Borisov and Fainberg’s Hunger Strike, April 1971 (19.3)

<<No 19 : 30 April 1971>>

Victor Fainberg (b. 1931)

Because of their opinions Vladimir Borisov, who as a member of the Action Group [for the Defence of Human Rights] signed an appeal to the UN [in May 1969, CCE 8.10], and Victor Fainberg, who took part in the demonstration in Red Square on 25 August 1968 [CCE 4.1], were judged to be of unsound mind and placed in the Leningrad Special Psychiatric Hospital. [note 1]

On 13 March they announced a hunger strike in protest against being adjudged of unsound mind, and made the following appeal ‘to the progressive public of all countries, to all people of good will’:

“Trampling underfoot international legal norms, the [1948 Universal] Declaration of Human Rights and its own constitution and laws, the government of our country and the agencies under its control has long used methods of reprisal against dissenters which are unprecedented in their cynicism.

“Ideological dissent is often declared to be a symptom of mental illness, and persons in perfect mental health are sentenced to compulsory treatment in prison-hospitals, where in conditions of utter lawlessness they are subjected to every conceivable outrage to compel them to renounce their beliefs. In defiance of the law, which specifies that compulsory treatment may be prescribed for a period not exceeding two years, people are kept here from two or three to thirteen or fifteen years, while political prisoners are held until such time as they renounce their beliefs. Thus persons who refuse to barter their beliefs are doomed to permanent imprisonment.

“Besides this, the most refined methods of persuasion are applied, ranging from restricting the victim’s reading or placing him among patients who are seriously ill and dangerous to those around them, to prescribing neuroleptic and other drugs which act drastically on the brain and threatening to use electric shock therapy – i.e. the most calculated methods of physical torture. Thus medicine, one of the most humane professions of mankind, has been reduced to a servile accomplice of the regime’s punitive agencies in their function as butchers. With its help people who refuse to tailor their minds voluntarily to the pattern demanded by the regime, or to go through life wearing the mask of smiling, contented slaves, are subjected to attempts literally to deprive them of their reason, by means of direct chemical or physical action on the brain.

“It is clear that such a trend represents an enormous danger to all humanity, especially in view of the unprecedented rate at which science is advancing in the search for the most effective methods of influencing the mind of man, in view of the fact that in the near future major discoveries are awaited in this field, which will be incomparable in their scale and consequences. For mass spiritual castration is no less monstrous than genocide.

“Above all, this concerns our country, which by taking the first steps in this direction has gained a shameful distinction. The scientific and technological revolution, and the irreversible social tendencies connected with it, have pronounced sentence of death on the totalitarian regime. It is well known by what methods it is defending itself at present, and no-one should have any illusions about the scale on which these methods are employed, given the famous traditions of ‘Russian revolutionary style and American efficiency’ of our punitive agencies.

“But not a single country, not a single people has a guarantee that the practice of mass mental sterilization will not be adopted by its ruling elite. Of course, this can happen only under a totalitarian system. But given the fact that totalitarianism is generally speaking historically doomed, it is precisely now, in the transitional period, that it tries to take its revenge in the most unexpected places. It is sufficient to recall the recent conspiracy of the Italian generals, the growth in influence of the military-industrial complex in the USA, and so on.

“The argument about the desirability of the development of science is pointless, since scientific progress is impossible to halt; while such a halt, if it were in fact to succeed, would lead to the degeneration or destruction of humanity. It is not a matter of science, but of people, society and the political system being able to employ the most humane discoveries to man’s detriment. There is no doubt that future discoveries in the field of influencing the-human mind are inevitable, or that they will bring invaluable benefits to humanity – but where is their application to be limited? Only the people of the whole world can prevent new crimes, they alone can check the hand reaching out for a new, super-powerful weapon to crush all free thought and any hint of opposition.

“And we do not doubt that progressive public opinion will speak out in angry protest against these heinous crimes, which were not conceived of even by the tormentors of Hitler’s or Stalin’s torture-chambers.

“We urge you, as Julius Fucik once urged: ‘PEOPLE, BE VIGILANT!’

