Vladimir Bukovsky 

Psychology Today  Interview

June 1977


Portrait of Vladimir Bukovsky by Alan Magee.

Vladimir Bukovsky read the wrong books. Defended the wrong writers. His government declared him legally insane and committed him to a mental hospital. In this conversation with psychiatrist E. Puller Torres he tells what happened next. 


Vladimir Bukovsky was born 34 years ago in Moscow, the offspring of a professional writer and a journalist. As a first year biology student at Moscow University he was expelled for becoming involved with a literary journal. In 1963 when he was 20, Bukovsky was first arrested for possessing copies of The New Class, a book by dissident Yugoslav Communist Milovan Djilas. After being examined at the notorious Serbsky Institute of Forensic Psychiatry he was declared insane and sent to Leningrad Special Psychiatric Hospital where he spent 15 months. Released, he almost immediately became involved in the defense of writers Andrei Sinyavsky and Yuli Daniel who were under arrest, and organized a small demonstration on to demand that the freedom guaranteed by the Soviet Constitution be honored. This earned him confinement in three more psychiatric wards, including an eight-month return visit to the Serbsky.  Following his release, he continued his fight for civil liberties in the USSR, and in 1967 was arrested again for organizing a demonstration to protest the arrest of four other dissidents. This time Soviet authorities decided to try a new tack, and rather than call him mentally ill, they sentenced him to prison for three years, which he served in a labor camp. 


His ensuing freedom lasted just over a year. In 1971 he gathered together case records of six dissidents who had been declared insane and held in mental hospitals, and had these records smuggled out of Russia to the West. Simultaneously he appealed to Western psychiatrists, and especially to the World Psychiatric Association (WPA) who would meet in Mexico City later that year, to examine the records. A group of 44 British psychiatrists eventually did examine them and concluded the six weren’t mentally ill, but Soviet psychiatrists and the leadership of the WPA vented the issue from being discussed in Mexico City. These records were the first hard evidence that Soviet authorities were systematically abusing mental illness as a label for dissidents, and mental hospitals as prisons with indeterminate sentences. They were also the first hard evidence that some Soviet psychiatrists were allowing themselves to be prostituted by the State. The reaction of Soviet authorities to Bukovsky's act was fast and furious—12 years in prison, labor camps, and internal exile. 


By this time Bukovsky had become known in the West, and had been "adopted" as a political prisoner by Amnesty International. Not deterred by his sentence, he began a series of hunger strikes and demands for better prison conditions. In 1974 while in a labor camp with dissident psychiatrist Semyon Gluzman, they collaborated and produced "A Manual on Psychiatry for Dissidents”, instructing dissidents how to avoid being labeled insane when they were arrested. A copy of the Manual was subsequently smuggled to the West and joined the growing volume of data on the abuse of psychiatry in the USSR. As Bukovsky's physical condition deteriorated through both punishment and hunger strikes, his mother, as well as Amnesty International and other groups, increased demands for his release. Finally on December 18, 1976, he was released and exiled in exchange for imprisoned Chilean communist leader Luis Corvalan. As an exchange of one political prisoner for another, it was the first implicit admission by the Soviet Union that they do indeed hold such prisoners. Two months later Bukovsky addressed a joint Commission of the United States Congress, and the following week he met with both President Carter and Vice-President Mondale. He had become a symbol for human rights. 


A note on Vladimir Bukovsky’s mental health: Bukovsky had been diagnosed in the Soviet Union as having schizophrenia. Following his release in December 1976 he met with a group of British psychiatrists and was declared to be eminently sane, and with no evidence whatsoever of schizophrenia. The author, a clinical psychiatrist presently responsible for two wards of schizophrenic patients and doing research of this disease, strongly concurs with the opinion of the British psychiatrists after interviewing Bukovsky for over an hour. Bukovsky is a modest and self-effacing man, proud that he never compromised, and for whom principle is a way of life and not just a word. He  retains a wry sense of humor, and an unusual ability to step back and look at himself and the world. 


E. Fuller Torrey: What was it like, being a sane man in an insane asylum?  


Vladimir Bukovsky: Well, I found many people in the place who were quite sane. 


