Ward seven

Jane Haynes
March 27, 2013

We republish here a diary entry by Jane Haynes, a  psychotherapist based in London who trained with R.D.Laing. Last spring,  on a trip to St. Petersburg, Jane set out to investigate the opposition  that medical psychiatry and psychotherapy face today in Russia from  ‘quick fixes’ peddled by charlatans.

I am returning to St. Petersburg to give a series of lectures at the  Eastern European Institute for Psychoanalytic Studies. My host is  Mikhail Reshetnikov, an ex-military general and physician who persuaded  Yeltsin to return psychoanalytic psychotherapy to an official status in  the national medical curriculum after its demise by the Communists in  1927. Reshetnikov now presides over a stylish eighteenth century  building on Bolshoy Prospect that Yeltsin gifted to him, which hosts a  refurbished training institute replete with the largest psychodynamic  library in Russia, a Dream Museum, and an annual intake of over 100  postgraduate students. Psychoanalysis was forcibly liquidated in the  1920’s and officially no forms of psychotherapy existed in Russia until  1975: neurosis was classified as a typical feature of the decadent West.  By December 2000 there was one medical psychotherapist per one million  people.

During this visit I intend to venture out from the ‘good city’ and  find out whether it is true that even in the big cities like St.  Petersburg and Moscow, medical psychotherapy falls far behind the  collective national predilection to consult witches and mages and  whether the Russian youth have become vulnerable to cults. Genuine  healers come assorted and state accredited, along with all sorts of  quacks and criminal charlatans, who use varied miasmatic techniques to  brainwash their audiences into spending thousands of hard earned roubles  for the promise of a quick fix. The Russian mentality – borne out of  eternal struggle for survival – has become nationally addicted to the  consoling idea of ‘a quick fix’. It seems that a new age occultism is  fast becoming the religion for many Russian people. There are about  25,000 psychiatrists and psychotherapists in Russia versus 300,000  legally certified magicians and healers! There are more than one hundred  state licensed schools for magicians throughout Russia.

In addition to an expanding occult industry the country is spawning  more and more pseudo religious sects that are becoming increasingly  irresistible to a floundering population, which is not yet skilled in  the architecture of psychological individuation. Between the Russian  Revolution, with its suppression of individuality, and Glasnost the  average Russian had scant opportunity to develop a sense of personal  agency or autonomy: the Russian personality is still adolescent in its  explorations of subjectivity and the sources of self. Jesus of Siberia  is not a national joke but a 42 year old prophet called Vissarion – a  former policeman from Minusinsk – who claims to have 80,000 devoted  followers, many of whom have followed him to an ecological settlement on  an icy Siberian mountainside.

There are at least 500 different sects in Russia with well over one  million followers of which the majority are young people. What disturbs –  in particular – is that some of these so called new religions are  commercial organisations with a ruthless focus on power rather than  religion and a totalitarian mission of transforming the Russian psyche  according to their own rules of political conformity.

Traditionally, Russia has been a country in which cults, correctly  referred to as new religious movements, have flourished. Amongst the  intelligentsia, pre-revolutionary society spawned Masonic rites, table  raising séances, court orgies, theosophy and the phenomenon of Rasputin,  another Siberian peasant. Rasputin, like Freud, was fascinated by  hysteria and the powers of hypnosis. Freud applied himself to a theory  of sexuality whilst Rasputin became an expert in sexual hypnosis. That  was at the core of his impact on high society women, including the  Tsarina, who were culturally susceptible to the mysterious arts of  hysteria. Rasputin, like that other Siberian trickster, Vissarion,  thought of himself as Christ and made others believe it as well. Both  had innate origins in a cult which beckoned the Russian sexual  revolution, the khlysty, a romantic sect that combined assiduous piety  with sexual promiscuity. In their youth the future leaders of the Soviet  intelligentsia, such as Gorky, Vladimir Mayakovsky and Lunacharsky were  as influenced by Dionysian energies and Nietzsche’s vision of Superman  as they were subsequently to be by Marx. In rural Russia magic and  religion have always co-existed. Siberia, along with its mystical  birches, has incubated generations of Shamans. Under Soviet rule it was  rumoured that the KGB, scouring Russia for psychics to assist in their  extra sensory perception researches, searched the forests and mountains  of Siberia for mystics and children who displayed precocious psychic  sensitivities. They forcibly recruited them into research projects for  ‘Higher Nervous Activity’ at flagship research institutions like the  Pavlov Institute in Moscow.

