Protest and (psychiatric) punishment in Putin's Russia
It’s back to the future – again.
Since President Vladimir Putin came to power (there are kids alive today who can’t even remember when he wasn’t) Russia’s exterior has become ever glossier but its core is the same old Soviet security state.
Twenty-first century Russians have seen a return to retro political repression, election manipulation, homophobia and demonization of civil society activists as “foreign agents.”
Now – take a deep breath – there’s old-fashioned psychiatric punishment.
On Tuesday, Mikhail Kosenko, arrested with 28 others for joining an anti-Kremlin protest, was accused of “calling for mass riots,” pronounced mentally ill, and sent for forced psychiatric treatment.
Kosenko, apparently, was disturbed enough to take a stand at a rally ahead of Putin’s widely protested third-term inauguration in May 2012. He was prosecuted for alleged violence against a policeman, but a psychiatric examination declared him unable to understand the “public danger” of his actions due to a “chronic mental disorder.”
He joins a long line of dissidents, would-be emigrants, religious believers and “inconvenient persons” who ran afoul of the Soviet authorities from the 1960s until the collapse of communism.
Back then the authorities invented blackly comical euphemisms for their “illnesses,” most famously, “sluggish schizophrenia,” whose symptoms included “grandiose ideas of reforming the world.” The term has never disappeared from the lexicon.
Kosenko, 38, has, in fact, had outpatient treatment for mild schizophrenia. But, says Amnesty International, he was not guilty of any violence, and in a fair trial should have been exonerated by video footage and eyewitness accounts that backed up his defence.
His enforced psychiatric detention, it said, “smacks of the worst excesses of the now-defunct Soviet era when dissidents were languishing in mental institutions, treated as mental patients only because they dared to speak their mind.”
It added that he may be locked up indefinitely and deprived of the same chance of an amnesty that his fellow protesters could be given.
The sentence says less about the about the condition of Kosenko than of Russia under Putin. It highlights an even more serious malaise: state paranoia.
Olivia Ward covered the former Soviet Union as a bureau chief and correspondent from 1992-2002.