1.6 Soviet Psychiatry

Perhaps the most widely recognised example of human rights abuse by psychiatry occurred in the Soviet Union. In the last couple of decades of the Soviet regime, the communist authorities viewed a growing epidemic of political dissidence as a malign social force, and Soviet psychiatrists were empowered to assist in dealing with it.

As early as 1974, psychiatrists in the West had become curious about reports of the high prevalence of schizophrenia in the Soviet Union: 5–7 per 1,000 population compared to 3–4 per 1,000 in the UK.[43] In due course it was revealed that Soviet psychiatrists had discovered a unique form of mental disease to fit the profile of political dissidents. They called the condition ‘sluggish schizophrenia, a form of schizophrenia where the symptoms are subtle, latent or only apparent to the skilled eye of the psychiatrist’. Soviet dissidents who ‘wanted to reform the system and claimed that they had the personal vision to do it . . . were exhibiting the textbook symptoms of sluggish schizophrenia.’[44] Soviet psychiatrists became so deeply involved in the control of political dissidents that a whole system of special mental hospitals was established which they ran in co-operation with the KGB.

When this became apparent to the international psychiatric community, there was widespread condemnation of the Soviet practice. Pre-empting their inevitable expulsion from the World Psychiatric Association (WPA), the Soviet professional organisation, the All-Union Society of Neuropathologists and Psychiatrists, resigned in 1983.[45] The WPA responded by announcing that the Soviets would be welcome to return if they provided ‘evidence beforehand of amelioration of the political abuse of psychiatry in the Soviet Union’.[46] It is worth noting that the WPA considered that ‘amelioration’ was all that was necessary to bring the Soviets back into line with international standards. The reason for this conciliatory approach may have been the general perception amongst Western psychiatrists that, despite the abuses, ‘the concept of disease employed in the former USSR . . . was similar to its counterpart in the UK and USA in being strongly scientific in nature.’[47]

[43] J. K. Wing, ‘Psychiatry in the Soviet Union’, p. 435.

[44] David Cohen, Soviet Psychiatry: politics and mental health in the USSR today, pp. 24, 44.

[45] A. L. Halpern, ‘Current Dilemmas in the Aftermath of the US Delegation’s Inspection of the Soviet Psychiatric Hospitals’, p. 11.

[46] C. Shaw, ‘The World Psychiatric Association and Soviet Psychiatry’, p. 50.

[47] K. W. M. Fulford, A. Y. U. Smirnov and E. Snow, ‘Concepts of Disease and the Abuse of Psychiatry in the USSR’, pp. 801–810.