“For our part we announce a protest hunger strike and demand:

  • 1. An immediate end to the compulsory prescription for us of medicines intended for the treatment of mental patients (we have V. Borisov and V. Chernyshov specifically in mind; V. Fainberg is not receiving these medicines);
  • 2. The removal of the restrictions on giving us books and writing requisites;
  • 3. Permission to correspond with any persons not in custody, as stipulated for prisoners in camps and prisons of ordinary type;
  • 4. Permission to see defence counsel;
  • 5. Removal of the label ‘mentally ill’ with which we have in cowardly fashion been branded, and the ordering of a court hearing.

“We refuse to conduct any negotiations with the administration, with the exception of those taking place in the presence and with the participation of both of us simultaneously, and we give warning that any repressive measures against either of us will only extend the hunger strike by us both.

“We are not involving political prisoner V. Chernyshov in the hunger strike, although he also wished to take part in it, in view of the grave condition to which he has been reduced by injections of aminazin [CCE 18.1, item 3].

“Many other political prisoners are in agreement with us, but for quite understandable reasons are refraining from going on hunger strike and from openly signing their names.”


On 15 March Academician Sakharov sent a telegram [note 2] to the Ministers of Health and Internal Affairs, demanding their immediate intervention to eliminate the very possibility of violations of human rights and of medical ethics in the work of psychiatric hospitals.

On the fourth day of the hunger strike, 17 March, V.I. Fainberg was interviewed by a medical commission consisting of: Prof. Nadzharov, of the Central [Serbsky] Institute of Psychiatry attached to the USSR Academy of Medical Sciences, Moscow; Z. N. Serebryakova, chief psychiatric specialist of the USSR Ministry of Health, Moscow; [V. P.] Belyayev, chief psychiatrist of Leningrad; P. B. Blinov, commandant of the hospital; L. N. Zemskov, head doctor of the hospital (the supervisor of his dissertation was D. R. Lunts [of the Serbsky Institute]). (A record of V. Fainberg’s interview by the commission is in the possession of the Chronicle [note 3].)

Fainberg has now been in the hospital for two years. He is constantly pressured to renounce his beliefs. The doctors actually tell him:

“Your discharge depends on your conduct. By your conduct we mean your opinions precisely on political questions. Apart from them it is absolutely normal. Your disease is dissent [inakomyslie]. As soon as you renounce your opinions and adopt the correct point’ of view, we’ll let you out.”

By decision of the commission Fainberg was deprived of books, all printed matter, writing requisites and exercise.

The hunger strike continues.

Fainberg is being held in solitary confinement and forcibly fed. His condition is serious. Borisov is in a general cell for violent patients. In his case forcible feeding was commenced two weeks after the start of the hunger strike.

On 30 March Academician Sakharov, a member of the Committee for Human Rights, again sent an Open Letter to Shchelokov, Minister of Internal Affairs. [note 4] In it he associated himself with the demands of the hunger-strikers.

In April members of the Action Group appealed to the World Health Organisation.

Fainberg’s parents wrote to the USSR Ministry of Health.

The wives of the hunger-strikers asked the World Health Organisation to establish a commission of psychiatrists who were members of the WHO. [note 5]

On 20 April the wives of Borisov and Fainberg appealed to Turoshev, Leningrad Assistant Procurator for the supervision of places of imprisonment. Turoshev claimed to have been to the hospital and spoken to the head doctor. He had not seen Fainberg and Borisov. “How can I talk to them when they are of unsound mind?” he said.

Zemskov, head doctor of the hospital, did not allow the wives to see their husbands or hand in parcels for them, explaining his refusal by saying that Fainberg and Borisov were confined to bed, and that he had no right to permit a meeting in the ward (cell).

The hunger strike continues.



1. On Borisov’s trial see Chronicle 11.10 (Posev: Trety i spetsialny vypusk, April 1970), and on Fainherg see N. Gorbanevskaya’s Red Square at Noon, soon to be published by Deutsch.

2. Sakharov’s 15 March telegram was summarized by Frank Taylor in The Daily Telegraph, London, 20 March 1971, together with Fainberg and Borisov’s appeal.

3. See text of Fainberg’s interview by the commission in Esprit (Paris), Nos. 7-8, 1971 (pp. 54-58).

4. Sakharov’s letter was briefly summarized in The Guardian and The Washington Post, 3 April 1971; full text in Peace News, London, 25 June.

5. The appeal of the wives was summarized in a Reuter’s dispatch (see The Observer, 25 April 1971).