THE elderly couple did not hesitate to open the door when they saw Dimitry Mukhin through their spy-hole. Mukhin, a psychiatrist who lived in the neighbouring building, had recently paid a friendly visit to ask if they needed anything. But this was no courtesy call.
As Emilia Tomareva and Albert Uzikov let him into the Moscow flat where they had lived for decades, Mukhin rushed in with two men in white coats and a policeman.
The shocked couple were bundled into an ambulance with their hands tied behind their backs and locked up in separate psychiatric hospital wards, even though neither was mentally ill.
Both were injected with drugs against their will and without a court order that is normally required under Russian law. By the time they were released 10 days later after a judge ruled that they should never have been incarcerated in the first place, both were ill and terrified.
Uzikov, a leukaemia sufferer, was so weakened by the drugs that he had to be carried home. A few months later he died.
“I don’t know what they did to my husband but he could barely stand when he was released,” Tomareva said. “We found out that while he was being held he had several minor heart attacks but was not given any medical attention. That, coupled with the drugs they gave him, killed him.
“We lived peacefully and never bothered anyone. What they did to us was criminal. I live in fear now.”
Tomareva and Uzikov were victims of what human rights activists are warning is a return to the Soviet-era abuse of psychiatry as a tool of repression.
The Soviet Union routinely silenced dissidents by putting them in asylums. The practice attracted worldwide condemnation, in part because of the protests of Andrei Sakharov, the nuclear physicist confined to the city of Gorky for years.
Among the most notorious cases was that of Alexander Yes-enin-Volpin, a mathematician who became one of the Soviet Union’s first dissidents. He was interned in mental hospitals eight times and was once held for two years before he left in 1972 for the United States.
But whereas under communism people were subjected to debilitating drugs because of their opposition to the state, a bribe often suffices now to have a rational person with no interest in politics condemned to the nightmarish world of Russian mental hospitals.
The activists say that rampant corruption, coupled with a lack of controls on Russian psychiatry, have resulted in people being locked up illegally, sometimes simply because someone wants to take over their flat.
Tomareva suspects that some neighbours were behind her detention. She told investigators they wanted to buy the flat in which she and her husband lived but the couple had refused to part with it.
She suspects the neighbours paid a bribe to have them detained with the intention of arranging for their flat to be put up for sale ? under Russian law, a person found to be mentally ill loses most of their rights.
In the end a court found Mukhin guilty of having sent the couple to a psychiatric ward illegally and gave him a four-year suspended sentence. He denied any wrongdoing.
“Having a perfectly sane person locked up in a psychiatric institution has become shockingly easy,” said Tatyana Mal-chikova of the Citizens’ Commission for Human Rights, which believes there are hundreds of cases like that of Tomareva.
“All it takes is a bribe. The system is being abused all the time. But whereas in Soviet times the victims were mainly dissidents, now it could happen to anyone over a simple dispute. Once someone sane is locked up and being injected daily with powerful drugs, it doesn’t take long to turn them into vegetables.”
Last week authorities in the Arctic city of Murmansk released Larissa Arap, an opposition journalist whose five-week detention in two psychiatric hospitals caused a storm of protest.
Arap, who is a supporter of Garry Kasparov, the former chess champion turned fierce Kremlin critic, was confined after publishing an exposé in which she described how staff at a mental hospital were abusing young patients, often with electric shocks. During a routine medical test to renew her driving licence, she was asked by a doctor if she had written the article. Arap defended her story. The doctor called the police and had her forcibly detained. In hospital she was regularly given drugs and last week she was so feeble that she could barely speak.
“I feel very sick,” said Arap, who has never suffered from anything more than mild depression. “I have no idea what they gave me but I have memory loss. I lost all sense of time and can’t remember much of what they did to me. They tied and beat me. It was torture. I saw other perfectly sane people inside.”
Similar treatment was used against Sergei Ablamsky, a lawyer in Bryansk, 250 miles southwest of Moscow, when he came into conflict with a prosecutor he accused of corruption. Ablamsky was taken in handcuffs to a psychiatric institute where he was held for four weeks.
“It was a terrifying experience,” he said. “Once you’re inside you are no one. You have no rights and are treated worse than an animal. I saw people being beaten up all the time. I was kept drugged and had little understanding of who I was and where I was being held. I could barely move. Once you are trapped inside that world, they will do everything to break you and make you insane.” “The Soviet practice of doing away with people by declaring them mentally ill is making a comeback in today’s Russia,” said Vladimir Bukovsky, a Soviet-era dissident now living in London who was twice locked up in mental institutions.
“Abuse of psychiatry had ceased after the collapse of communism. But now, under Vladimir Putin, a president who has brought back many Soviet-era practices and has described the collapse of the Soviet Union as a catastrophe ? it’s becoming common again.”
The Sunday Times (UK)
August 26, 2007
Mark Franchetti, Moscow