Pravozashchitniki (human rights defenders).

The movement for the defence of human rights (pravozashchitnoe dvizhenie) originated in 1965 in the Soviet Union, after the arrest of the writers A. Siniavskii and Iu. Daniėl’. On 5 December 1965, in Pushkin Square, at the foot of the poet’s statue, in front of the headquarters of the newspaper “Izvestiia”, the first “transparency rally” (miting glasnosti) was organised to demand that the Siniavskii-Daniėl’ trial be held in an open court in accordance with the Soviet Constitution, the birth of which was celebrated on that day (cf. Alekseeva 2016: 15). The rally was attended by about a hundred people, mostly students. Twenty of them were arrested and although they were released the next day, all of them were expelled from the university and colleges.
The organisers – A. Esenin-Vol’pin, Iu. Vishnevskaia, Iu. Galanskov, V. Bukovskii and L. Gubanov – were detained, in prison or psychiatric hospitals, for longer periods and paid dearly for their activism (cf. Alekseeva 2016: 16-17). Aleksandr Esenin-Vol’pin was the promoter of the first gathering in Pushkin Square and the author – together with E. Stroeva, and S. Nikol’skii – of the appeal (grazhdanskoe obrashchenie) demanding a public trial for the two defendants in accordance with the Soviet Constitution (cf. ibid.: 15-16). It was on the initiative of Esenin-Vol’pin that the participants of the miting demanded respect for legality and the rule of law, claiming that it was unconstitutional for the trial to be held behind closed doors. In order to avoid any violation of Soviet law, the demonstrators were instructed not to resist arrest and not to chant slogans, but only to unfurl posters with slogans that did not offend the authorities, calling for respect for the Constitution (“Uvazhaite Konstitutsiiu”) and demanding a transparent trial for the accused (“Trebuem glasnosti suda”) (cf. ibid.: 16-17). This strategy became the hallmark of the Soviet human rights movement.
From 1965, every year for ten years, so-called “silent rallies” (mitingi molchaniia) were organised on 5 December in Pushkin Square to demand respect for human rights in the Soviet Union (cf. Memorial a). On 5 December 1976, the silence was broken for the first time and Fr Grigorenko made a speech. In 1977, a new Constitution was approved and from that date onwards the traditional rallies in defence of human rights took place on 10 December (cf. Rozenbljum 2015). On 22 January 1967, the third miting glasnosti was held in the square (cf. Memorial b). The main organiser was V. Bukovskii and the demonstrators demanded a transparent trial for Iu. Galanskov, A. Ginzburg, V. Lashkova and A. Dobrovol’skii, the defendants in the “trial of the four” (8-12 January 1968) who were accused of producing and distributing samizdat and tamizdat material – specifically for the magazine “Phoenix 66” and The White Book on the Siniavskii-Daniėl’ case (cf. Litvinov 1971: 13-18).  Thanks to Bukovskii, the miting also protested against political persecution which restricted civil liberties and violated rights recognised by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948), which the USSR had also signed. To this end, one of the banners on display called for the revision of Article 70 (“Trebuem peresmotra antikonstitutsionnogo Ukaza i stat’i 70”) and the decree of 16 September 1966, which inserted Article 190 into the Criminal Code of the RSFSF, which outlawed the production, dissemination and possession of clandestine literature (Art. 190-1), flouting the flag of the Soviet state (Art. 190-2), and organising and participating in unauthorised demonstrations disturbing public order (Art. 190-3) (cf. Litvinov 1968: 5). During the miting, E. Kushev and V. Khaustov were arrested as was V. Delone three days later and V. Bukovskii and I. Gabai on the 26 January.
In addition to the protests in Pushkin Square and Maiakovskii Square, some equally significant demonstrations took place for the pravozashchitnki in Red Square.  On 5 March 1966, the thirteenth anniversary of Stalin’s death, a rally was organised to protest against attempts to rehabilitate Stalin and ‘re-Stalinise’ Soviet society and institutions (cf. Memorial c).   Among others, the writer Vasilii Aksënov, son of Evgeniia Ginzburg, a victim of Stalin’s repressions and author of the book of memoirs Krutoi marshrut (Journey into the Wirlwind), took part. Another anti-Stalinist demonstration took place near the lobnoe mesto on 21 December 1969, attended by dissidents such as Z. Grigorenko, P. Iakov, P. Grigorenko. One of the demonstrations that marked a turning point for the Soviet movement for the defence of human rights was the so-called “demonstration of the seven” (demonstratsija semerych), which was actually attended by eight people – N. Gorbanevskaia, L. Bogoraz, V. Dremliuga, P. Litvinov, V. Fainberg, V. Delone, T. Baeva and K. Babitskii – in protest against the death penalty (Babitskii was protesting against the Soviet occupation of Czechoslovakia). After the Bolsheviks came to power, psychiatric repression of dissent was sporadic and ad hoc, continuing a tradition that in Russia was began in 1836, when Tsar Nicholas I had the Russian philosopher Piotr Chaadaev interned (cf. Bloch-Reddaway 1985: 16).
It was only from the 1960s onwards, however, that the systematic and distorted use of psychiatry for political purposes became one of the main instruments to covertly quell Soviet dissent, in defiance of fundamental and inalienable human rights (cf. Clementi 2007: 155-189). This form of repression, already employed under Lenin and Stalin[1], became programmatic during the Thaw (ottepel’) and reached its peak in the Brezhnev era, when it became the norm. The assumption behind this new repressive scheme was well illustrated by Nikita Khrushchev himself who, in a public speech, declared that in the Soviet Union there were no political prisoners because in a socialist society there was no social conflict and, therefore, those who were not satisfied were to be considered mentally ill (cf. Mal’tsev 2004: 131). The use of this tool represented a great advantage for the Soviet authorities: the apparent downgrading of penalties for dissent made it possible not only to prosecute dissidents without attracting too much attention from international opinion, but also to subtly discredit the opposition by declaring that those who thought differently (inakomysljaščie)[2] were insane and incapable of understanding (cf. Bloch-Reddaway 1985: 19).