Torrey: So you were only one of several sane people in the mental hospital? 


Bukovsky: Yes, and we formed a sort of group to communicate with each other. With the other patients it was impossible to communicate, for some of them were extremely ill. So those of us who were sane formed a sort of club. 


Toney: A club of sane people in an insane asylum. That must have been a very interesting club. How were you personally treated by the doctors there? 


Bukovsky: I was lucky in that hospital. I wasn't given any forced medicine. 


Torrey: Was that unusual? 


Bukovsky: Yes, very. Almost all the other dissidents there were forced to take medicine that made them sleepy and hard for them to think. 


Torrey: How did you escape it? 


Bukovsky: When I got to the hospital I was assigned to an old Russian psychiatrist. I think he was around 80. After our first interview he told me he thought I was quite sane. He thought I had pretended to be crazy to get into the hospital and escape a prison sentence or something, that I was a malingerer. I tried to explain that he had it wrong but he had made up his mind and fought very hard to get me released. He would go in front of the commission (which determines when a patient may be released) and say I was sane. This made the KGB mad, but they didn't know what to do with this old psychiatrist who didn’t understand or wouldn't understand that he was supposed to find me insane. Anyway he didn't give me drugs because he thought I was sane. 


Toney: This was at the Special Psychiatric Hospital in Leningrad? 


Bukovsky: Yes, right in downtown Leningrad, near the train station. 


Torrey: The Finland Station, where Lenin returned to lead the Revolution? 


Bukovsky: Yes, I could hear the trains in the distance, but there was a big factory that cut off the noise of the station. 


Torrey: How ironic. I wonder what Lenin would have said if he had known that the Revolution would eventually lead to putting you in a mental hospital so you couldn't be heard by the people. How many special psychiatric hospitals like the one you were in are there? 


Bukovsky: There are at least 12. I am not sure how many more there are.


Torrey: And how many sane people were in your insane asylum? 


Bukovsky. Out of 1,000 inmates I think about 150 were political prisoners and perfectly sane. 


Torrey: That means that there are probably over 2,000 political dissidents in mental hospitals in the Soviet Union? 


Bukovsky: Yes, there are probably at least that many. We do not know for sure how many there are. 


Torrey: Besides the psychiatrist who was in charge of you, what were the other psychiatrists there like? Did they realize that you weren't mentally ill?


Bukovsky: Yes, of course. They all understood quite well that we were sane people. Many of them were quite cynical. One of them once told me that the hospital we were in was really more like a concentration camp. It is our own little Auschwitz, he said. Yes, they understood how things were very well, but they were not in a position to do anything about it. They had neither the desire nor the power to change things.  


Torrey: What kind of psychiatrists are these people who would work in an in insane asylum with sane people? Why would they take the job? 


Bukovsky: They probably do it because they earn more money than if they work in a regular mental hospital. They get special pay because it is a special hospital. 


Torrey: Are they army psychiatrists? 


Bukovsky: Not exactly. They are military, but not army. They work for the Ministry of Internal Affairs, which is the Ministry responsible for the special psychiatric hospitals. Regular psychiatric hospitals are under the Ministry of Health. So these psychiatrists in the special hospitals have ranks, like captain, major, and are promoted from rank to rank if they do a good job and don’t cause trouble. 


Torrey:  And doing a good job includes testifying that people like yourself, who wish to protest the lack of civil rights, are insane and should be kept in a mental hospital? 


Bukovsky: Exactly. 


Torrey: When you first entered the Leningrad Special psychiatric Hospital, how long did they say they were going to keep you? 


Bukovsky: It was quite clear from the beginning that they would keep me as long as they liked. I was told that it all depended on my behavior. If I would recant, if I would be good, how do you say? 


Torrey: Tractable? 


Bukovsky: Yes, tractable. If I would be tractable then they would let me out. 


Torrey: It sounds like what Victor Fainberg (another Soviet dissident) said when he was in the same hospital as you. He said his psychiatrist told him that his disease was dissent, and as soon as he renounced his opinions and adopted the correct ones he'd be free.


