The Confinement of Zhores Medvedev in a Psychiatric Hospital, June 1970 (14.3)

<<No 14 : 30 June 1970>>

(In this account of events Roy Medvedev‘s detailed notes have been used.)

On the evening of 29 May 1970 Zhores Medvedev was taken from his flat in Obninsk, Kaluga Region, to the Kaluga city psychiatric hospital for “diagnosis” and “observation”.

A group of policemen led by a major, the head doctor of the Kaluga psychiatric hospital Livshits and the Obninsk psychiatrist Kiryushin entered the flat, and without producing either documents or medical findings demanded that Zh. Medvedev should accompany them to Kaluga for psychiatric diagnosis. He refused, saying that while he would not resist physically, neither would he voluntarily leave his house. Some colleagues of Medvedev who were present began to accuse the policemen of violating legality, to which the major replied: “We are an organ of coercion, and you can complain to whoever you like.” In front of his wife, children and friends Medvedev’s arms were twisted behind his back and he was taken away. Zh. Medvedev has never suffered from any mental disorders or consulted a psychiatrist.


medvedev zhores

Zhores [Jaures] Alexandrovich Medvedev is a well-known biologist and publicist. His scientific achievements in the field of genetics are acknowledged by biologists the world over. He is the author of several books and more than 100 scientific papers. He is known to the general public in the USSR and abroad for his work on the history of biological debate in the USSR (original title: The Cult of Personality and biological science).

Recently he finished a big work “International academic cooperation and national frontiers” (CCE 12.10, item 5). In 1969, without the legal formalities being observed, Zh. Medvedev was dismissed from the Scientific Research Institute for Medical Radiology at the insistence of the Obninsk city Party Committee, and for nine months he was not issued with the documents necessary to take up new work. In spring 1970, after the Procuracy had intervened three times, Zh. Medvedev received the necessary documents and submitted them for a vacancy at the Institute of Medical Genetics in Moscow. Selection was to take place at the beginning of June.

Zh. Medvedev was taken to the psychiatric hospital on Friday evening, on the eve of the two non-work days of the weekend.

His brother, Roy Medvedev, leading biologists and other academics attempted to contact the USSR and RSFSR Ministries of Health, the Party Central Committee and the KGB, but without result. Everywhere they were told: “Phone on Monday.”

A psychiatric commission from Moscow was appointed for Sunday 31 May.

30 MAY

Zh. Medvedev’s brother, wife and friends managed to see him at the hospital. He had been placed in a general ward with people who were really ill.

Livshits, the head doctor of the Kaluga hospital, did not inform them of any diagnosis.

31 MAY

Many Soviet scientists and writers (Kapitza, Sakharov, Astaurov, Tamm, Engelgardt, Tvardovsky, Tendryakov et al.) sent telegrams to the head doctor, Livshits, protesting against Zh. Medvedev’s forcible hospitalisation.

A commission of experts consisting of B. V. Shostakovich (Serbsky Institute), chairman, Kaluga psychiatrists G.P. Bondarev and B.N. Levchenko, and Livshits, head doctor of the Kaluga hospital, “found in Zh. Medvedev no obvious deviations from the mental norm. It found, however, that Medvedev was exhibiting abnormal nervousness and would therefore need some further observation in hospital conditions.”

Zh. Medvedev’s wife sent a telegram of protest to the USSR Procurator-General, Rudenko. His brother made a declaration to the CPSU Central Committee and sent Rudenko a telegram demanding Medvedev’s immediate release and the punishment of those guilty of violations of legality.


Many scholars, writers and other representatives of the intelligentsia continue to send telegrams protesting against the forcible hospitalisation of Zh. Medvedev. A large group of long-standing Party members called on N.A. Demidov, head of the department of special medical services, at the RSFSR Ministry of Health. After hearing them out Demidov said that he knew nothing about Medvedev’s hospitalisation. He telephoned Kaluga to ask Livshits for an explanation. Since Livshits was unable to give a satisfactory explanation, Demidov ordered him to come to Moscow on 3 June.


In the office of the head of the department of special psychiatric services Z.N. Serebryakova in the USSR Ministry of Health a meeting of psychiatrists took place to consider the events in Obninsk and Kaluga. It was resolved to convene a new commission. Roy Medvedev asked permission to stand surety for Zhores until the commission met, which is allowed even in cases of [genuine] illness. “That is not now our practice,” replied Serebryakova.


Psychiatrists Morozov, Nadzharov, Lunts and Portnov were included in the new commission, which was arranged for Friday, June 5. Roy Medvedev declared himself for the exclusion of Lunts: “He has a bad reputation among my friends.” Lunts was excluded from the commission. Roy Medvedev asked for the commission to be postponed. In the evening the commission proved to have already met. It had consisted of G. Morozov, V. Morozov and R. Nadzharov. Diagnosis had lasted twenty minutes. Questions had been put with telegraphic rapidity, and the members of the commission had not even troubled to listen to the answers. Then, after long deliberation, they left. The commission’s decision was communicated neither to Zh. Medvedev nor to his wife.

R. Medvedev telephoned Livshits that night, but this too shed no light on the matter.

On 4 June a group of scholars employed by the USSS Academy of Sciences appealed to academics, scientists and artists of the whole world to organise a broad and comprehensive boycott of scientific, technical and cultural links with the official authorities and establishments of the USSR, to suspend cooperation and to refuse all scientific and cultural contacts until Zhores Medvedev released and he received an apology for the coercion to which he had been subjected.

On the same day a group of twenty academics sent a letter of protest to the USSR Minister of Health, the Minister of Internal Affairs and the Procurator-General.