In the words of Vladimir Bukovskii, a new mental illness was recognised in the USSR: dissidence (cf. Bukovskii 1972). This repressive strategy was made possible with the help of influential members of the Soviet scientific community, including the psychiatrists of the so-called Moscow School, among whom G. Morozov[3], D. Lunts[4] and A. Snezhnevskii[5] stood out in particular. This last introduced a new diagnostic category, “slow schizophrenia” (maloprogredientnaia/vialotekushchaia shizofreniia), not recognised by the international scientific community or by the psychiatrists of the Leningrad School, that made it possible to justify the apparently normal behaviour of a subject deemed to be suffering from mental illness, who appeared perfectly healthy to relatives and friends (cf. Bukovskii 1972: 13; Bloch-Reddaway 1985: 40). The symptoms of this form of schizophrenia were purported to be persecution mania, depression, fear, suspicion and delusions of grandeur, but also a tendency to be attracted to revisionism and ideological formulations, so that the diagnosis could be tailored to individual cases (cf. ibid.). Soviet dissidents and activists diagnosed with this form of schizophrenia include P. Grigorenko, A. Esenin-Vol’pin, Iu. Mal’tsev, V. Fainberg, L. Pliush, V. Tarsis, O. Iofe and many others. The internment of the writer Valerii Tarsis (1962) and the publication in 1965 of his work Ward No. 7 (Palata No. 7), in which the author recounted his experience in a psychiatric hospital, had already brought the use of psychiatry in the USSR for repressive purposes to international attention (cf. Bloch-Reddaway 1985: 20). However, the numerous initiatives undertaken by the Soviet movement for the defence of human rights also contributed to a climate which encouraged the denunciation of psychiatric abuse. One of the first documents drafted for this purpose was the open letter to the United Nations of 30 June 1968 (cf. Kuzovkin-Makarov 2009 a), written by Natal’ia Gorbanevskaia and Liudmila Alekseeva on behalf of the Initiative Group for the Defence of Human Rights in the USSR (Initsiativnaia gruppa po zashchite prav cheloveka v SSSR)[6]. It read: “In the near future the courts will have to make rulings on the forced medical treatment of some people such as:  Ivan Iakhimovich, communist and president of kolkhoz, expelled from the Party and deprived of his job for protesting against the illegality in which trials are held, and subject to new persecution following his protest against the entry of troops into Czechoslovakia; Viktor Kuznetsov, arrested in Moscow because of his activity in samizdat circuits; and, finally, the talented 20-year-old mathematician Il’ia Rips, a graduate of the University of Riga. Last April, this last individual attempted to set himself on fire in protest against the occupation of Czechoslovakia. This incident – the only one he is charged for  – has been classified as ‘anti-Soviet propaganda and agitation’ [… ]; Pёtr Grigor’evich Grigorenko is also under the threat of being declared ‘insane’ and imprisonment in a psychiatric hospital, a measure that has already been taken against him once. Anyone who has been or will be arrested because of their beliefs is subject to this threat, since the very fact of disagreeing with prevailing official views is considered by Soviet psychiatric experts to be a symptom of mental illness” (Kuzovkin-Makarov 2009 a).
Nevertheless, it was not until 1971 that the abuse became widely discussed in the Western, thanks to numerous initiatives by Soviet dissidents to promote awareness. In view of the 5th International Congress of the World Psychiatric Association (WPA) to be held in Mexico City that year, Vladimir Bukovskii sent a dossier containing numerous documents – including psychiatric reports on dissidents by Soviet psychiatrists[7] – asking them to give a scientific evaluation of the “slow-onset schizophrenia” diagnosed by their Russian colleagues (cf. Bukovskii 1972: 13-14). The dossier was accompanied by a letter in which Bukovskii posed the question in these terms: “In the Soviet Union during the last few years several people whom their families, friends and acquaintances consider sane have been committed to psychiatric hospitals – and some to special judicial asylums. These include Grigorenko, Rips, Gorbanevskaia, Novodvorskaia, Iakhimovich, Gershuni, Fainberg, Viktor Kuznetsov, Jofe, V. Borisov and others, all known to have taken a stand in favour of civil rights in the USSR. This phenomenon raises a well-founded concern. […] I would be grateful for your interest in this dossier and I hope you will not fail to express your opinion on it. I realise that it is almost impossible to judge a person’s mental state by correspondence and without the necessary clinical data, whether the judgement confirms or denies the diagnosis. Therefore I ask for your opinion limited to the following question: do the reports in question contain sufficient and scientifically founded data to establish the presence of mental illnesses and are such illnesses so serious as to justify the strictest isolation from society of the persons thus examined?” (Bukovskii 1972: 13-14).
The same issues were raised by the Committee for the Defence of Human Rights (Komitet prav čeloveka)[8], which also sent a letter to international psychiatrists in view of the 1971 WPA congress and to the Soviet authorities themselves (cf. Clementi 2007: 158). The Initiative Group also did so, and appealed to the WPA asking for intervention to put an end to abuses in the USSR, in particular the practice of declaring dissidents “mentally incompetent” without appropriate scientific evidence, and with the sole aim of forcibly interning them: “The Initiative Group for the Defence of Human Rights in the USSR joins the appeal and motions put forward by the Human Rights Committee for the elaboration of measures to limit the possibility of arbitrary situations and abuses against persons recognised as mentally ill or subjected to psychiatric expertise. Sharing the concern about the inadequate guarantees of the rights of these subjects, we felt it necessary to draw the attention of participants in the Congress to the issue which, in our opinion, is the most urgent and important, namely that of the psychiatric criteria [used to establish] an incapacity to understand, by the medical-judicial experts during the investigation and trials of persons against whom political charges have been brought. […] We hope that Congress will examine the question we have raised from a medical and legal perspective. We are convinced that the opinion of psychiatrists participating in the International Congress can put an end to the practice of internment in psychiatric hospitals without sufficient grounds” (Kuzovkin-Makarov 2009 b).
However, this request was ignored by WPA members, and the 1971 congress did not discuss abuses of Soviet psychiatry. It was not until the 1977 congress in Honululu that the World Psychiatric Association considered condemning the USSR’s instrumental use of psychiatry for political purposes. For the same reasons, and for the repetition of abuses, Soviet psychiatrists were expelled en bloc from the Association at the 1983 congress in Vienna.


