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Russian and Soviet forensic psychiatry: Troubled and troubling

Dan Healey
International Journal of Law and Psychiatry; Available online 12 October 2013.

Abstract

Russian forensic psychiatry is defined by its troubled and troubling relationship to an unstable state, a state that was not a continuous entity during the modern era. From the mid-nineteenth century, Russia as a nation-state struggled to reform, collapsed, re-constituted itself in a bloody civil war, metastasized into a violent “totalitarian” regime, reformed and stagnated under “mature socialism” and then embraced capitalism and “managed democracy” at the end of the twentieth century. These upheavals had indelible effects on policing and the administration of justice, and on psychiatry's relationship with them. In Russia, physicians specializing in medicine of the mind had to cope with rapid and radical changes of legal and institutional forms, and sometimes, of the state itself. Despite this challenging environment, psychiatrists showed themselves to be active professionals seeking to guide the transformations that inevitably touched their work. In the second half of the nineteenth century debates about the role of psychiatry in criminal justice took place against a backdrop of increasingly alarming terrorist activity, and call for revolution. While German influence, with its preference for hereditarianism, was strong, Russian psychiatry was inclined toward social and environmental explanations of crime. When revolution came in 1917, the new communist regime quickly institutionalized forensic psychiatry. In the aftermath of revolution, the institutionalization of forensic psychiatry “advanced” with each turn of the state's transformation, with profound consequences for practitioners' independence and ethical probity. The abuses of Soviet psychiatry under Stalin and more intensively after his death in the 1960s–80s remain under-researched and key archives are still classified. The return to democracy since the late 1980s has seen mixed results for fresh attempts to reform both the justice system and forensic psychiatric practice.

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