The forcible hospitalisation of Zh.A. Medvedev is clearly connected with his public activities, which have been conducted on a strictly legal basis (…) No honest and principled scholar can be sure of his safety if such a basis can result in repressions in the form of confinement in a psychiatric hospital for an indefinite period with deprivation of all human rights (…).

The signatories include Academicians A.D. Sakharov, I.E. Tamm and M.A. Leontovich, Doctors of physico-mathematical sciences V.F. Turchin and L.V. Altshuler, Doctor of biological sciences G.A. Dvorkin, Master of biological sciences S[ergei] A. Kovalyov, mathematical logician A.S. Volpin and physicist V. N. Chalidze.


In the morning Zh. Medvedev‘s brother and a group of friends left for Kaluga. Livshits arrived at the hospital only at five o’clock in the afternoon and announced to [Medvedev’s] wife that Zhores would not yet be discharged from the hospital and that he had received an instruction from the minister that Zhores was mentally ill and that he was to be kept in hospital “for a few more days”. No exact diagnosis or decision of the previous day’s commission was communicated.


Academician Sakharov addressed an open letter to Brezhnev:

The action taken with regard to Zh. Medvedev is arousing deep indignation and anxiety in the Soviet and international scientific communities; it is seen not only as lawlessness towards Medvedev personally, but also as a potential threat to intellectual freedom and to Soviet democracy in general.

Psychiatric hospitals must not be used as a means of repression against inconvenient persons …

Zh. Medvedev continued to be held in the psychiatric hospital.

Various authorities received a further series of collective and personal protests against the forcible confinement in a psychiatric hospital of a mentally healthy person and prominent scholar.


The USSR Minister of Health Petrovsky received the president of the USSR Academy of Sciences, Keldysh, and Academicians Kapitsa, Astaurov and Sakharov, who had sent him letters and telegrams of protest. During the conversation it was stated that Zh. Medvedev was ill and that the doctors were carrying out a humanitarian mission with respect to him. Nonetheless it became clear that Zh. Medvedev would soon be released.


Livshits, head doctor of the Kaluga psychiatric hospital, said that Zh. Medvedev would be released on Wednesday, 17 June.


A letter from the writer A. Solzhenitsyn.

This is how we live: without any arrest warrant or any medical justification four policemen and two doctors come to a healthy man’s house. The doctors declare that he is crazy, the police Major shouts: “We are an ORGAN OF COERCION! Get up!”, they twist his arms and drive him off to the madhouse.

This can happen tomorrow to anyone of us. It has just happened to Zhores Medvedev, a geneticist and publicist, a man of subtle, precise and brilliant intellect and of warm heart (I know personally of his disinterested help to unknown, ill and dying people). It is precisely for the DIVERSITY of his fertile gifts that he is charged with abnormality: “a split personality”! It is precisely his sensitivity to injustice, to stupidity, which is presented as a sick deviation: “poor adaptation to the social environment”! Once you think in other ways that is PRESCRIBED – that means you’re abnormal! As for well adapted people, they must all think alike. And there is no means of redress: even the appeals of our best scientists and writers bounce back like peas off a wall.

If only this were the first case!

But this devious suppression of people without searching for any guilt, when the real reason is too shameful to state, is becoming a fashion. Some of the victims are widely known, many more are unknown. Servile psychiatrists, breakers of their [Hippocratic] oath, define as “mental illness”: concern about social problems, and superfluous enthusiasm, and superfluous coldness, and excessively brilliant gifts, and the lack of them.

Yet even simple common sense ought to have acted as a restraint. After all, Chaadayev did not even have a finger laid on him, but we have now been cursing his persecutors for over a century. It is time to think clearly: the incarceration of free-thinking healthy people in madhouses is SPIRITUAL MURDER, it is a variation on the GAS CHAMBER, but is even more cruel: the torture of the people being killed is more malicious and more prolonged. Like the gas chambers these crimes will NEVER be forgotten, and all those involved in them will be condemned for all time, during their life and after their death.

In lawlessness, in the committing of crimes, the point must be remembered at which a man becomes a cannibal!

It is short-sighted to think that one can live by constantly relying on force alone, constantly ignoring the objections of conscience.


Zhores Alexandrovich Medvedev was released from the psychiatric hospital.


What, after all, served as the grounds for Zh. Medvedev‘s forcible hospitalisation? According to the admission of A. E. Livshits, head doctor of the Kaluga psychiatric hospital: fragments of Zh. Medvedev’s manuscripts, with which he, Livshits, had acquainted himself and which “caused him to doubt Zh. Medvedev’s mental health.” (As later became clear, he had two works in mind – “The cult of personality and biological science” and “International academic cooperation and national frontiers”).

Besides this Bondarenko, the doctor who treated Zh. Medvedev, announced to Roy Medvedev that his brother had been examined unbeknown to him by the psychiatrist Liznenko, who had been present at a conversation between Zh. Medvedev and Antonenko, chairman of the Obninsk city soviet. The conversation had been about placing Zh. Medvedev in employment. There had been present a person unknown to Zh. Medvedev, who described himself as a representative of the Kaluga City Education Department and who put two questions to Zhores about the conduct of his son. This was enough for Liznenko, when he arrived in Kaluga, to write a medical conclusion about Zh. Medvedev’s “illness”, and the order was issued for his forcible hospitalisation.

After Zh. Medvedev’s release from hospital, reactions to the events in Kaluga continued. In an “Open Letter of 20 June” stress is laid on the principal threat – not the potential, but the very immediate possibility of medical reprisals directed personally against absolutely anybody, regardless of his scientific or social merits.

“If Zh. Medvedev were not a scholar whose achievements are recognised by biologists the world over, if he were not an outstanding public figure, what has happened to him would be no less tragic.”

The letter points out the need for the public actively to intervene whenever arbitrary power is manifested. There are 31 signatures.