Labelled mad for daring to criticise the Kremlin
London Telegraph | Augsut 13, 2007
Naked and with her hands and feet bound to the corners of a metal bed covered by a rubber incontinence sheet, Larisa Arap eyed with quiet defiance the doctors who wanted to declare her mad.
It was a futile gesture. The men in white coats standing over her were bitter adversaries.
Enraged by the allegations that she had levelled against them, they also knew that, as an open Kremlin critic, the state would do little to help her.
A needle sank into her arm. Over the coming weeks, as the treatment took its effect, Mrs Arap would become everything the doctors declared her to be: her head lolled to one side, her tongue hung out of her mouth and her face went slack.
"When she was brought out she was covered in bruises," said Taisia, her daughter. "She couldn't stand, could hardly speak and was drifting in and out of consciousness."
The practice of "punitive psychiatry", perfected by Nikita Khrushchev in the aftermath of Stalin's Great Terror as a more palatable way of dealing with political dissidents, was once thought to have been buried with the Soviet Union.
But Mrs Arap's ordeal has raised fears among Russia's browbeaten human rights community that the Kremlin is preparing to incarcerate a new generation of dissidents in asylums.
Mrs Arap was by no means a high-profile critic of President Vladimir Putin. But in Murmansk, a drab city inside the Arctic Circle where she was seized by police, she had begun to be noticed.
At a rally in the city in June, she delivered as a member of the United Civil Front - the opposition party of Garry Kasparov, ex-chess champion - a powerful denunciation of Mr Putin's crackdown on dissenters.
Such unorthodox views are enough to get anyone labelled an eccentric in Russia these days. But the state psychiatrists holding her insist she has a history of mental instability, pointing out that she sought counselling for stress and insomnia in 2004.
Because she is forbidden from seeing anyone apart from her immediate family - who were also threatened with enforced treatment after they demanded visiting rights - it is impossible to judge Mrs Arap's state of mind.
Under Russian law, a patient can only be sectioned if they are a danger to society or to themselves. Colleagues say Mrs Arap is neither.
However, she was angry. Earlier this summer, she wrote a newspaper article that infuriated the medical establishment in Murmansk.
Detailing a pattern of systematic abuse at the clinic where she is being held, she alleged that children were subjected to electric shocks against their will.
She also wrote of several cases of sane individuals being held against their will at the behest of powerful opponents: a businesswoman sectioned by rivals intent on seizing her financial interests, a witness to a murder and a mother whose daughter was raped at a school where the well-connected headmaster wanted to avoid scandal.
"There are two reasons for what has happened to Larisa," said Yelena Vasilieva, Mr Kasparov's party chief in Murmansk.
"The doctors are concerned with the defence of their honour. Secondly they want to discredit the United Civil Front. They are using her as a political weapon in the struggle against the opposition."
Mrs Arap's allegations come as no surprise to those who have followed psychiatry in Russia in recent years.
In 2001, the law was quietly changed to remove the rights of sectioned patients to seek an independent assessment.
The Daily Telegraph has learnt of dozens of incidents that suggest that Russia's psychiatric system is rapidly becoming as unsavoury as it was in Soviet times.
Andrei Fedorovich was held in a clinic for 43 days last autumn after his neighbours, who had powerful connections in the Moscow police force, reported him as mad in an attempt to seize his apartment.
Alexei Shuralyov tells a similar story - although this time his antagonists came from the FSB, the feared domestic spy agency that employed his wife.
Such stories are common. But increasingly the same fate is befalling those who oppose the authorities in Russia's regions.
After fighting a lone battle to expose judicial, police and local government corruption in the city of Cheboksary, Albert Imendayev was hauled into an asylum the day before he was to register as a candidate in local elections in 2005.
In the same city the previous year, Igor Molyakov was sectioned after psychiatrists ruled (and a judge agreed) that his repeated letters detailing local corruption reflected an outlook so sombre it constituted a "mental disorder".
"Once again psychiatrists see stubbornness in an individual as a sign of psychosis," said Lyubov Vinogradova, the executive director of the Independent Psychiatrists' Association. "If a person goes to court against a state institution or writes letters of complaint he is treated as a social danger and is in danger of incarceration."
In a country where anyone with a history of mental deficiency is ostracised, the victims of abusive psychiatry must live with the stigma for the rest of their lives.
But until Mrs Arap's case, it was generally believed that "punitive psychiatry" was not meted out on the orders of the Kremlin itself.
With a presidential election due next March, when Mr Putin hopes to shoehorn a handpicked successor into the Kremlin, fears are now mounting that her ordeal has been a "test case" - the first of many to come.
"Everything is ready for a wide scale political abuse of psychiatry," said Mrs Vinogradova.
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