Bukovsky: Yes, that is how it is. But of course I would never recant or renounce my opinions. 


Toney: They could have kept you therefor 20 or 30 years if they had wanted, and if you hadn't had an older psychiatrist who wouldn't cooperate with them. 


Bukovsky: Oh yes. I knew some who had been in for over 10 years. It is an indeterminate sentence. 


Torrey: Is that why Soviet officials put you in a psychiatric hospital rather than in prison? 


Bukovsky: That is one reason. If they had put me in prison originally I would have had a sentence to serve and then I would be released. There wouldn't be the same pressure on me to recant. Of course sometimes they just sentence you again to a new term when you finish your term, but that's harder to do. It’s much easier to put you away in a mental hospital. 


Torrey: What are the other reasons they use mental hospitals rather than prison?


Bukovsky: Well, it discredits the person. Especially if the person is prominent and speaking out, that's a big problem for the Soviet leaders. For instance, General Grigorenko, who was a great general, spoke out against the invasion of Czechoslovakia. That made a big problem. It would have been hard to bring him to trial so they called him insane and sent him to a mental hospital. Then people won't pay attention to what he says. And people understand that other people can become mentally ill.


It's easy to explain to common people, the people in the street. Also, sometimes they put people who speak out into mental hospitals when they don’t have a very strong case against them, when it would be a difficult trial. 


Torrey: Is it true that mental patients have fewer rights than civil prisoners in the Soviet Union? 


Bukovsky: Yes, absolutely. As a mental patient you have no rights. Any sort of protest you make they just say is because you are mentally sick. Anything the you say or do becomes part of your case record, which can then be used against you to justify keeping you there indefinitely. Anything you write, letters or anything, may turn up in your case folder to be used against you. If you recant they say, see, it proves he was crazy. If you refuse to recant and protest, they say, see, it proves he is crazy. You take your choice. 


Toney: When they first picked you up in 1963, do you think they intended then to send you to a mental hospital? 


Bukovsky: No, I think they wanted me to recant. They wanted to make a traitor out of me and make me inform against my friends. They wanted some information from me, then probably they thought they would put me in prison for a little while. They put me in solitary confinement to change my mind. 


Torrey: But you didn't cooperate with them, I guess. 


Bukovsky: No, I refused to speak with them at all. 


Torrey: That must have made them furious. 


Bukovsky: Yes, and after they had tried for a month they gave up and turned me over to psychiatry. That was the end of my case legally. From then on I was just a psychiatric patient. 


Torrey: They diagnosed you as a schizophrenic, isn't that correct?


Bukovsky: With schizophrenia of the continuous type. But some of the psychiatrists said that schizophrenia was the wrong diagnosis and that really I had a paranoid development of personality. They couldn't decide between these two diagnoses. 


Torrey: I have been to the Soviet Union twice and am familiar with how schizophrenia is classified there. The continuous type of schizophrenia is said to begin very slowly but is progressive. This is especially true of the “sluggish” or "creeping" subtype in which a person is said to only have mild personality changes in its early stages.


Bukovsky: Most of the political prisoners are diagnosed as schizophrenics. Anything they do, any protest they make; even a hunger strike is said to be proof of the diagnosis. 


Torrey: G.V. Morozov, the head of the Serbsky Institute, has even written that argumentativeness is an important symptom of schizophrenia.


Bukovsky: Then I guess it's a pretty common disease even in the United States if that is its definition. 


Torrey: The man who is responsible for the classification of schizophrenia in the Soviet Union is Professor Snezhnevsky of the Institute of Psychiatry in Moscow. He is the one who has stressed that misbehavior in adolescence or even earlier is often a symptom of early schizophrenia, especially if there is any family history of mental illness. 


Bukovsky: I have read some of Snezhnevksy's works. He has also been one of the main psychiatrists behind the scenes who sees that dissidents are labeled mentally ill and put away. 


Torrey: Do You think his theories of schizophrenia developed to accommodate the needs of the state, or that he was selected out for advancement because his theories were convenient. 


Bukovsky: Probably the latter, a kind of selectivity. Survival of the most convenient theory so to speak. In a socialist state that is supposed to be perfect there can, by definition, be no social condition that could create true dissenters. Therefore, the dissenter must be crazy, sick. The logic is very neat. 


