Speak Out? Are You Crazy?

In a throwback to Soviet times, Russians who cross the powerful are increasingly hustled into mental asylums, rights activists say.

By Kim Murphy

Los Angeles Times

May 31, 2006

CHEBOKSARY, Russia — Albert Imendayev collected the signatures he needed to run for the legislature last fall in this city on the banks of the Volga River. He met with supporters, prepared his campaign material. He would have made the ballot had it not been for one thing: He was hauled off to a mental asylum.

Only days before he was required to appear at the local election commission to finalize his candidacy, an investigator from the prosecutor's office met Imendayev at the courthouse with three police officers. They kept him locked up until a judge could be found to sign the order committing him for a psychiatric evaluation.

"The hearing took place, and I was taken straight off to the asylum," said the businessman and human rights activist. By the time he was released nine days later, the election filing deadline had passed and he was out of the race.

Imendayev's act of insanity was filing a series of legal complaints against local officials, police, prosecutors and judges, alleging corruption, violation of court procedures and cronyism — charges that are far from rare in today's Russia. The prosecutor, a frequent target of Imendayev's darts, called his behavior "paranoia."

Through much of the Cold War, the Soviet Union waged a chilling psychiatric war against political dissidents. Critics of the communist authorities found themselves locked for months or years behind the barred windows of state asylums, drugged into tranquillity and prevented from talking to lawyers or family.

The end of the Soviet Union saw the adoption of laws that raised legal protections for psychiatric patients to international standards, granting potential mental patients guarantees of legal representation and commitment only on the orders of a court. But Imendayev's trip behind hospital walls in September was, human rights activists say, one of many signs that punitive psychiatry has not disappeared.

"This has only just resurfaced in recent years, and for a time we couldn't even believe it was happening. But now it seems quite clear that such abuses are on the rise, and that this is a trend," said Yury Savenko, president of the Independent Psychiatric Assn., an advocacy group of professional psychiatrists that has pushed for mental health reforms in Russia.

The ranks of the "insane" over the last three years have included women divorcing powerful husbands, people locked in business disputes and citizens, like Imendayev, who have become a nuisance by filing numerous legal challenges against local politicians and judges or lodging appeals against government agencies to uphold their rights.

Unlike during the Soviet era, when an all-powerful KGB locked up those who challenged the foundations of the regime, there appears to be no systematic federal repression of dissidents through the mental health system. Instead, citizens today fall victim to regional authorities in localized disputes, or to private antagonists who have the means, as so many in Russia do, to bribe their way through the courts.

"People are being institutionalized in psychiatric hospitals unlawfully, and on the most diverse grounds," the International Helsinki Federation for Human Rights concluded in a 2004 study. "Not only did punitive psychiatry exist during the Soviet period, and not only does it exist today, unfortunately there are no grounds to hope that it will disappear in the foreseeable future."

In another case here in Cheboksary, a four-term opposition deputy in the regional parliament, Igor Molyakov, spent six months in jail on libel charges in 2004. While incarcerated, he was ordered committed for psychiatric hospitalization after a judge agreed with government lawyers that Molyakov's repeated writings about corruption among local authorities reflected an outlook so "somber" that it might constitute a "mental disorder."

In St. Petersburg, Ivan Ivannikov, who lectured for 38 years at the State University of Economics and Finance, found himself wrestled to the ground, handcuffed and dragged to the city psychiatric hospital in December 2003 after a protracted dispute with a well-connected contractor over repairs to his apartment. An influential state psychiatrist signed the recommendation for commitment without ever having met Ivannikov, deciding that his multiple legal complaints against the contractor constituted an "obsession" with "revenge." He was released after 60 days.

In Moscow, Natalya Kuznetsova was fired from her job at the federal audit chamber not long after charging that $140 million had been siphoned out of the federal budget in 2001 and 2002. A subsequent set of quarrels with her supervisors led to her firing, and when she filed suit seeking disability compensation, a state psychologist reported she had a mental disability.

"When they finally fired me on the 25th of January, 2005, they threatened to call a psychiatric ambulance for me," said Kuznetsova, who successfully fought against commitment. "This is all because of flourishing corruption. These corrupt people are using psychiatric persecution to destroy people."

In some cases, people who families and friends insist had no overt signs of mental illness have been committed for more than a year, sometimes drugged with sedatives and tied to their beds when they resisted, and prevented from attending the often-perfunctory court hearings that extended their hospitalization.

In many of these cases, patients were talked into signing consent forms. The rate of involuntary hospitalizations is so suspiciously low in at least 51 facilities across Russia that the Helsinki commission concluded that coerced consent through "persuading" and "falsification of signatures" was widespread.

