That it would ever come to the point that I would have to come to the defense of Ukraine’s embattled President Viktor Yanukovych! But there is no doubt: he runs a high risk of being the latest victim of political abuse of psychiatry in the former Soviet Union.
Yesterday a statement was released by an opposition MP that “unfortunately we do not know what is the real situation with the health of the President. We already have the information that he has been transferred to the resuscitation department. (…) If earlier we saw a disdainful and even mocking face, during his last address to the people he looked gloomy, his face was of unhealthy complexion. He must be ill. (…)
The MP then referred to a statement by a fellow politician of Yanukovych’s Party of Regions: “I would like to remind you of the fact the Mr. Chornovil, who worked with Yanukovych for many years, said with full certainty that Yanukovych has a slow-progressive schizophrenia and a persecution mania. He has been incapable for a long time already.“The illness that this Mr. Chernovil refers to is a one of the most notorious legacies of the Soviet past. The diagnosis “вялотекущая шизофрения», usually translated as “sluggish schizophrenia”, was used in the USSR as one of the main tools of repression against political and religious dissidents, and approximately one-third of all dissidents were sent for compulsory psychiatric treatment to a psychiatric hospital with this diagnosis. The main symptoms were “struggle for the truth”, “reform delusions” and “perseverance”, and neither the patient nor his/her surroundings saw that the person was actually seriously mentally ill and a danger to himself and his surroundings.
Of course, the whole statement is full of nonsensical conclusions. The fact that somebody first had a “mocking face” and later started looking gloomy cannot really be considered a sign of illness, let alone of mental illness. Any politician under such pressure, being caught up between on one hand a country in turmoil and on the other a “capo” in Moscow who has issued very clear demands, would look rather gloomy – even the capo in Moscow himself.
However, the idea that Yanukovch is suffering from “sluggish schizophrenia” is beyond words. You can hardly accuse him of “struggling for the truth” or having “reform delusions”. Yes, he is suffering from “perseverance”, but that depends on how you look at it. What is true is that he is a danger to himself and his environment, but in his case that can neither be considered a sign of mental illness. On top of that if he really had been mentally ill all along he would never have reached this position in the first place.
The statement shows two things. First of all, the mentality to have “obstructing” or bothersome people declared mentally ill is still very much alive in Ukraine, in spite of all the work done over the past twenty years to reform mental health services there. And secondly: Yanukovych is a political corpse, and a stand in the way. He needs to leave through the back door – and then a psychiatric solution turns out to be a very handy option.
The departure of Yanukovych, with whatever illness as a pretext, opens the door to new leaders taking the stage. I am not sure this is a good development. Because surely, those who removed Yanukovych did not have one of the three opposition leaders in mind, and certainly neither did they think of Yulia Timoshenko who is still in a Kharkiv jail. It seems the new person on stage will be a hardliner, one who more vigorously will push for the implementation of Moscow’s hard line.Yanukovych was a weak President аnd this weakness finally cost him his political head. But weakness cannot be a pretext for psychiatricalization. However strange it might sound, Yanukovych runs the risk of joining well-known Soviet dissidents like Vladimir Bukovsky and General Pyotr Grigorenko as a victim of Soviet-style political abuse of psychiatry. How paradoxical can it get.
Robert van Voren is Professor of Soviet and Post-Soviet Studies at Vytautas Magnus University in Kaunas and Ilia State University in Tbilisi ,and was Permanent Representative of Ukraine in the Benelux for Humanitarian Affairs in 1994-1997.