[1] In the early years of the Soviet state, cases of psychiatric repression include the sentencing of revolutionary socialist Maria Spiridonova to internment in a psychiatric hospital in 1918 and the attempt to imprison Angelika Balabanov in a psychiatric sanatorium in 1920 (cf. Bloch-Reddaway 1985: 16-17). Between 1931 and 1936, numerous diagnoses of ‘mild schizophrenia’ (miagkaia shizofreniia), a mental illness theorised and diagnosed only in the USSR, were documented (cf. Zaiitsek 2014: 193), whose description and related symptoms were so vague that the risk of misdiagnosis or, in the worst cases, intentional abuse for political purposes was high (cf. ibid.: 189). Among the cases documented in the Stalin era is the internment of Sergei Pisarev, a member of the CPSU who was imprisoned in a prison psychiatric hospital for criticising the Cheka’s role in fabricating the case against doctors (delo vrachej, 1951-53) accused of plotting to assassinate Stalin (cf. Bloch-Reddaway 1985: 18-19). After his release from prison, Pisarev fought to prevent the misuse of psychiatry and asked the CPSU Central Committee to set up a Commission of Inquiry to shed light on the matter and put an end to psychiatric abuse, but although this Commission was set up, the results of the enquiry were completely ignored by the Soviet authorities (cf. ibid.: 19).

[2] In Russian there are two terms to refer to opposition to the regime: dissidentstvo and inakomyslie. The former has a strong political connotation and is used in relation to those who were involved in an ideological struggle against the government, the so-called dissidents (dissidenty); while the latter, which literally designates ‘a different way of thinking’, is a more inclusive term and is used to refer to moral and ethical rather than political opposition, so it is generally used in relation to the activity of ‘those who think differently’ (inakomysliashchie) such as human rights activists (cf. Komaromi 2012: 71-72).