State and regional mental health officials say improper hospitalizations are rare, and most psychiatrists say they follow the orders of the courts in conducting their reviews.

"Of course I have heard of such cases. The world over, there are dishonest people with bad consciences. But there are also people who are mentally ill but who do not appear so to non-specialists," said Vladimir Rothstein, a professor at a research center affiliated with the Russian Academy of Medical Sciences and head of the advocacy group Public Initiative on Psychiatry.

In 2004, doctors connected to the very institute that perfected the tools under which Soviet-era dissidents were hospitalized from the 1960s through the 1980s sought to roll back some reforms in Russia's landmark 1992 law on mental health. Proponents of mental health reform only narrowly beat back the effort by the doctors from the Serbsky Institute for Social and Forensic Psychiatry.

The proposed amendments included allowing doctors to keep patients under involuntary hospitalization longer without a court order and restricting the ability of patient-rights groups and nongovernment psychiatrists to advocate for clients in court or provide independent expert testimony.

Directors of the Serbsky Institute declined to be interviewed. The head of the state-run Chuvashia Republican Psychiatric Hospital in Cheboksary, however, said patients who accused officials of psychiatric abuse often painted a remarkably different picture than those who dealt with the cases.

"I've been the head doctor here for eight years, and I have not heard of a single case of pressure being put on doctors by law enforcement officials for a diagnosis," Alexander Kozlov said. "I can also assure you with 100% confidence that in this hospital, not a single dissident ever received treatment, and not a single dissident was ever given a diagnosis of schizophrenia or sent for compulsory treatment."

Human rights leaders say the government psychiatric apparatus has updated legal protections for patients but has changed relatively little in its mind-set since the Soviet era.

"It's important to note that the Serbsky Institute, like the majority of penal institutions in our country, was not obliterated after the collapse of the Soviet Union. The sign outside the door was modified. They even expressed some regrets that there had been 'isolated cases' when psychiatry had made some 'wrong decisions.' But ultimately, very little was changed," said Alexander Podrabinek, who wrote a book on psychiatric abuses in the Soviet era.

"Persecution that has to do with the intellect or the mind or one's psychological health is perceived as perhaps worse than physical punishment, or even torture, because it's more frightening to lose your mind than to lose your freedom," he said.




Cheboksary, a city of 420,000 people about 400 miles east of Moscow, is known as Russia's hops-growing center, with a long tradition of beer-making. It is the capital of the republic of Chuvashia, governed since 1994 by former Russian Justice Minister Nikolai Fyodorov, who controls all levers of power in the republic, from the press to the police to the courts.

Members of Imendayev's organization, For Human Rights, and other opposition activists have long accused Fyodorov's allies of consolidating money and power through manipulation of elections and the court system. The case that landed Imendayev in the hospital began last year, while he was running for office and also acting as an advocate for a teacher who felt she had been improperly fired.

The case had gone to court, and he thought it was almost won. Then a police officer familiar with the case "came up to us and I recorded it on tape," Imendayev said. "The words were very crude. He literally said to her: 'You idiot, what are you trying to do battle with? The system? Everything here is under control. Everything has been bought.' What he meant was that people on the other side had given money to the judge."

Imendayev wrote a complaint to the prosecutor-general of Russia, mentioning the tape. At the end of the next court hearing, he was removed to the Chuvashia Republican Psychiatric Hospital.

At least three other members of the local branch of For Human Rights have been hospitalized in the last few years, accused of having various forms of schizophrenia, paranoia and other mental disabilities requiring urgent diagnosis or treatment.

Fyodorov's administration dismisses the idea that anyone has been recommended for psychiatric treatment based on politics. "Our judicial branch of power is independent," said Boris Kuzmin, the president's spokesman. "Moreover, our president has a background in law. I think he would not tolerate any sort of violations or pressure on the courts."

Still, Fyodorov's own lawyers moved against Molyakov, the opposition lawmaker arrested on suspicion of libeling the president during his election campaign. In November 2004, they sought to have him hospitalized for psychiatric evaluation.

When federal Judge Oleg Zhukov overturned a lower court's psychiatric referral order, the president's lawyers appealed, arguing that Molyakov's accomplishments as an author and philosophy professor didn't mean he wasn't crazy.

"The court ought to know that even being a personal genius doesn't rule out a mental disorder … (Van Gogh, F.M. Dostoyevsky, N.V. Gogol, etc.)," the lawyers asserted. "As has been established by scientists, the risk of a mental disease in gifted people … is seven to eight times higher."