In a country that no longer knows what – or who – to believe in,  whose people are floundering in an ideological void, there is an innate  predisposition towards any authority that holds out the combined promise  of prosperity and emotional containment.

Of particular relevance to my specific interests in Russian mental  health is Scientology’s vast propaganda machine, which is fuelled by  their generic hatred of clinical psychiatry. Of particular concern to  Russian politicians should be the fact that their leafleted attacks and  pamphlets carry truth in their squall. Russian psychiatric services are  now at an all time low due to negligible budgets and the fact that state  national insurance does not have any cover for mental health. Outside  the major cities most of the acute psychiatric hospitals have  reluctantly degenerated into primitive vehicles of restraint My medical  colleagues tell me that in the provinces psychiatric hospitals are often  deleted from the state budgets altogether. Many hospitals cannot afford  modern pharmaceuticals and the older technologies like insulin, and the  primitive equipment that is still being used for ECT are more likely to  kill patients than cure them.

Officially banned, L. Ron Hubbard’s Church of Scientology is still  alive and kicking in Peter’s great but confused city: it is alleged that  its steely long arms have embraced senior Russian officials in both  capital cities. Vladimir Agishev, director of SPB’s largest mental  hospital has described how Scientologists disseminate huge quantities of  leaflets attacking psychiatry as evil and the patients as prisoners.  This is nothing new in terms of scientology’s politics but the  consequences of its propaganda will be different in Russia where the  current state of mental hospitals makes Chekhov’s shocking account of  psychiatric care in Ward Six almost seem homely by comparison.

Arriving at my hotel the manager comes to greet me: This is my third  visit this year and my eighth to his hotel. Good and bad news awaits me.  The good news is that my room has been upgraded and the bad is that in  the last week about forty guests have been mugged with varying levels of  physical brutality. The muggings have not taken place down a cul de sac  but outside the hotel whose boundaries are marked by private security  and a legion of minders, who seem to turn a blind eye to everything  except their bosses’ BMWs. The manager confides that it is the gypsies  and that he is beginning to despair about the fate of his beautiful  city, that several tour operators are threatening not to send future  guests. The Astoria is one of the most beautiful hotels that I am  acquainted with. Built in 1911 it was where Hitler planned to sign and  celebrate his Russian victory. It is also where the revolutionary poet  Eisenen slit his wrists and scrawled his dying name in blood on a  banqueting wall.

Tomorrow I have plans to visit the Bekhterev Brain Institute that was  established under Vladimir Bekhterev – another army general – in 1907.  It was the august Bekhterev who first identified Rasputin as an expert  in sexual hypnosis but his promising diagnostic perspicacity came to an  untimely death after he was invited to give Stalin a consultation in  1927 and diagnosed paranoia. Surviving for only one day after this  event, the Kremlin physicians diagnosed food poisoning! The Bechterev  Institute is still privileged to be the country’s flagship of  neurobiology and psychiatric research. After the emotional warmth,  intellectual energy and aesthetic refinements of Professor Reshetnikov’s  Institute, I am taken by surprise to arrive at a building, which has  become so environmentally hostile that it has driven many patients to  suicide and where only its most indefatigable psychiatrists have  escaped, burn out.