Torrey: Some people have written that the Soviet Union has a long history of calling dissidents mad, and that this was also used by the czars. For example Czar Nicholas called the philosopher Chaadaev mad over one hundred years ago because Chaadaev had disagreed with him. 


Bukovsky: To begin with, Chaadaev was never put into a hospital. It was just a statement that he was insane.


Torrey: When did it begin, then, in a widespread way as it is now found in the Soviet Union?


Bukovsky: It began under Stalin. But at that time there were only two mental hospitals, in Leningrad and Kazan, for dissidents. Stalin didn't need many. He could just destroy people if he wanted. But if they were prominent he might use the mental hospital.  


Torrey: And what happened after Stalin? 


Bukovsky: It is interesting. There was an old Communist Party member named Sergei Pisarev who was a member of the Party's Central Control Commission. He prepared a report that the cases against the Jewish doctors prepared by an investigating committee in 1952 were concocted and he handed the report over to Stalin. Two weeks later Pisarev found himself in a mental hospital and labeled insane. In 1956, after Stalin's death, he arranged to get rehabilitated. He even made the psychiatrists reconsider their diagnosis and say he was sane. He got to know the chairman of the committtee for rehabilitation, and persuaded him that an investigation should be made into the abuse of psychiatry. This was a golden age after Stalin's death when such things were possible. He succeeded in getting such a commission created. They investigated both hospitals and concluded that psychiatry had been abused, and got a lot of people released. 


Torrey: So then it got worse again? 


Bukovsky: Yes, especially under Khrushchev. Then it became a common  practice and new hospitals started to be opened.


Torrey: So that by the time you were arrested in 1963 it was a common practice to label sane people insane and put them away to get them out of sight. 


Bukovsky: Yes, I wasn't unique at all. The only way I am unique is that I am here to be able to talk to you about it. There are many hundreds of dissidents in the mental hospitals even today as we talk. 


Torrey: When you were at the Perm labor camp with Semyon Gluzman, the young psychiatrist who had publicly said that General Grigorenko was not mentally ill and was then thrown in jail for saying it, you wrote a manual together, "A Manual on Psychiatry for dissidents." I read it several months ago and was profoundly impressed by it, impressed that manuals should be needed for people to defend themselves against my chosen profession. It is an excellent document. How did you manage to write it while in a labor camp? 


Bukovsky: We put it together in bits and pieces. We had a small symposium that met under the pretense of having tea. We used to sit quietly in a circle, and one of us who had prepared a report would give it and then we would discuss it. We started out to do it because some people in the labor camp needed to know how to defend themselves from psychiatrists. Even though they had been sentenced to prison sometimes when their sentence was up they would be taken to a psychiatrist and declared insane and sent to a mental hospital. So it had a very practical value. 


Torrey: Then how did you get it out? 


Bukovsky: People started saying that the “Manual” would be useful to others as well. So we tried to smuggle it out. The first time we tried it we failed and the authorities seized it. But the second time it was a lucky case and it made it. Everything had to be done in secrecy. 


Torrey: The KGB must have been furious with you.


Bukovsky: Even now they are threatening to start a new criminal case against Gluzman. They are threatening to sentence him to many more years in prison. It is only the agitation of Westerners on his case so far which has stopped that from happening. 


Torrey: How can Westerners help dissidents in the Soviet Union? How can we help to bring about basic civil rights there? Should we cut off contact with Russian professionals? Should we not attend meetings attended by them? 


Bukovsky: I am opposed to a complete boycott altogether. Rather you should boycott selectively and make contact with the good psychiatrists there. For example, you should have nothing to do with Snezhnevsky; he is a criminal and you should never sit at the same table with him. Your National Institute of Mental Health should not deal with him as they do. They are just supporting a criminal and making him respectable. 


