La scomparsa di Leonid Plyushch, grande dissidente ucraino sottoposto dai sovietici a inumani trattamenti di lavaggio del cervello a Dnepropetrovsk ai tempi dell’URSS, è un perdita per tutto il mondo libero. Lo ricorda l’amico, e collega scienziato nel campo della psichiatria, Robert van Voren
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.
A few days ago 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 Italiano, 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