My host Rada, Medical Director of the Outpatient Department of New  Technologies, and President of the Russian Federation of Medical  Psychotherapy: a man in his mid forties, with a prophetic beard that  rivals his founder’s, and burning eyes, is one such triumph. Rada’s  eyes, and professional devotion to finding ‘new clinical technologies’ –  Russian’s are still addicted to technology – seem to me to be one of  the few beacons of light and hope in a therapeutic space that has become  as desolate as Sodom and Gomorrah. I find it hard to conceal my  incredulity as he explains that included amongst the inpatient community  there are affluent people who pay large sums of money to be here.

We pause outside a locked ward where a stern notice dictates to all  inmates precisely the rations that they are allowed to bring along: all  forms of salt, homemade preserves and pickles are, to my mind,  illogically forbidden. As we enter I have a sensation of déjà vu: The  windows are disfigured on the side with iron bars. The floor is  discoloured and full of splinters. The place smells of sour cabbage,  unsnuffed wicks, bed bugs and ammonia, and this picture of smells at  first gives you the impression of having entered a menagerie. The words  are Chekov’s but I feel as though I have walked backwards through a  looking glass.

Originally the ward must have been designed to facilitate sedation  through its naive deception that patients were accommodated in a country  dacha, or turn of the century Swiss sanatorium. Ravaged by time and the  absence of any budget for restoration, it has shrivelled into a  crumbling set that has become the stage for an unintentional theatre of  cruelty. Mere shades of their former three-dimensionality, personalities  now wander aimlessly between nothing and less than nothing and I feel  that I have entered an abode of the living dead. Most of these  shadow-selves lie on their overcrowded bunks in heavily sedated and  catatonic rows.

The ward psychiatrist makes a brief appearance from his internally  locked office and explains, not without pride, that a policy change has  been instituted whereby they no longer have any wards, just informal  dormitories, but these are dormitories from hell. I still haven’t seen a  nurse anywhere and I experience a sadness that extends beyond words.  Whilst he is talking to me I am aware that a woman is booting his door  in suspended agony, imploring entrance to discuss the fate of her  suicidal adolescent. Unlike my host this ward psychiatrist, who sports a  deaf ear, speaks immaculate English but his eyes are like cold fish;  their only commonality exists in the animation of their cigarettes.  Russian men, and they don’t even need to be psychiatrists, never seem to  tire of making jokes about their addiction to smoking and its  associations with oral deprivation at the Soviet Breast.

As I am led to another dormitory the psychiatrist explains that  ‘These people are acute suicides and require a 24 hour watch’. Nobody  there to watch them, still not a single nurse to be seen, nobody  therapeutic anywhere; and besides these patients are definitely too  sedated to move. The only redeeming feature is that the electro-  convulsive therapy treatment room looks reassuringly non operational.  One principal clinical difference between this flagship institute and  the provinces must be that it still has a budget for twenty-four hour  sedations.

It is no wonder that the ward psychiatrist has eyes as dead as fish,  no wonder that in a society that pays its medical professors less than  200 dollars a month, he is in a crisis of existential despair. No wonder  that no experiences of human suffering will ever surprise anyone who  works, or tries to work here, again. No wonder at all that the  Scientologists are onto a winning wicket with their anti-psychiatry  pamphlets. Not at all surprising to any of my companions that I breathe a  huge sigh of relief when that dreadful parody of a chalet door is  unlocked again and I am reunited with Rada’s quizzical eyes and his  offer of a constitutional lemon tea heavily laced with cognac. I am  inspired that Russia still has philanthropically motivated doctors like  Rada who, despite their profitable and thriving psycho-sexual private  practices in the city’s’ centre, also continue to toil and trouble in  this wasteland for a reformed vision of state mental health-care  provision. As we prepare to depart Eliot’s words float into  consciousness: ‘On Margate sands I can connect nothing with nothing’.  This really is a world without connection.