What you should do is to make contact with the good psychiatrists in Russia, the ones who will not allow themselves to be prostituted. For example, Professor Melekhov and Professor Lukomsky both sat on the commission in 1971 to determine whether I was sane. Both behaved extremely honestly in the face of obvious pressure on them by Soviet authorities. And there are honest young psychiatrists who too refuse to abuse their profession. For instance, when I was arrested in 1965 I was first taken to the psychiatric ward of Moscow City Hospital Number 13. There I was examined by two young psychiatrists, Drs. Arkus and Dumbrovich, and declared to be sane. The KGB was even more furious so they took me back to Serbsky Institute. It was difficult for them to declare me to be insane when two other sets of psychiatrists had just declared me sane so they just kept me there for eight months. 


What you should do is to invite doctors like Melekhov, Lukomsky, Arkus, and Dumbrovich to your professional meetings in the West. Publish their papers. Give them recognition. Visit the psychiatric ward of City Hospital Number 13 when you come to Moscow. But don't cut off all contacts, just cut off selective contacts. 


Torrey: It sounds like we should draw up a blacklist of Soviet psychiatrists who have compromised themselves and not attend any meeting with them or invite them. 


Bukovsky:Exactly right. And at the top of the blacklist you might put Snezhnevsky, Morozov, and Lunts, but there are many more. 


Torrey: And on our visits to the Soviet Union make the effort to contact psychiatrists who are not on the blacklist. 


Bukovsky: Yes. You won't get much help from Intourist but it can be done. 


Torrey: I know that psychiatrists in England have provided more support for you than psychiatrists in the United States. For example, when you sent the six case histories out in 1971 it was only the English psychiatrists who evaluated them. How did you feel when you heard that the World Psychiatric Association meeting in Mexico City in late 1971 had ignored your plea? Weren't you angry and disappointed? 


Bukovsky: We are all human, and we are all subject to pressure on us. In Mexico City there was strong pressure on some psychiatrists to do nothing. And so nothing was done. You were all afraid to offend Snezhnevsky.


It was sad, yes. 


Torrey: Some of us, including myself, are afraid that psychiatry could also be abused on a large scale in the United States. How can we prevent it happening here? 


Bukovsky: The best way to fight a battle is to fight it on someone else's territory. You can prevent it here by fighting the abuses of psychiatry elsewhere. 


Torrey: I suspect that all countries have psychiatrists who will allow themselves and their profession to be prostituted given the right circumstances, and that in every country there is a Lunts or a Morozov waiting to do his job if given the opportunity.


Bukovsky: Most certainly there is. Look at France in 1941. Here was a country that was supposed to love freedom. You know, the French Revolution. And look what happened. Many of the people tripped over each other in their rush to collaborate with the enemy, willing to allow themselves to be used. 


Toney: If we don't fight the abuse of psychiatry in the Soviet Union and elsewhere, what are the consequences? 


Bukovsky: If the abuses begin in your country then it will be too late. If you try and fight it once it begins they will probably just call you insane and put you away.


E. Fuller Torrey is a research and practicing psychiatrist in Washington, D C. After obtaining a BA in religion at Princeton, Torrey got his MD in Montreal; then, while completing his residency in psychiatry at Stanford, earned an MA in anthropology. He practiced medicine for two years in Africa and recently spent a year as a general practitioner on the Pribilof Islands in Alaska. He wrote The Mind Game: Witchdoctors and Psychiatrists, The Death of Psychiatry, and Why Did You Do That? 

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Vladimir Bukovsky remembered by Lord Nicholas Bethell in his memoires titled Spies and Other Secrets

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Boris Pankin, a former Russian Ambassador to Great Britain, recalls his days in London and his encounters with dissidents.

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Vladimir Gershovich tells a story of Nabokov's contribution to saving Bukovsky from a Soviet prison.


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Vladimir Bukovsky's lawyer Dina Kaminskaya remembers his 1967 trial in her memoires.

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Vladimir Bukovsky's foreword to chess master Victor Krochnoi's autobiography.

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Vladimir Bukovsky's short story published in Grani magazine in 1967.


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Ludmilla Thorne reports from Vladimir Bukovsky's first post-exchange residence in Switzerland.

Mother Courage


Vadim Delaunay writes in verse to his friend Vladimir Bukovsky following their 1967 trial.

Vadim Delaunay