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The strange case of Spartak Subbota, Ukraine’s star psychotherapist

Controversy strikes the man who put suffering Ukraine on the couch and helped it heal

Dmytro Oliynyk
5 May 2023, 10.00pm
Spartak Subbota: Ukraine's scandal-hit star psychotherapist

Spartak Subbota/Instagram / Adobe Stock

In times of great upheaval, society tends to demand quick solutions. But these may not always be the best solutions. As Ukraine dealt with the global pandemic and then Russia’s invasion, the answer to the country’s suffering and uncertainty gradually acquired a name: Spartak Subbota.

In the past 15 months, Ukrainian psychotherapists have had to deal with the unprecedented need for professional support among victims of Russia’s war. Subbota, a beefy, tattooed blogger, has exemplified the popular approach.

He has built an immense following – just shy of half a million on YouTube. Thanks to Subbota’s interventions, often on his podcast – simply called The Therapy Podcast – Ukraine’s teenagers self-diagnosed their mental disorders and found advice on navigating difficult relationships with their parents. In 2020, together with Ukraine’s health ministry, he launched an online platform (Tell Me), providing advice during Covid quarantine. Subbota even acted as an adviser to two of Ukraine’s health ministers and his apparent background in Ukraine’s security services, the SBU, also gave him the authority to lecture police officers.

He frequently spoke in public and to the media, including The New Yorker, where last summer he discussed his work with victims of rape and violence at the hands of Russian soldiers. The invaders’ use of sexual violence against Ukrainian women, he said, was “a weapon, just like any other, that could be deployed on the battlefield”. This work had an impact on him, Subbota told the American magazine: “In my consciousness, the world has become a tougher, more violent place.”

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But Subbota’s role in helping Ukrainian society, particularly its younger members, with its mental health during the worst period in the country’s history may be coming to an end after a series of allegations that shocked the country.

In April, Subbota was forced to launch a fierce defence against claims by fellow psychotherapist and one time friend Ilya Poludyonnyi that he had lied about his professional and academic credentials.

He called the allegations – published in a series of videos – "a work of art" and said he would "fight for [his] reputation to the end". Accused of falsifying his own name, he published his birth certificate – though it didn't convince everyone. On claims he had engaged in sexual and romantic relationships with patients, he hit back: “I advise you to prepare more substantiated accusations that will be recognized by the court. Otherwise, it’s just slander.”

Subbota said he would respond in more detail in the coming weeks.

He called the allegations – published in a series of videos – 'a work of art' and said he would 'fight for my reputation to the end'

“Unfortunately, I am not paid to work on building my defence and have to provide for my life," he said. "Therefore, I will work on this gradually, in my free time. Step by step, I will publish in my Telegram a thorough destruction of these fictitious charges."

Despite Subbota’s protests, Poludyonnyi’s claims have already had an impact. The publishing house responsible for Subbota’s 2020 book, ‘Stop this: How to Identify Violence and Resist it’, said it would no longer work with him. Actor Evgeny Yanovich, co-host of the Therapy Podcast, said that he was closing the show and cancelling a joint tour of Ukraine planned with Subbota.

Whatever happens, the whole saga has highlighted the acute need for a legislative licensing framework for mental health services in Ukraine. One way or another that would have resolved this saga swiftly. There's also a potential question around journalistic ethics and responsibility, given it was journalists and editors who helped Subbota build his public image.

But these issues don’t seem to worry Subbota’s younger audience. And he has already declared that he will shortly relaunch his podcast in a different format.

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