Punitive psychiatry: how Russian leaders deal with their opponents

As the Russian authorities continue to rachet up on the pressure on civil society and the public sphere, activists, journalists and bloggers are paying the price — through forced psychiatric detention.

Madeline Roache
10 July 2017

14 December 2011: free elections protest in Moscow. CC misha maslennikov / Flickr. Some rights reserved.Since the 2012 Bolotnaya protests, which saw an estimated 60,000 Russians take to the streets in protest at Putin’s re-election, the Russian authorities have unleashed an unprecedented crackdown on dissent and opposition. The government has introduced a series of repressive measures unseen since Soviet times. Political activists have been harassed and imprisoned, the work of NGOs has been severely hindered, and the freedom of speech has been suffocated in the increasingly censored media. Now authorities are said to be reinstating the Soviet-era tactic of imprisoning opponents in psychiatric hospitals, where they are often subjected to abuse.A newly published report by Federation Global Initiative on Psychiatry (FGIP), an NGO that monitors human rights in psychiatry, refers to over 30 cases in which human right activists and journalists have been illegally imprisoned in psychiatric institutions since 2012. However, experts believe the real number of cases is considerably higher based on interviews with lawyers, psychiatrists and victims involved. Most of the cases concern the Russian Federation and occupied Crimea, particularly since the illegal annexation of Crimea by Russian authorities in March 2014.  However, cases have also been reported in Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan.  In the later decades of the Soviet era, Russian authorities systematically imprisoned thousands of political and religious dissidents in psychiatric hospitals. With the fall of communism in the early 1990s, punitive psychiatry practically ceased to exist. But since Putin’s accession to the presidency in 2000, various cases of psychiatric abuse have been reported, leading many to argue hat the Soviet-era practice has returned.  According to FGIP’s 28-page report, activists have been hospitalised for periods of up to 10 years, depending on a variety of factors including the scale of their activism, their perceived threat to the authorities, and the amount of pressure exerted internationally by human rights organisations for the activist’s release.“In many of these cases, psychiatric hospitals are worse than prisons as the victims are forced to take psychotropic medicines that cause mental instability and a change in their behaviour. Also, unlike a prison sentence the term of hospitalization can be indefinite or easily extended, making it a highly flexible tool for the authorities,” said Robert van Voren, Chief Executive of FGIP.In Russian occupied Crimea, psychiatry is reportedly being used to imprison Crimean Tatar activists. The Tatar Muslim minority is said to be the most vocally opposed to Russia rule, and has therefore become a special target of the Russian authorities. Eleven Tatar activists were forced to undergo compulsory psychiatric treatment between November 2016 and March 2017, according to Emil Kurbedinov, Crimean defence lawyer and this year’s recipient of the prestigious Front Line Defender Award.


September 2016. Crimean Tatar political activist Ilmi Umerov (second from left) was detained in a psychiatric hospital for several weeks. Source: Facebook. All of the activists were arrested on suspicion of involvement in the Hizb ut-Tahrir organization, which Russia has declared a “terrorist” group. The Kharkiv Human Rights Protection Group (KHPG) asserts that there is no evidence to suggest that the organisation is connected to terrorism, nor is there any proof that the men were involved in the group. “The activists are treated in a degrading and humiliating way during their time in psychiatric hospitals. Some are placed in isolation and are denied their basic needs, such as access to a toilet. The activists are interrogated about their alleged involvement in ‘extremism’ and their views of the government,” said Kurbedinov.FGIP believes there are many more cases like this that go unreported. Affirming this, the Independent Psychiatric Association of Russia (IPA) declared that “psychiatry is now part of a frequent procedure in criminal trials where there is no concrete evidence. It is more economical [than gathering evidence] in terms of effort and time to acquire a psychiatric evaluation.”Another reported case of punitive psychiatry was the forced hospitalisation of Chelyabinsk resident Alexei Moroshkin, in 2015. Moroshkin was initially arrested on charges of calling for “separatism” following his posts on social media which celebrated nationalism in the Urals region and criticised the so-called “Russian dictatorship”’. According to KHPG, the court ignored the opinion of Moroshkin’s physician, which asserted that he was not dangerous and there was no need to hospitalise him. 


Alexei Moroshkin was released from psychiatric hospital on 14 June. Source: Facebook. “There is every reason to believe that Russia resorted to punitive psychiatry to incarcerate Moroshkin for no more than his civic position,” said Halya Coynash, a member of KHPG.In January, Moroshkin’s psychiatric confinement was extended by a further 6 months, having already been extended in July 2016. Moroshkin reportedly receives high doses of neuroleptics and now suffers from depression in hospital. “The tragic irony is that activists often develop mental health issues whilst in psychiatric confinement due to forced drugging and the difficult living conditions”, said van Voren.The psychiatric confinement of Maksim Panfilov, a 30 year-old resident of Astrakhan in March this year, was also widely held as an example of punitive psychiatry. In 2016, Panfilov was detained on charges of participating in a mass riot and of using force against a police officer, in connection with his involvement in the 2012 Bolotnaya protests. After a six-month long criminal trial that many human rights activists deemed ‘fraudulent’ and ‘groundless’, Panfilov was sent for a compulsory psychiatric examination which concluded that he suffered from “chronic personality disorder” and was a danger to himself and society. As a result, the court ordered Panfilov to undergo compulsory psychiatric treatment, despite a second examination conducted by psychiatrist and head of the IPA, Yuri Savenko, rejecting the need for his hospitalisation.Adults and teenagers alike are said to be swept up in this ominous practice.In May 2016, 16-year- old Gleb Astafyev from Kurgan, Russia was sent for an involuntary psychiatric confinement for 15 days, following his solitary picket in support of Pyotr Pavlensky, the Russian performance artist best known for nailing his scrotum to Red Square – and who himself was sent to a psychiatric hospital earlier that year.“For the first five days I was kept in the ward of special supervision where they put the severely mentally ill. I shared a room with 8 other men – three of them rarely showed signs of life and the other five yelled and pounded their fists on a table at night,” said Astafyev.“Every morning we were given pills to take but I would spit them out. I don’t know what the medication was –  it seemed to turn people into vegetables. All that most patients could do was lie in bed all day,” added Astafyev. Many argue that the psychiatric imprisonment of activists is both a punitive measure and a preventative one. It not only punishes the individual activist but also serves as signal to the rest of the population, warning them not to publicly criticise the regime. More importantly, it discredits the ideas of the opposition. In the words of Sergei Kovalyev, Russian former political advisor to President Yeltsin, punitive psychiatry is part of a long-standing effort by authorities to enforce political conformity.

FGIP is calling on human rights organisations and political bodies to take urgent action to guard psychiatry against political abuse. “We fear we are at a crossroads. Unless sufficient pressure is exerted on national authorities in the countries concerned, we can expect that in some of the former Soviet republics we will slide back towards a governmental policy of using psychiatry for non-medical purposes”, write FGIP.

Read Alexei Moroshkin's account of treatment in forced psychiatric detention here

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