On our way out of this baneful yet nationally prestigious institute –  to which I have had privileged access – whose principal detail of  aesthetic décor seems to be provided by a tracery of mice droppings, we  stop at cluttered kiosk, such as you might find beside any metro  station. This is the pharmacy and because medicines cost money it is  attended to. It looks more like a wizard’s booth and prescriptions are  clearly optional! When I ask whether the pharmacist has any Prozac for  me Rada and Mikhail Reshetnikov laugh, light up, and shake their heads  but they are the misinformed. Prozac she has indeed; just like vodka,  cigarettes and software you can buy it cheap, even though it is a  powerful mind altering drug which, when improperly imbibed, can  transform depression into florid mania in a matter of hours.

The citizens of St. Petersburg make no secret of their distinction  between the ‘good city’ and the ‘bad city’; tomorrow I am going to the  Northern district of the ‘bad city’ to an old cinema to watch so called  ‘folk healers’ perform. Remember, this is the country which, in the late  ‘80s, an influential psychiatrist called Kashpirovsky transported  himself into a populist hypnotist who managed to hold the nation in  hypnotic thrall through the television screen.

I wake up to an autumn day that would make Wordsworth proud to be a  Russian: the roads are silvered in a film of ice and my ears begin to  freeze as soon as I enter St. Isaac’ Square to catch sight of a school  crocodile wearing its homogeneity like an uniform. I realise that a  sight of national physiognomy has become an anachronism in London where  any large group of children come as assorted as Smarties. Almost all of  my Russian friends found it hard to accept that my grandchildren are  mixed race. Amongst the most liberal you often find that the African  students – who were imported into Soviet universities – are still blamed  for causing the Russian HIV epidemic, which will soon implode and  explode the country’s inertia and denial into crisis. When I am in  Russia my worst thought is that I will need to be hospitalised and  require a blood transfusion.

Today, my translator and confidant, Lara is taking me across the city  to visit a former Soviet cinema called Prometheus where we will witness  the nationally esteemed folk healer Marina and her adept in crime  hypnotise their audience into fiscal submission. More than a hundred,  closer to two, old and not so old citizens are gathered in this derelict  and unheated dump to be hypnotised into health. Soon the unbelievable  will happen before my eyes as this patch-worked community offer up their  hard won roubles in return for worthless talismans. I already have no  doubt that this couple are neither mages nor folk healers but criminal  charlatans who know how to work the collective mentality of a crowd of  people whose lives have been scarred by famine, loss, sickness and  multi-layered political betrayal. Most will have lost a son, or grandson  – here or there – to one war, or another. But I am surprised by the  absence of any attempt at presentation: they appear dressed by courtesy  of a Russian equivalent of Primark. At the very least I had expected  charisma with lashings of Russian soul and more smouldering eyes.

A rusty blaze of sound announces entry: there are no lighting  effects, nothing to see except two drab individuals climbing onto the  stage and receiving adulation and bouquets of flowers from arthritic men  and women who struggle to be the first to offer their cellophaned  tributes. Now I see a man and woman whose aura whiffs only of  indifference and contempt. Without any attempt at folk habiliment – but  lost in moth-eaten fur – the self-professed healer, Lady Marina begins  to read her poetry. One ditty follows another until my embarrassed  interpreter whispers ‘Frankly this is terrible poetry, let us leave’. I  remind her that she didn’t bring me for the poetry but to witness a  social phenomenon that happens all over Russia every day amongst a needy  and neglected layer of the population which is still too confused to  make a distinction between religion, cults, and collective hysteria.  Marina’s companion, dressed in a polyester track suit, announces that he  is the grandson of the great holy man Gramma Njura: not only can he  cure his captive audience but he can also assist all the absent members  of their families with his talismans. “Just like the great God  Prometheus I can change your destiny.” This is something that no one in  this audience, or maybe most of Russia, any longer believes that their  politicians, doctors, military forces, scientists, or national security  can do. Njura’s words carry seduction because their promise is of  effortless gratification – the nationally longed for quick fix: rewards  will be instant; or almost instant and no one needs to do anything at  all because Njura possesses the spiritual key to a bio-energy to make  all things possible. Energy, one should know, is the second most popular  national word after technology. His rhetoric is dissolute: ‘If you  haven’t heard from your grandson since he entered the army and left for  Chechnya you need only sprinkle a few drops of holy water on his pillow  and he will return by the end of the month.’ Sometimes they do! Most  commonly as numbers.

