all know this, and they all have the same opinion.

The way I see it, I was released only because a new person was appointed in charge of compulsory treatment — I don’t know what this position is called. At first there was a woman in post who had been there since Soviet times. And now there is a new person with more progressive views, and he released me early.

And the others?

This new secretary also began releasing them early. He is someone of more progressive views, you see. He listens to Ekho Moskvy [a popular and politically “open” radio station]. I was surprised. He had heard about me on Ekho Moskvy and told a senior hospital official about me. Probably what he heard made an impression.

But did his progressive views mean he treated those on compulsory treatment more humanely? In what way were his views reflected in his practice?

I met him when he headed the discharge commission, which reviews cases every six months. He was not directly involved in monitoring patients himself, he did not visit patients. Evidently, he does not think that my offence is equal to terrorism. In my opinion, the real reasons why I was released so soon was the pressure from the media, from human rights defenders, and the fact that there was someone of more progressive views was in that key position.

How often were you able to have visitors?

In a general-regime hospital, there are visits twice a week — on Wednesdays and Sundays. It’s one of the advantages of a hospital over a prison.

Did the regional human rights ombudsman visit you?

No. The human rights defenders Tatyana and Nikolai Shchur [former members of the Chelyabinsk region Public Oversight Commission] visited. No one else.

You said conditions were better in the pre-trial detention facility, but at one point while you were there, you’ll remember, they put you in the attached infirmary where conditions were very bad.

Yes, that’s true. Best not to think about the “madhouse,” as the infirmary was known. At first, my conditions were pretty good, generally speaking. I was held for a month in a single cell in the FSB’s No. 7 prison because the investigator came from the FSB [according to Tatyana Shchur, despite the fact that several years ago Pre-Trial Detention Facility No. 7 was transferred to the Federal Prison Service, unofficial control still rests with the FSB]. It’s clean there, and the Public Oversight Commission makes regular and very thorough visits. It’s like a hotel.

Then, when my trial began, I was moved to a “one-person cell” in the local pre-trial detention facility. Initially, I was kept in quarantine. Things were pretty good. Then, evidently, since I was a political prisoner and they thought I might influence other prisoners, disseminate extremist views among them and so on, I was moved to a two-person cell. I was kept there with very rich people, business people who had been charged with fraud. They had everything — TVs, fridges.

So I was in comfortable conditions, and the attitude of the prison officers was fine. But then, once I had been diagnosed as “not criminally responsible,” I was moved to the so-called “madhouse”, the facility’s infirmary for psychiatric patients. And there it was absolute hell.

Nothing is cleaned there, it’s dirty. Both taps give either only hot water, or only cold water. Instead of a toilet, there is a train-station hole-in-the-ground that constantly stinks. Outside the window there was a dog kennel, you heard the continuous barking of dogs. And the attitude of staff was different, you weren’t allowed to go for a wash in a normal way, or for a walk.

In a word, if I had written a complaint to the European Court of Human Rights, I would certainly have won my case. In comparison with the kinds of poor conditions about which people complain to the Court, mine were absolutely hellish. The “madhouse” is the very lowest, the very worst, kind of pre-trial detention facility imaginable. And again, the kind of people with whom you are imprisoned in the “madhouse”, well, it’s a total nightmare. Murderers, people convicted of rape, paedophilia, people with numerous convictions. I was the only political prisoner there.

For the time being I haven’t thought about what I will do. I want to get this second prosecution sorted out, and after that I shall make some decisions. At present, I’m not able to get work anywhere

Usually in the pre-trial detention facility people on a first offence are kept away from those who have served time before, they are not kept together. But in the infirmary everybody is thrown together – those who have been sentenced for a fifth or sixth time, and someone like me who was there for the first time.

Was the decision to recognise you as not criminally responsible unexpected, or had there been some hints of this earlier on?

It was unexpected. Probably the main factor was the fact that at one time I had been treated voluntarily as an in-patient at a psychiatric hospital for a month in 2003 for depression.

The second prosecution has now gone quiet, is there any news?


Did anybody come to the hospital to question you about the case?

Yes, people did come. The investigator came as part of the investigation, and he updated me on the case. Then the case was sent to the Prosecutor’s Office. The Prosecutor’s Office sent it back to the investigators, and they carried out more investigative actions, and again updated me on the latest developments. Quite recently an investigative officer came to see me, the case had again been taken up by the Center for Combatting Extremism. Not long before my release people came to the hospital director, asked about my visitors, wanted to know if I used any gadgets. They carried out one more search of my apartment, asked about extremist literature and who I kept in touch with, they were looking for paint, clothing.

What do you think will happen with this prosecution?

I don’t know. The investigation has been going on for 20 months already. The Prosecutor’s Office has not yet formally presented the charges. I think they would have like to close the case long ago, it would be the simplest thing to do. But evidently it is too important a case for them, too much is at stake. So far as I understand, when the incident happened, there was pressure put on them from Moscow. If it had simply been a matter of covering the memorial with paint, that’s one thing. But the colours of the Ukrainian flag is quite another.

Have you thought about what you will do next?

For the time being I haven’t thought about what I will do. I want to get this second prosecution sorted out, and after that I shall make some decisions. At present, I’m not able to get work anywhere.

Wherever a certificate from a psychiatrist is necessary, the doors are closed to me. For several years now I shall have to report every month to a psychiatrist, and I am required to obtain mediation, tablets and injections. And if I ever end up in a psychiatric hospital again, for whatever reason, even for a formality of some kind, I shall have to stay there at least 100 days. I won’t be let out sooner than that. It’s called Active Follow-Up Monitoring.

You were arrested after you had left Russia and then came back. Why did it happen like that?

I wanted to flee the country. I didn’t really have any choice. I put my faith in people who promised to help me, but then let me down. I couldn’t settle at all in Ukraine. And that is why I had to come back.

The Federation Global Initiative on Psychiatry has found over 30 cases where punitive psychiatric detention has been used against activists and journalists in Russia since 2012. Find out more

Translated by Simon Cosgrove.

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