Psychotic Reaction

Putin puts away dissidents


In the Soviet era, political persecution sometimes took a pseudoscientific turn: Doctors diagnosed dissidents with maladies such as "sluggish schizophrenia" and confined them to mental hospitals because they dared to criticize the state. A series of recent incidents suggests this practice might be making a comeback.

In the lead-up to Russia's parliamentary elections in December, the government threw a handful of nettlesome political activists into psychiatric institutions. One of them was Artem Basyrov, a 20-year-old member of the opposition Other Russia coalition, who, according to London's Independent newspaper, was detained by police in December and committed to a psychiatric institution just days before a planned anti-Putin protest in Moscow. After criticism from local and international human rights organizations, Basyrov was released from custody a month later without explanation.

It wasn't the only recent incident of this kind. Six months earlier, authorities confined the journalist and activist Larisa Arap, a member of the opposition United Civil Front, in another psychiatric hospital. She had just published an article describing the widespread physical abuse of mental patients and had recently delivered an anti-Putin stump speech at an opposition rally. She claims to have been beaten and forcibly medicated during her 46-day imprisonment.

On December 6, 2006, Andrei Novikov, a journalist with Chechenpress and a former Soviet dissident, was sent to a mental institution because of his critical reporting, described as "publicly inciting constitutional change by means of force." After two psychiatrists judged Novikov mentally fit, a "psychiatric commission" justified further confinement by ascribing acute "antisocial behavior" to the prisoner. The authorities finally released him a year later.