At Large

A Madhouse for Malcontents

A plot by local doctors to silence a journalist via psychiatric ward confinement is defended by Russia's judicial system.

By 8.16.07

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At first blush it would seem a typical case of Russian President Vladimir Putin dipping into the Old Bolshevik's Playbook -- just another example of Life imitating Marx. But in today's Russia, things are seldom what they seem.

Take the case of Larisa Arap. Ms. Arap, 49, is a journalist and, for the past six weeks, an inmate of a psychiatric clinic in the northwestern cities of Murmansk (the world's largest city north of the Arctic Circle) and Apatiti. On July 5, 2007, Ms. Arap appeared for her annual physical, a requirement for renewing one's driver's license. It was during the exam that Dr. Marina Rekish discovered that her patient was the author of a newspaper story titled "Madhouse" that alleged child abuse and other barbarisms at the Murmansk Regional Psychiatric Hospital. Dr. Rekish immediately telephoned police who arrived minutes later --dressed in combat fatigues -- and dragged the reporter to the hospital's psychiatric unit where she has remained under "doctors' care" ever since.

Both opposition leader and former chess champ Garry Kasparov and the chair of Russia's Independent Psychiatric Association, Dr. Vladimir Prokudin, charge that Ms. Arap's confinement is retribution for her investigative piece. The hospital's chief medical officer Yevgeny Yenin dismissed any link between Arap's piece and her confinement. He then violated his patient's privacy rights by revealing that Ms. Arap had been committed once before. (Arap's husband acknowledged that his wife had been in a psych unit for two weeks in 2004 for stress. It was during this stay that she witnessed the abuses detailed in her story.)

Soon after her arrest a Murmansk judge -- acting on the recommendation of local authorities -- declared the reporter to be "a danger to herself and others," a view challenged by an account Arap's daughter gave to the Chicago Tribune. "One of the doctors asked whether I thought it was normal to write such things," Taisiya Arap told the Trib. "[The doctor] said, 'It's not possible to write such things. It's forbidden.'" Doctors also told Taisiya Arap that her mother needed "long term treatment and might never leave the clinic," the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung reported.

WHEN NOT INVESTIGATING allegations of child abuse by medical professionals, Arap is a member of Kasparov's opposition United Civil Front. Following Arap's arrest, Kasparov told the Independent that anyone can be forcibly detained "if you attack the interests of the local Gazprom, the local military base, or the local medical mafia. Attacking the interests of local bureaucrats is a terrible risk, because they don't stop at anything to get their own back."

Indeed, Ms. Arap's detention recalls a time not so long ago when all Soviet dissidents were regarded as being of unsound mind, since "no sane person would declaim against Soviet government and communism," and paranoia was defined as the obsession with "the struggle for truth and justice." It was an effective and convenient way of silencing dissidents for institutionalization not only descredited their ideas, it broke them physically and mentally. "Treatment" often involved electric shocks, narcotics, beatings, isolation and torturous and unnecessary medical procedures like spinal taps. Patients were frequently doped into submission for years at a time. Whether this was more humane than summary execution or exile to labor camps in Siberia or Kazakhstan is a matter of debate.

One of those who served time both in a gulag and a mental hospital, Vladimir Bukovsky, told the Tribune that "as far as the current lot in power is concerned using psychiatry for political purposes is a perfectly acceptable way of dealing with opponents...you don't have to hire a killer." Such retro behavior is only to be expected, the director of Moscow's Center for Journalism in Extreme Situations Oleg Panfilov told the Independent. "When there are KGB officers in the government, they restore what there was during the Soviet era: propaganda, censorship, and repression." (That an organization called the Center for Journalism in Extreme Situations is necessary says all one needs to know about freedom of the press in Russia.)

Sadly Ms. Arap's case is not unique. The Tribune has documented two similar episodes -- one of lawyer Marina Trutko, another of businessman Roman Lukin, both recently committed to psychiatric hospitals for human rights activities.

These days it is no easy thing to completely isolate so-called mental patients, and a few officials have been able to meet with Ms. Arap, including Russia's Human Rights Commissioner Vladimir Lukin, and three members of the Independent Psychiatric Association. The latter examined Arap and pronounced her to be of sound mind, though suffering from the effects of her confinement, maltreatment and her second hunger strike. The psychiatrists called for her immediate release.

Is this a case of a local medical mafia unable to shake its Soviet-era mindset and therefore taking the law into its own hands, or a thuggish government reverting to Stalinist tactics to silence and discredit the opposition? What do you want to bet it is, "All of the Above"?

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About the Author
Christopher Orlet writes from St. Louis.