The Delusion of Reform: Punitive Psychiatry in Soviet History

Garret J McDonald, Fordham University


This dissertation forms the first detailed, historical account of the so-called “political abuse of psychiatry” or the punitive deployment of psychiatry in the Soviet Union against dissidents and social undesirables. It explores punitive psychiatry as a feature embedded in and inseparable from the broader legal and carceral landscapes in the Soviet Union. In so doing, the dissertation follows lines of inquiry concerned with the tangible connections between Soviet prisons and punitive psychiatry, the development and evolution of the institutions and policies governing involuntary psychiatric hospitalization, as well as the role of psychiatric experts in this establishment of a punitive psychiatric apparatus. Considering these lines of inquiry, the dissertation proposes two novel conceptualizations of punitive psychiatry that serve as prisms for understanding and viewing the involuntary psychiatric hospitalization of dissidents and deviants. First, the dissertation presents all of the legal-medical institutions and facilities responsible for the examination, filtration, isolation, and treatment of criminal and non-criminal offenders believed to be mentally ill as components of a broader “psycho-zone,” a term derived from the lexicon of prisoners and referential to the Soviet Gulag.Second, the dissertation proposes viewing the Soviet Union as a developing “therapeutic state,” a term modified to refer to a modern form of governmentality within which collaboration between the state and institutional psychiatry negotiates, constructs, and reinforces social norms by situating those individuals, behaviors, and values opposed to those norms as the subjects of psychiatric inquiry. In other words, Soviet forensic psychiatrists and policymakers labored to produce a social order resting on scientific principles that policed citizens’ failures to abide by the rules through psychiatric intervention. Combined, these two conceptualizations enable meaningful conversations about punitive psychiatry as a function of a biopolitical imperative in the Soviet Union and extend the experience of punitive psychiatry beyond a couple thousand dissidents to the hundreds of thousands of criminals that circulated through forensic psychiatric and penal institutions.

Subject Area

History|European history|Political science

Recommended Citation

McDonald, Garret J, "The Delusion of Reform: Punitive Psychiatry in Soviet History" (2023). ETD Collection for Fordham University. AAI30634521.