By Paul Goble
All people of good will can only welcome the release of Ilmi Umerov from a psychiatric hospital, after an international campaign including quite possibly the intervention of US President Barack Obama; but this use of Soviet-style psychiatric prisons should lead Russians to revise their view of the Crimean Anschluss, Vitaly Portnikov says.
The Ukrainian commentator notes that a large majority of Russians still view Vladimir Putin’s annexation of Crimea as something positive despite sanctions, but the Kremlin leader’s actions in Crimea, including the incarceration of the Crimean Tatar leader, should cause them to rethink their position (ru.krymr.com/a/27974555.html).
That is because, Portnikov points out, Putin over the last two years has used Crimea as a laboratory to test out new or restored repressive measures like punitive psychiatry that all too easily could spread to Russian society because the Umeroc case is a bellwether of a situation in which “the insane are treating the healthy.”
Indeed, he suggests, whatever psychological benefits Russians may have derived from the seizure of Ukraine’s Crimea are far exceeded by the dangers that “the rebirth of [Soviet-style] punitive psychiatry” represents.
What the Russian occupation authorities have done to Umerov is “an act unprecedented for our times,” Portnikov says, “but it isn’t for the times of the Soviet Union when punitive psychiatry was one of the important instruments for dealing with dissent.” And what is especially worrisome is that this time around those using this instrument have been quite open about it.
In Soviet times, he continues, “the communist rulers who themselves believed in the correctness of their hypocritical ideology no more than they believed in the landings of people from other planets considered anyone who didn’t want to share their idiocy to be an idiot” and thus requiring treatment to make them “’like all’ other Soviet people.”
The situation in today’s Russia is “much worse,” Portnikov says, “because many of its leaders and many of its residents really and sincerely believe in that chauvinist nonsense which Putin uses and television repeats. And Putin himself believes it” because it is “much easier to believe in fascist slogans than in communist ones.”
As a result, Putin and many Russians “sincerely believe that those who do not consider the annexation of Crimea just to be mad” and thus requiring treatment. Because they believe that, “Russia [has become] an enormous mad house, the denizens of which sincerely consider those outside its walls to be insane.”
It is no surprise that Putin has begun to institutionalize such feelings in Crimea because “Crimea is not Russia but a territory occupied by it. In Crimea are possible any ‘legal’ experiments,’” as it is “the most genuine polygon of hatred” available to the Kremlin.
Such “experiments” are likely to become policy and spread, and the psychiatric hospitals of Russia are thus likely to be filled again with dissidents. That is something those who support the Crimean Anschluss should think about before they become the real victims of what Putin has done.