When they brought Leonid Ivanovich into the visiting room, it was impossible to recognise him. His eyes were filled with pain and misery, he spoke with difficulty and brokenly, frequently leaning on the back of the chair in search of support.
His effort at self-control was evident as from time to time, he closed his eyes, trying to carry on a conversation and to answer questions. But his inner strength was exhausted, finished.
Leonid lvanovich began to gasp, to awkwardly unbutton his clothing . . . his face was convulsed and he got cramp in his hands and legs… It was evident that from time to time he lost his hearing. Leonid Ivanovich could not control’ himself and it was he who asked that the meeting be ended ten minutes ahead of time. They took him away.
(Meeting of Leonid Plyusch with his wife in the Dnepropetrovsk special psychiatric hospital)
This long-awaited report on Soviet penal institutions and their inmates presents a shocking indictment of Moscow’s attitude to dissenters, including the many Jews who wish to emigrate to Israel.
Amnesty estimates that there are about 10,000 political prisoners in the USSR today, the vast majority of whom are unknown to the west.
The first half of its report explains the relationship between the prisoners and the Soviet legal system. Examples of the misinterpretation of the law are quoted to show how the authorities legalise their persecution of political prisoners.
An interesting chapter is devoted to how the prisoners are kept. Charts detail the amounts of food given both in strict regime camps and in closed prisons.
The lack of medical provision is also described. One prisoner who slit his veins shortly after arriving in Potma received no treatment for five hours. He died from loss of blood.
A genuinely ill prisoner is often regarded as a parasite. A Jew in Potma was told in 1971 to “spend less time learning Hebrew” by a camp doctor.
Suicides are common in camp life, it reports. Desperate prisoners often choose to end their misery either by their own hands or by provoking a camp guard.
Jewish prisoners of conscience who participated in the month-long hunger strike in Perm in the summer of 1974 witnessed the suicide by hanging of the prisoner Osipenko. He left a note which read: “No more strength to hold out. Curse you, you monsters”. He had only three years of a 25-year sentence to complete.
The most shocking chapter, however, is the one on the internment of citizens in psychiatric institutions. Although much has already been published, particularly on the administering of drugs, gruesome details add new horror to an already horrific practice.
The final part of the report lists Amnesty’s recommendations. The corrective labour system, it suggests, should be examined by the Soviet Government with a view to instituting penal reform and those bodies responsible for observing legality in the camps be strengthened.
The authorities are also urged to comply with the UN “standard minimum” rules for the treatment of prisoners and to take “strict regard for the spirit in which they were written”. Similar points are made about the abuse of psychiatry.
Amnesty demands that the relatives of inmates should be consulted on the treatment to be administered and should be accorded the right to seek advice from other psychiatrists.
This report has been released shortly before the trial of the head of Amnesty’s Soviet branch, Andrei Tverdokhlebov. Like those whom he helped in the past, including many Jews, he now faces the prospect of a long sentence in a Soviet labour camp.
The anger and sense of outrage that this well-researched and well-documented report will generate will hopefully do something to help him.
Jewish Observer 21 November 1975