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Vladimir Bukovsky: Blowing the Whistle on the Soviet Politicization of Psychiatry to Silence Dissidents

Vladimir Bukovsky was a Soviet dissident, an author, and a political activist. He was also the victim of Soviet psychiatry. It's estimated that around one-quarter of psychiatric patients in the Soviet Union was not mentally ill but political dissidents, who were incarcerated to be silenced or killed. Bukovsky had experienced this firsthand. He spent more than eleven years in prison, psychiatric hospitals, and hard labor camps where he was repeatedly subjected to electric shocks and other brutal treatments for his “schizophrenia”. Yet, despite these horrendous conditions, he found himself surprisingly healthy both physically and mentally while in prison. This blog post will explore how Vladimir Bukovsky escaped the clutches of Soviet psychiatry by telling his story of what it was like to be imprisoned for something that he had never done.

As a child, Bukovsky was a fanatical communist. But he witnessed the brutality of the Soviet regime firsthand when his parents were arrested and sent to a gulag in Kazakhstan during World War II. He spent his teenage years in the Young Pioneers, the Soviet Union’s answer to the Hitler Youth. Despite his early belief in communism, Bukovsky became disillusioned with the Soviet system when he saw the oppression it caused. He started speaking out against it—despite knowing that doing so would be dangerous for him. In 1962, when he was around 21, he was arrested for “anti-Soviet propaganda” and sentenced to five years in prison followed by permanent internal exile. During his time as a political prisoner, Bukovsky was held in various prisons as well as psychiatric hospitals. In 1972, Bukovsky was again accused of “anti-Soviet propaganda” and sentenced to an additional five years in prison followed by another term of internal exile, and just as before, Bukovsky's sentence was to be indefinite, with no idea how long he would be imprisoned or what condition he would be in when he got out.

Bukovsky spent more than eleven years in prison, psychiatric hospitals, and hard labor camps where he was repeatedly subjected to electric shocks and other brutal treatments for his "schizophrenia". The doctors told him that he would never get better because he had a "mental illness", but Bukovsky knew it wasn't true. He found himself surprisingly healthy both physically and mentally while in prison.

The reason for this? He realized the doctors were all lying about his condition because they wanted to silence him. The Soviet Union used psychiatry to silence dissidents. They would use the diagnosis of "schizophrenia" to incarcerate people with dissenting views in psychiatric hospitals, often with the intent to keep them institutionalized for life. Vladimir Bukovsky was one of these dissidents. He experienced this firsthand when he was incarcerated in psychiatric hospitals and hard labor camps for 11 years. At the time, they didn't even know what schizophrenia was, so he ended up being subjected to brutal treatments for this condition that he did not have. So, instead of letting them win and remain silent, Bukovsky escaped from their clutches and started telling his story and blowing the whistle on their lies.

In 1971 he managed to smuggle to the West over 150 pages that documented the political abuse of psychiatry in the USSR. Those documents, addressed to “Western Psychiatrists” were used, in conjunction with pressure from the press and the general public, to force the World Psychiatric Association to finally condemn Soviet’s practice and set up a review committee to monitor Soviet misuse. In 1976 Bukovsky was deported from the USSR in an exchange at Zurich airport for then imprisoned General Secretary of the Communist Party of Chile, Luis Corvalán. He then set up residence in Cambridge, Great Britain, in order to resume his studies in biology. At Cambridge University he gained a master’s degree in Biology.

Following this, in 1991 Bukovsky returned for the first time in 15 years to Moscow, to potentially be Boris Yeltsin’s running-mates as vice-president, ultimately this didn’t work out, but his Russian Citizenship was formally restored. After the dissolution of the USSR, he went back to serve as an expert witness during a trial before the Constitutional Court. In order to prepare for his testimony, he was given access to a large number of documents that included KGB reports to the Central Committee as well as other high-security clearance documents. Using a portable scanner and a laptop he managed to secretly scan many of the documents and smuggle them to the West where it was published in a book called “Judgement in Moscow”. Sadly, a proper English version was unavailable until May 2019, five months before his death.

During the 1990s and 2000s, Bukovsky served as an informal advisor to Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan. He was also one of Putin’s most staunch critics. When Putin became President, he immediately warned the world that the KGB was back. He confirmed this when he declared that it was “clear” that the Russian authorities were behind the assassination of Putin critic Alexander Litvinenko. Vladimir Bukovsky died of a heart attack on October 27th, 2019, at the age of 76 in Cambridge.