The lights go out with a fearful hissing and we are plunged into a  darkness that smells like more sour cabbage as the corrosive sounds of  attempted sea rhythms now herald the climax of performance. Our  polyester trickster Njura behests us to gather a citizen in our arms; to  rub away grief and renew bio-energy. Rub! Rub harder and harder! The  dark auditorium is alive with the electrical energy of strangers rubbing  up a tornado of hysteria, delusion and denial. The light returns and I  am amazed to see that the audience has been transformed: a group of cold  and hungry strangers are looking towards their seducers with expectant  eyes of the newborn. Can it really be so easy to hoodwink and seduce?  Are these brave and resilient people who have born so much suffering, so  much hunger, really going to bite the bait of illusion before my eyes?  Surely such easy believers would prefer a church; but then I realise  that prayer demands effort, uncertainty and patience to wait for that  eternal reward and that there are no overnight guarantees on offer. In  this ghastly cinema the illusion is not on the screen but in front of my  eyes. Two greedy queues are forming on the stage and former hobblers  appear quick on the hoof. One group are waiting to be blessed with  poetry and holy water and the other group, already baptised in  collective deceit, are frantically buying the talismans from the holy  descendent of Gramma Njura.

The poet Osip Mandelshtam said that it was only in Russia that  politicians thought that poets were worth killing. Come to think of it,  during almost a century of the political suppression of agency and self,  it was left to the poets to burn that counter- revolutionary candle of  conscience and subjectivity. Anna Akhmatova, in her poem Requiem, which  was banned until after her death, wrote: ‘Beyond the circle of the moon,  I cry/Into the blizzards of the permafrost: Goodbye. Goodbye./ In those  years only the dead smiled,/Glad to be at rest:’.

Can it only be in Russia – amongst the best educated people of the  world – where physical existence literally depends on the acquisition of  primitive survival skills, they can delude themselves that doggerel and  water contain magic and bio-energetic energies that will bring back  their lost boys from Never Never Land? Roubles are falling everywhere,  just like the first snowflakes of the season that await me, as  emotionally drained, but not financially ruined, we fall out of this  corrupt atmosphere that now resounds to an Onegin chorus! During our  long, ice blown walk to Lara’s home to eat blini and newly pickled  mushrooms we calculate that in the course of one hour Marina and Gramma  Njura probably filled their coffers to the equivalent of 1,500 US  dollars, not bad for an hourly wage.

It is early evening by the time we return to the Institute for  Psychoanalytic Studies and the building has warmed up; the austerity of  its marble entry hall is complimented by crystal lighting. Startling  nude studies recline the stairs and beckon towards the main teaching  area as if to alert all those brave enough to enter that their task is  to unmask psyche. The corridors are alive with the buzz of postgraduate  students who have come on from their daytime employment. Fashionable  looking individuals cluster out onto the pavement: despite the rigour of  the freezing elements they all appear bright eyed and enthusiastic as  they shed layers of outerwear and prepare to commit themselves to a  seriously long evening of post- Freudian theory and applied  psychoanalytic psychotherapy. Many of them are already employed as  senior clinicians in mental health services, some are professors and  others grown-children of the new affluent classes. Teaching is conducted  in formal classrooms with blackboard and chalk.

It is only now – after the recorded events of the day – that I begin  to realise how extraordinary the presence and philosophy of this  thriving training institute EEPS is and how much its founder and rector,  Mikhail Reshetnikov, has contributed to national psychological  understanding in the last ten years. He is also a frequent traveller  between Petersburg and the Kremlin where he is Consultant to the First  Chamber of Russian Parliament. In November he was awarded the official  title of Personality of the Year – along with the Nobel Prize winner and  academician Jores Alpherov – for his services to the development of  Russian psychoanalytic psychotherapy. As always in Russian politics you  are either a national threat or absorbed into its mainstream: middle  ground remains a neglected concept.