But of all the cases, the story of Sergei Zotov, a convicted extortionist and businessman-turned-political-gadfly, is unparalleled in its alternate melodrama and hilarity, reading more like "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest," Russian-style, than the sorry episode in regional politics that it is.

Zotov, 47, got in trouble with the law in the early 1990s, when he flirted with the kind of speculation schemes that widely accompanied the collapse of communism. In 1991, he was brought up on organized-crime charges that originated with an alleged attempt to sell a car at black-market prices (and also involved Zotov's generous use of his skills as a boxer).

He was convicted and sentenced to 6 1/2 years in prison, where he spent much of the time reading the law and filing appeals. Once he was released, Zotov turned his newfound legal expertise against the system, filing complaint after complaint demanding criminal prosecution of various alleged instances of corruption and election fraud within the political establishment in Cheboksary.

Zotov would file a challenge to the slightest infraction of court rules — judges who didn't wear their robes on hot days, or a state flag hung in the wrong direction. But he also filed complaints challenging purported misdeeds on the part of local authorities, including the alleged awarding of state property to ministers and judges and evidence that voters were paid and escorted to the polls by pro-government candidates.

"I'm like a bone stuck in their throats," Zotov, a pudgy, balding man who wears rose-colored sunglasses to cover up a bad eye, said cheerfully in a recent interview.

The war was already well underway in November 2002 when he entered a Supreme Court hearing room presided over by then-Chief Justice Pyotr Yurkin. Zotov, who was running for the regional legislature, had accused the judge of improperly taking title to a state-owned apartment and other malfeasance.

As soon as Zotov stood to raise his endless procedural motions, Yurkin ordered him ejected. What happened next is like a Russian "Rashomon": It depends on who saw it.

What is clear is that a bailiff ended up on the floor and a large table was broken as Zotov was hauled from the courtroom. Zotov insists that the bailiff fell and that the table broke when he tried to hang on to it as he was being dragged away.

Some of the judges present testified that Zotov threw the bailiff over his shoulder, karate-style, and either kicked the table or landed on it hard with his hindquarters.

Yurkin sent Zotov to the Chuvashia Republican Psychiatric Hospital. He remained there and at other facilities for seven months and repeatedly was given psychiatric drugs, despite pleas by his family and colleagues that he was sane and should be released. Hearings to continue his hospitalization were held but neither Zotov nor his lawyers appeared. Doctors said he showed signs of hyperactivity, inflated self-importance and "nonsensical ideas of reform."

"It was awful there," said his wife, Natalya Semyonova. "I would go to the window, and Sergei was gathering information and trying to communicate it to us through the window about people who were being kept there illegally, about people who'd had their apartments taken away. There was one man who'd been there 25 years."

After his release in April 2004, Zotov tried to run for the local legislature again. When he appeared on television, slamming local authorities, the court ordered him to undergo outpatient psychiatric treatment, a prospect he feared so much he went into hiding.

In February of last year, two dozen police officers and firefighters arrived at Zotov's apartment to take him back to the mental hospital. The order they were executing referred to him as "a person who had committed a socially dangerous act," according to the prosecutor's office. When Semyonova refused to answer the door, two officers scaled a ladder to the family's ninth-floor balcony, all to no avail — Zotov was not at home.

Dmitry Ivanov, deputy spokesman for the police, said law enforcement officers are no longer actively looking for Zotov, but "if he does show up, we will have to react." He denied any campaign against the human rights activist, and hinted that Zotov might have tried to have himself hospitalized to seek shelter from dangerous associates in the criminal underworld.

Prosecutors, in a written response, said Zotov's case "was handled in accordance with all legal procedures." They said psychiatrists at the Serbsky Institute had examined Zotov and his courtroom outburst and concluded that "when he committed his crime, he was unable to acknowledge its actual nature and social danger, he wasn't able to control his actions, and he requires mandatory treatment in an inpatient facility."

The doctors at the Chuvashia hospital declined to discuss Zotov's case in detail. But they implied that Zotov's version of events was distorted.

"I think if the opponents of your main character were to turn to you and told you about the ways in which he'd offended or harmed them, you'd feel a sense of sympathy for them as well," said Lyudmila Karnilova, deputy chief psychiatrist.

"As for the idea of a psychiatric hospital hunting someone down and dragging them back here, this is certainly not the case. Our main responsibility is to treat patients who need our help," added Kozlov, the chief doctor.

Zotov, who rarely visits his own apartment, says he fears for his sanity if he has to go back to the hospital.

"People who fight for justice in our republic, it's already a trend that they become subjected to isolation in a psychiatric hospital," said Semyonova, his wife.

"This entire case, from the beginning, was based on nothing more than personal antipathy toward my husband."