No sane person would fight that wall

Paul Goble has translated large excerpts from Semyon F. Gluzman’s interview with Focus, a Kyiv-based journal. Gluzman served seven years in Soviet prisons and labor camps and three years in Siberian exile for his effort to prove that the dissident General Grigorenko had been improperly diagnosed with a mental disorder. I’ve also translated a small bit myself focusing on two notorious Soviet psychiatrists:

Suddenly I learned from a broadcast by the Voice of America or Liberty that the chief executioner-psychiatrist was Daniil R. Lunts… When I started collecting facts, I realized that Lunts was not an ideologist or a judge. The man chopped off people’s heads by order; way above him there was Snezhnevsky, a member of the Academy, and others, who were not Jews at all…

One more thing that helped me a lot was a book by D. R. Lunts bought by chance in a Kiev bookstore. It turned out that, having defended his doctoral dissertation, he summed it up in a book. There was history and statistics there – for they thought they would be in charge for a thousand years. So Lunts, proud of himself, provided information that made clear the connection between the party’s political line and the diagnosing of the mentally ill, of criminals and so on…

The US psychiatrist and activist Walter Reich visited Snezhnevsky in 1983. His long report in the New York Times – now a classic – contains a striking theory which may not explain the cause of the psychiatric abuses in the USSR but offers an insight that rings true to me, from my experience as a child and a teenager in that society:

They [the dissidents] behave and speak in ways that are different from other Soviet citizens, and, for that reason, they come to be seen as strange. After all, I asked, isn’t it strange when someone openly does and says things that, under the conditions of Soviet political life, everyone knows to be dangerous? In fact, there is good evidence, based on dissident accounts, that, upon encountering dissidents, many K.G.B. and other Soviet officials are often struck by a sense of strangeness, a sense that is compounded when the dissidents start lecturing them about their rights under the Soviet Constitution. The sense that someone is strange is not infrequently followed by the suspicion that the strangeness may be due to mental illness.

Decades ago, I read about a man who studied Marx on his own in the Soviet Union – where Marxism was taught at colleges but few people actually read Marx – and found what he believed were errors in the sage’s economics. The man was so naive that he wrote down his findings in an essay, “On Errors in Marx’s Economic Theory,” and mailed it – I don’t remember where exactly – let’s say to the Central Committee or the Academy of Sciences. He was diagnosed with schizophrenia because, according to the examining doctors, “no sane person in the USSR would question the validity of Marx’s theory.”

Having read Reich, I admit that the critic of Marx probably looked abnormal – not to the honest psychiatrist but to the average street-smart Soviet citizen. “No sane person would (a) study Marx voluntarily, in his spare time, without pay, just out of curiosity; and (b) be so clueless about the country he’s living in as to write to any Soviet authority claiming Marx was wrong. Like they don’t know that in the Kremlin! No one believes that sh*t but everyone’s playing the game.”

This thinking is not at all dead in Russia – I think it’s been back with a vengeance. If you’re advocating for a cause that has no obvious impact on you, your family or your business, you’re either crazy or doing it for someone else’s money. Because paddling your own canoe and not giving a crap for people outside your immediate network is very much the norm. Not for everybody, not always, not everywhere in Russia but if people think you’ve lost your marbles, re-read Reich.


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