Later on, my lecture delivered, we warm up with vodka, obscured in a  tsunami of exhaled cigar, beneath the inscrutable gaze of a lithograph  of Freud’s Monday Club, while Mikhail Reshetnikov explains more to me.  “I was never a conventional military man and my friends were surprised  that I served for twenty-five years, but my primary contribution was to  the psychology of trauma and terror. Then, I was invited by the Mayor of  St. Petersburg, Anatoliy Sobchack, who was a very popular political  leader, to work with him as the Chief of his Analytical Department which  led on to my own idea to set up an independent institute. I was only  interested if it was for the development of psychoanalytic studies. The  idea just seemed to emerge out of a dream; it was 1991 and a period of  intellectual intoxication: great ideas were in the air. However, when I  said that I wanted to establish an institute of psychoanalysis, I was  told that it was impossible. To begin with I had to compromise and it  was established as the Institute of Medical and Psychological Problems  and only later we changed its title to The Eastern European Institute  for Psychoanalytic Studies. Fifteen years ago psychoanalysis was unknown  to Russian medical psychotherapists and psychiatrists but now it would  be impossible to have a psychotherapy conference without its presence as  an academic discipline.”

Over dinner other colleagues explain to me that it is no longer the  authorities that pose a threat to the expansion of psychoanalytic  psychotherapy in Russia but the collective mentality, which has become  addicted to the idea of ‘a quick fix’. Russians are weary of waiting and  this contributes to a national predilection for magic and the seductive  uniformity of cults where everyone knows what they must do next to  maintain the promise of equilibrium. My colleagues express gratitude  that I have strayed beyond the civilised confines of the Institute to  see the nether belly of their city. They explain that they sometimes  find it difficult to reconcile themselves to classical European  techniques of psychoanalytic psychotherapy that were not sculpted out of  a psychology of famine, and the other unique political pressures and  crises of identity that a vast proportion of the Russian population –  those who are neither the poorest nor richest citizens – are heir to.  Growing more confident, these accomplished Russian professionals are  also becoming determined to combine their desires for international  clinical fertilisation with a distinctly Russian passport that will also  address itself to the cultural specificities of the superstitious  Russian psyche. It is inspiring for me to observe – each time I return –  more and more graduate psychotherapists have set up shop in svelte  clinical consultation centres.

Psychotherapy – under Reshetnikov’s influence – has already become a  profitable and desirable profession with accredited qualifications that  reflect European standards. Its skilled practitioners are still busy  competing with national predilictions for occult alternatives that state  registered quacksalvers continue to peddle but in St. Petersburg it is  turning into the preferred treatment for alienated and impoverished  professionals and the ‘New Russians’ alike.

I do not want to leave this extraordinary environment and go home.  The only compensation is that I will stop smelling like the Russian  equivalent of Galloise and will have to give up the appealing habit of  cleaning my teeth in vodka.


I first went to Russia in 1994 as part of an official Jungian  Training Programme set up by the Society of Analytical Psychology in  London, and which operated under the aegis, but was not a part of, the  Eastern European Institute of Psychoanalysis in SPB. I have never felt  an official part of any organisation and indeed find the competing  worlds of psychotherapy like the Tower of Babel, a confusion of  authorities. My first lecture, which was given with the aid of a  translator who became my friend, and is referred to as the companion in  my essay was titled ‘Who is it that can tell me who I am?’ The Rector of  the Institute happened to pass by the lecture room and decided to stay  and listen. His response to the lecture, which has subsequently turned  into a book, was to comment that for the first time in living history  the Russian population had the opportunity to openly pursue Lear’s quest  for ‘individuation’. As a result of this I was invited to join the  consultant staff of the institute with the freedom to speak in a  Jungian, Freudian, Bakhtin Dialogic, or any other ‘tongue’.


All by
Jane Haynes