In memoriam Leonid Plyushch
In memoriam Leonid Plyushch (1939-2015)
The last time we met was in Kyiv, a few months after Maidan. Not only the time of our meeting was symbolic, also the place: we lunched in restaurant “Crimea”, in solidarity with the Crimeans now finding themselves in occupied territory, and next to the McDonalds where the psychological services were housed during Maidan and where people traumatized by the events were provided psychological and sometimes psychiatric support.
Today Leonid Plyushch died, one of the most well-known victims of the political abuse of psychiatry in the USSR.
I can’t even remember when we met for the first time. It must have been in the early 1980s, when the campaign against political abuse of psychiatry in the USSR was in full swing and his case was used as one of the dirtiest examples of this perversion of psychiatric practice. Plyushch had the “honor” of having been diagnosed by “Mr. Sluggish Schizophrenia” himself – Academician Andrei Snezhnevsky, one of the leaders of the Moscow School of Psychiatry who consciously and willingly let his profession be turned into a tool of repression. Plyushch was released after an intervention of the French Communist leader George Marchais, a fact that probably made several Soviet leaders take a handful of tranquillizers because the revisionist French communists were in Soviet eyes worse enemies than “normal” capitalists. The photo of Plyushch and his family arriving in France is probably the most telling one of Soviet psychiatric abuse: a man reduced to a robot by massive dosages of neuroleptics, sitting next to his wife and young children, virtually unaware of what is happening around him. Once a brilliant cyberneticist, Leonid lost his photographic memory thanks to the “treatment” of Soviet doctors.
Later we met quite often during campaigns against Soviet psychiatric abuse. One of these meetings I will never forget. Lyonya was very close to the Partito Radicale Italiana, the Italian Radical Party that was very popular in the 1980s and had close relationships to Soviet dissident émigrés in the West. The party strongly supported their cause and participated in many initiatives. I remember one day I was sent to Rome to train two people in smuggling stuff into a closed country. They turned out to be Antonio Stango and Savik Shuster, who were about to go to Afghanistan to smuggle false Pravda newspapers into the country, in which Soviet soldiers were asked to go home and end the Soviet occupation.
This time – I think it was 1987 - the Radical Party had organized a conference against the political abuse of psychiatry, and both Lyonya and I were among the speakers. To our great surprise we entered a big hall in a rather posh Rome hotel, but without any audience. “So when will the people come?” we asked. “They won’t,” was the answer, “this is all for life broadcast on radio, and we will pretend there is an audience.“ And so we spoke to an empty hall, with only speakers as audience, and after each presentation the applause machine was turned on, giving the impression to the listeners that the party had this major successful congress in Rome.
Plyushch was a very special person, in a way a loner who did not belong to any particular camp. The dissidents in the West were usually divided into two groups, sometimes fiercely opposing each other, but Lyonya was part of neither of them. Maybe that is what connected us, this not belonging to any camp, because for the rest he was intellectually far superior, and combined with his own special way of speaking I sometimes had great difficulty to follow his train of thought. I will never forget the way he would be sitting, slightly bent over with his mouth pursed, as if ready to accept the cigarette he would invariably have in his hand, often with the filter between his fingers and the lighted part close to the palm of his hand as if protecting it from extinguishing.
We knew Lyonya was seriously ill, and it was clear the end was near. Yet the sadness of his death is no less, and so is the frustration that we did not manage to reform that hellhole in which he was tortured and where he lived the worst years of his life – the Dnepropetrovsk Special Psychiatric Hospital. But we will, for sure, and now in the memory of Leonid Plyushch, and we will leave no stone unturned. Rest in peace, dear friend, your spirit will be carried on.
Robert van Voren
The special adventures of Ramzidim and Radik
Deep into the mountainous heart of Central Asia lies Tajikistan, a poverty-stricken Islamic country with approximately 7,5 million inhabitants. It was part of the Soviet Union and after the collapse of the communist imperium the country sank into a civil war that lasted for five years and cost the lives of some 8 percent of the population. Ramzidin Juraev and Radik Troi live and work in this country. Ramzidin has a physical handicap, Radik a mental one. Radik pushes the wheelchair of Ramzidin and does various odd jobs for him. How they met is a special story.
In 1978, when Ramzidin was about one year of age, he was taken to hospital for an examination. An intern carried out a lumbar punction as a result of which his spinal cord was damaged and he became severely paralyzed. Not long after the mother of Ramzidin dies. According to him this was the result of the stress that was caused by what happened top her son. His father did not want to continue to care for him and brought him to a “dom-internat” (euphemistically called “social care home”). In the time of the Soviet Union some 1500 of these institutions existed in the country, many of them for handicapped children. These “internats” still exist. In the functional Soviet approach a hierarchy existed of “disabled” with a system of various privileges connected to it. At the top were war veterans and model workers who had become disabled during their jobs. At the bottom were those who were considered useless, such as children and adults with a learning disorder. The intelligent Ramzidin lived until his 16th among some 200 mentally handicapped children. The living conditions were horrendous. Callous personnel, lack of food, epidemics of scabies and diphtheria and endless boredom. Of the 200 children only 40 survived. “ It would have been better if you had died,” the doctors said. Regularly Ramzidin was refused food because he would only dirty himself and the caretakers didn’t feel like cleaning him afterwards. In the “internat” he met Radik Tsoi. Radik hardly remembers anything of his own history. His parents are Korean. During the Stalin era some six million people of ethnic minorities, including the Koreans that were living in Russia’s Far East, were deported to distant regions such as Tajikistan. They were called ‘enemies of the people”. Approximately one million and a half of them died in the process. The parents of Radik left him in an “internat” when it became clear that he was mentally handicapped, and they disappeared from his life. Radik helped Ramzidin with eating, going to the toilet, and by pushing his wheelchair. Ramzidin and Radik had no idea of what the world was like outside their “internat”. They never came outside. “Same people. Same doctors. Same food”. That was their life, an anonymous existence on the dustbin of history.
When they turned 18 they were transferred to an institution for adults. In 1995 aid workers of a foreign organization visited this institution and Ramzidin established contact with them. They were surprised by his intelligence and the organization offered him a job. As a result he learned to read and write and, as he calls it himself, “to behave himself”. He developed himself further and eventually earned enough money to leave the “internat” and to establish his own independent life. He took his faithful companion Radik along. By now Ramzidin is married and lives together with his wife, daughter and Radik in the north of Tajikistan. He is the owner of an expanding taxi firm and chairman of a local association for people with a disability. In that capacity he fights for better legislation and protection of people with a disability, and organizes trainings and workshops where people can learn skills such as sewing and other manual professions in order to be able to sustain themselves. His dream is to found a “social club” for people with a disability in the city where he lives. Deeply affected by his history Ramzidin was initially full of resentment and anger after he managed to escape from the inhuman conditions of life in “internats”. His aggression he gradually managed to turn into power to fight on behalf of his peers who continue to lead a marginalized life in poverty.
First winners of the new Jim Birley Scholarships
It is with great pleasure that the Netherlands-based international foundation “Human Rights in Mental Health-FGIP” announces the first winners of the new Jim Birley Scholarships. The Scholarship is shared in 2015 between two outstanding advocates for human rights in mental health. The winners of the 2015 Jim Birley Scholarships are Anka Jgenti from Georgia and Charlene Sunkel from South Africa