Foreign Policy Blogs

Putin’s Punitive Psychiatry and other Flashbacks

Putin's Punitive Psychiatry and other Flashbacks

Putin shouts

You have to be mad to oppose Putin. At least that is what a Moscow court ruled on Tuesday when it sentenced Mikhail Kosenko to be committed to a psychiatric hospital for his part in the anti-government protest.

“The court has ruled to release Kosenko Mikhail Alexandrovich from criminal responsibility for insanely conducting actions forbidden by law,” Judge Lyudmila Moskalenko said. Kosenko has mild schizophrenia but has never had a recorded episode of violence. Punitive psychiatry was widely practiced on Soviet dissidents whose anti-establishment beliefs were deemed to be medically deviant. It was used as a way to detain undesirable people without needing to charge them with any particular crime. Today, such tactics are reserved for repressive theocracies such as Saudi Arabia.

The apparent revival of the practice echoes other signs that Russia is returning to Soviet ways, albeit stripped of their old ideological underpinnings. In an excellent analysis in Russia! magazine, Sean Guillory recently wrote about the increasing use of essentially unpaid prison labour. Unlike under socialism, however, the fruits of the slave labor are lining private, not state, pockets.

Other echoes can be seen in the economic sphere. As Peter Pomerantsev writes in the latest issue of the London Review of Books, “the USSR’s mega-projects made no macro-economic sense but fitted the hallucinations of the planned economy; the new hyperprojects make no macro-economic sense but are vehicles for the enrichment of those whose loyalty the Kremlin needs to reward fast.”

Greenpeace activists detained without bail; anti-gay laws deployed to devastating effect; Pussy Riot’s Tolokonnikova forced into sweatshop labour for the benefit of private companies; a diplomatic fight with Holland and a trade war with Lithuania: just what is Russia playing at?

Partly, the idea is to drive home the message that the government will brook no protest from anyone. Indeed, even a lighthearted birthday gag can get the brother of the deputy prime minister arrested.

Unfortunately, while they may drive global opinion against Russia, experience has shown the Kremlin that such crude tactics can be effective in achieving results. The government’s hard line approach has managed very well to dampen the protests, the arrest of the Greenpeace and Pussy Riot activists are also no doubt strong disincentives for future action, the aggressive cordoning off of large parts of the Arctic is an effective way to stave off competition from rival powers, and Russia’s hard-headed diplomacy has not prevented the country from exploiting the Syria conflict to look like a peacemaker.

Sadly, apart from ruffling the feathers of liberals, these mean-spirited actions by the Kremlin appears to have resulted in tangible benefits for the regime without any discernible costs.



Vadim Nikitin

Vadim Nikitin was born in Murmansk, Russia and grew up there and in Britain. He graduated from Harvard University with a thesis on American democracy promotion in Russia. Vadim's articles about Russia have appeared in The Nation, Dissent Magazine, and The Moscow Times. He is currently researching a comparative study of post-Soviet and post-Apartheid nostalgia.
Areas of Focus:
USSR; US-Russia Relations; Culture and Society; Media; Civil Society; Politics; Espionage; Oligarchs