[3] Georgij Morozov (1920-2012) was a psychiatrist, KGB general, director of the Serbsky Institute in Moscow (1957-92), member of the USSR Academy of Medical Sciences (1975-91), president of the Scientific Society of Neuropathologists and Psychiatrists of the Whole Union (1975-88). He was one of the main actors in the repression of political dissidents in the USSR through the abuse of psychiatry. His opponents regarded him as a činovnik in the service of power who had used medical science to further the interests of the state and police. Morozov continued to hold important positions until the collapse of the USSR and also in post-Soviet Russia.

[4] Daniil Lunts (1912-1977), was a psychiatrist and KGB colonel. At the end of the 1930s, he worked at the Serbskii Institute in Moscow and became one of its main collaborators. In the 1960s he became head of the Institute’s Diagnostic Department, personally signing the diagnoses of many political dissidents imprisoned at the Serbsky Institute (including Natalia Gorbanevskaia). Between the 1960s and 1970s he co-founded, together with A. Snezhnevskii, the Serbskii Institute’s Commission of Forensic Psychiatry, whose task was to judge the health of patients and, in the event of their recovery, to authorise their release.

[5] Andrei Snezhnevskii (1904-1983), was the director of the Moscow Serbskii Institute (1950-51) and the Institute of Psychiatry of the Academy of Sciences (1962-87); member of the Scientific Society of Neuropathologists and Psychiatrists of the Whole Union. He is considered one of the founders of the so-called Moscow School of Psychiatry and theorised the existence of ‘slow-onset schizophrenia’. Currently, the disease is not recognised by any medical or scientific classification: the World Health Organisation (WHO) has never included it in the international classification of diseases.

[6] The Initiative Group for the Defence of Human Rights in the USSR (Initsiativnaia gruppa po zashchite prav cheloveka v SSSR) was the first independent Soviet human rights organisation, founded in 1969 by Pёtr Iakir. Its members included Iu. Mal’tsev, N. Gorbanevskaia, L. Pliushch and V. Borisov, all of whom were interned in psychiatric hospitals for their political activism. The group’s activity consisted of monitoring human rights violations in the USSR and making them known both at home and abroad. The group promoted numerous petitions and campaigns in defence of the victims of Soviet political repression.

[7] The dossier compiled by Bukovskii contained a collection of official documents, including the diagnoses made by Soviet psychiatrists attesting the mental illnesses of V. Fainberg, N. Gorbanevskaia and P. Grigorenko; letters sent by the dissidents themselves to the UN and other international associations engaged in the defence of human rights; and some texts denouncing the living conditions in Soviet psychiatric hospitals that circulated in samizdat. This publication, together with the appeal to the WPA, cost the dissident his fourth arrest and a new sentence of seven years in prison with the charge of “anti-Soviet propaganda and agitation” (art. 70). The dossier was first published in Paris by the Seuil publishing house (Une nouvelle maladie mentale en URSS: L’opposition, 1971). Bukovskii’s denunciation of psychiatric abuses in the USSR did not stop there: in 1974 a manual for Soviet dissidents on how to defend themselves from psychiatric abuses, written by Bukovskij in collaboration with the psychiatrist S. Gluzman, began to circulate in samizdat under the title A Guide to Psychiatry for Dissidents (Posobie po psikhiatrii dlia inakomysliashchikh) and in 1975 was published in tamizdat; at the end of the 1970s, Bukovskii’s autobiographical novel about his experience in a psychiatric hospital – The Wind Goes and Then Returns (I vozvrashchaetsia veter) – was published in samizdat in 1978 by the New York publishing house Khronika.

[8] The Human Rights Committee (Komitet prav cheloveka) was founded in 1970 on the initiative of A. Sakharov, V. Chalidze and A. Tvërdokhlebov. In its statute, the Committee declared itself to be an association operating in accordance with Soviet law. It was the first group to obtain international recognition by cooperating with the International League of Human Rights and the International Institute of Human Rights. By statute, the group’s activities included not only monitoring and reporting on human rights violations, but also cooperating with the government to ensure that human rights were respected. However, this governmental cooperation never occurred and the KGB worked hard to dismantle the Committee, succeeding between late 1973 and 1974 (cf. Alekseeva 2016: 32-33).

Ilaria Sicari
[30th June 2021]

Translation by Cecilia Martino


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During the a.y. 2019-2020, the author of the present article, Ilaria Sicari, held a course on this topic at the University of Florence, and edited the following entries, written by students:

To cite this article:
Ilaria Sicari, The birth of the human rights movement and the abuse of psychiatry in the USSR, in Voci libere in URSS. Letteratura, pensiero, arti indipendenti in Unione Sovietica e gli echi in Occidente (1953-1991), a cura di C. Pieralli, M. Sabbatini, Firenze University Press, Firenze 2021-, <>.
eISBN 978-88-5518-463-2
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