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 news about Robin Williams committing suicide really hit me. Not because he was a wonderful actor, who seemed so much the epitome of enjoying life, and not because of the sheer tragedy of a person actually getting to the point of hanging himself because he could not take it anymore, and then the relatives having to find him there, under such circumstances…
No, what hit me was his age: 63. It immediately brought back memories of my father, who like Robin Williams seemed to be enjoying his life, always smiling, always joking, family around, travelling and exploring the world… yet when he was exactly that age, he was in bed and refused to come out, and had only one wish: to die.
My father suffered from depression, and looking back it was much more serious than we realized at that time. He was seeing a psychiatrist at least since he came back from Canada with his family, in 1961. It was an unsolicited return to his homeland, unsolicited because he fundamentally disliked the provincial atmosphere in The Netherlands. Yet he had lost his job in Canada at the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation and thus he had no choice – there was a family to feed. To him this was a cardinal psychological defeat, and although he had a wonderful career in The Netherlands afterwards, being one of the first and prime experts in public relations, this forced return always dominated his life and thinking.
His depression was probably always there, on and off, but we never noticed. Anyway my mother was very good in shielding him, protecting him, and giving him a trustful environment. It really came out in 1979, when he fell ill physically, and immediately suffered a burnout. There are many aspects to the reasons why, which are not important here, but the bottom line is that the very delicate house of cards that kept him going came rumbling down, and nothing was left. He was at home, in bed, and refused to get out. Life had lost all meaning.
We got him on the move, by the sheer luck that I needed somebody to write a biography of Andrei Sakharov and as a former journalist he was the perfect choice to do so. He did, and wrote several more books, among others about the Holodimor in Ukraine, and for more than ten years we worked together. For me this was an unforgettable experience – for him it was probably the same, but also it was the way to battle his depression.
In the end, he stopped working in the late 1990s, because of what we now know was the onset of pre-fontal dementia. He went through many bad years, but the “gift” of dementia – if one may call it such – is that in the end his depression left, and the last one-two years of his life were very happy ones. Yes, he was demented, but he was happy, humorous, almost the man we used to know when he was not depressed and not demented.
Gradually through time, I have come to understand that I have much more of my father’s genes than I knew, or hoped. My father was the favorite parent, for all three of the kids, but at the same time my mother was the eternally optimistic one, almost pathologically optimistic, even irritating at some times. So having my mother’s genes was not really “the best”. On the other hand, she remained active until she died at the age of 87, was unbeatable, always smiling, even during the last moments of her life. She was an unbelievable character, and so having her genes was not really such a bad thing after all.
Consequently, for many years I happily accepted that my mother’s genes were dominant in me, in spite of the negative “irritating” side effects. Yet what I always knew, or felt, was that my father’s depressive tendencies, his fears and anxieties, are equally strong within me. I hid and hide them, both for myself and for others, but they are there, and they are undeniable. I share his fears and anxieties, his inability to function in social environments, his feeling of being lost and never being able to “really” deliver, his feeling that so much more is expected from you and you will never be able to cope. I share his anxiety when travelling, his conviction that you are never “enough”… It is all there, and with time it is getting stronger…
In the early 1980s, my father and I went to New York together. I was just over twenty then, I hardly knew my father because he had always been away (and protected by my mother), but there we went. The morning after we arrived I found him crying on the side of his bed. “I want to go home”, he said, “I can’t do this”. He was so scared, so much in pain that I called the airline company and booked him on the next day’s flight. He calmed down, we went out, did our sightseeing, even went to see some of my USSR-related contacts, and in the evening he said – I will stay one more day, just let’s rebook the ticket. The next morning I would find him in distress, but having booked him on the next day’s flight sort of helped him to cope. That is how we spent four-five days in New York, me as a young adult taking care of his father who before had been God knows what, Chairman of the World Association of Ports and all that stuff… but who was now just his scared father who couldn’t manage traveling anymore.
It is strange how things go. When my father became demented and became untenable, we managed to get him into a mental institution in Rotterdam for evaluation. I will never forget the image. There was my proud father, who had seemed for so many years to be such a strong unbeatable man, sitting at the table, crying, and taking my hand asking whether I could help him because he couldn’t understand anymore what was going on…
Mental illness, or whatever you call it, is so devastating, so painful, and yet it is so close. We all think, or hope that it stays away from us, but it doesn’t. Sooner or later all of us are affected, and it totally changes the outlook on life.
I still miss my father, every day. But I hope he felt that I supported him during the times when he needed it, even when he was no longer able to ask for help.
Robert van Voren
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