November 24, 2021
During the days of the Soviet Union, the KGB used doctors as tools of oppression against dissidents; those who dared to doubt the impeccability of the Communist state were declared mentally ill and sent to asylums, arguably worse than prisons. 60 years later, history repeats itself, but communism is replaced by Christianity: a young man has just been sentenced to compulsory psychiatric treatment for having protested against the construction of a church.
In May 2019, a wave of public discontent against the Russian Orthodox Church erupted in Yekaterinburg, one of Russia’s largest cities. Hundreds of protesters opposed attempts to build a church in the center of town where there was a park. During the two-day standoff, dozens of protesters were arrested by police and beaten by Orthodox MMA fighters, brought to the scene by a mining company which sponsored the construction.
In a rare case, protesters were successful and the Temple of St. Catherine was later erected elsewhere. However, Russian authorities do not forgive public discontent, especially when it comes to religion. Starting with the case of the Pussy Riot, many people have been accused of “insulting the feelings of believers” under false pretenses. A few dozen residents of Yekaterinburg have been convicted of crimes, and five have become suspects in criminal cases.
One of them is a man called Ivan Nogovitsyn. Authorities say the 22-year-old helped remove some concrete blocks and parts of the fence surrounding the disputed construction site. He “also wanted to violate public safety and order, observed the actions of other demonstrators, approving and supporting them.” These actions, or wishes, resulted in his sentencing to compulsory psychiatric treatment.
Russian state asylum sounds pretty strange on its own, but it gets a lot worse if you know the context. In the 1960s, when the mass purges ended, some people began to openly express their dissatisfaction with the system. The KGB came up with a new solution: Anyone questioning the legitimacy of the Soviet state, or its actions, would be quickly assessed by psychiatrists and sent to a ward.
Soviet psychiatrists invented two diagnoses to serve as the basis for political condemnations: contentious delirium and lazy schizophrenia. The first meant that a person was obsessed with a particular idea (like the lack of freedoms in the USSR), and the second meant that there was no clear sign of mental illness, but it is present nonetheless. As psychiatry professor Timofeev said, “dissent can come from a disease of the brain.” The diagnoses caused Soviet psychiatry to become a castaway in the world community, but provided a practical tool of repression.
Some of the most famous dissidents of the 20th century describe their treatment as hell. Nobel Prize-winning poet Joseph Brodsky remembers what he called “the wrapper”: “Late at night they wake you up, put you in an ice bath, wrap you in a damp cloth and put you close. a radiator. Because of the heat, the fabric dries up and cuts your body ”.
Activist Vladimir Bukovsky describes in detail the methodology of doctors. “Excited? … You get Chlorpromazine.” Too depressed, sinister – they write depression. No pleasure is allowed either – this is an “inadequate reaction”. Indifference is the worst, they will suppress “emotional flatness, apathy” – a symptom of schizophrenia. “
We don’t know for sure the conditions under which young Ivan Nagovitsyn will be detained, but past experience may give us a clue. The modern Russian autocracy is different from the Soviet Union in many ways, but it seems that one of the most inhuman and brutal practices has been copied exactly.
What particularly worries me about this story is the role of the Orthodox Church. Ivan has been labeled mentally unfit not for protesting against Vladimir Putin, but for not being thrilled at the prospect of a beautiful park being replaced by another temple – when there are already 65 in the city. .
This hybrid of forced Soviet-style psychiatric treatment and obligatory Inquisition-type spirituality produces something particularly gruesome and asks the question “what comes next?” Can a person who denies God be declared insane? It might be possible. Authorities should not grant the church the power to send people to mental health facilities. It smacks of the specter of something yet to manifest, but too frightening to imagine.
photo by Nathan Wright