Third Coast Translators Collective is an international community of literary translators. Our members share resources, mentor one another, workshop projects in progress, facilitate pathways to publication, and foster a sense of belonging and excitement about the profession. We seek to build relationships with other literary and cultural organizations in Chicago and to become a valuable point of reference for international literature. This is the second in an occasional series featuring translations by members of TCTC.
This is the true story of a guy who was taken to two punitive psychiatric hospitals for “anti-Soviet activity.” Thirty years after these events took place, he told his gruesome story to Andrei Dichenko (warning: violence, forced medicating of patients, a hint at a suicide attempt, etc.). Some things you might want to know: a Chekist is a sometimes ironic term for a KGB officer (the Soviet secret police was originally called the Cheka); Spets-Sluzhby means “Special Services”—something like COINTELPRO, but without pretending it is illegal.
A longer version of this story was originally published in Russian on The Village Belarus.
PART I: KHARKOV 1984
“This is a serious office.”
In the early 1980s we were part of a political activist group. We published a radical leftist journal called B.N. But, please…by journal, what I mean is, it was a little stack of typewritten sheets sewn into a booklet with a hand-drawn cover. It was printed in a run of fifteen copies and up. At best, maybe fifty copies. We were young, radical leftists. We admired the Italian Red Brigades and the German RAF. In our journal, we called for Chekists and Communist Party members to be strung up. In a certain way, yes, we were the true heirs of Lenin and Trotsky, the kind that had criminal charges filed against them for anti-Soviet agitation. Maybe it was the fact that we published the most radical journal in the USSR. It started in 1984, when Andropov was in power. Our writers didn’t have any qualms about using a swear word or two, or writing what everyone was thinking, but was too ashamed or scared to say. One of our comrades fell under the thumb of the Spets-Sluzhba and gave us all up. He got caught, by the way, for selling precious stones to some German girl (don’t ask me how she had gotten into the country). At the time, a lot of people—you had to get by somehow—were involved in illegal activity.
I sat down in the KGB investigator’s office, and he started babbling something about anti-Soviet activity. He said we were all breaking the law. At the time, he was called a captain. I remember his last name: Boyko.
I was drawn to the expensive Japanese watch, an Orient, on his left wrist. I had some acquaintances who were black market dealers, so I was well aware that a watch like that might go for 250–300 rubles. Unlikely he could afford such a thing on a captain’s salary. I voiced my thoughts out loud. It stung. But I could have been the nicest, most obedient person in the world, and it wouldn’t have mattered anyways. In his eyes, we were fascists, punks and anti-Soviets. Period. A few days later I was whisked away in a black Volga. They slapped some handcuffs on my wrists as if I had committed a serious crime.
Funny, when they shoved me handcuffed into the Volga, an agent sat on either side of me. It was amusing. I let slip that I thought they were acting like I was a real spy or something. At the time I couldn’t shake the feeling of how awkward this was. It was like something out of that movie The Secret Agent’s Blunder. Except the Chekists looked real grim. Actually they were trying not to touch me, not even make eye contact. They probably found it disagreeable to even look at me.
The interrogations dragged on for several days. I didn’t sleep much. I suppose it was due to the really bad sleep deprivation that they were able to knock some evidence out of me. But I did manage not to sign anything. They kept saying they weren’t kidding around, that I had gotten into big trouble, because they were “serious people,” not running some sort of dog-and-pony show. They threatened me, saying they knew everything about me, about my girlfriend and my buddies. I remember they even told me for some reason that they knew what size boots I had bought my girlfriend for her birthday. When I asked him what he might possibly need that information for, the Chekist proudly answered, “This is a serious office.” They also tried to scare me into thinking all my friends had confessed already. They asked me to do the same thing, so I could make it easy on myself. I told them I knew all these people but we didn’t have an organization.
On the third day of interrogation, they took out a folder and tipped a bunch of photographs onto the table. It was photos of graffiti we had painted around town. It’s funny, some of it wasn’t even ours. Obviously, this was all coming from our snitch. But the investigator insisted they had a witness who saw us paint the graffiti. I denied everything. The only thing I admitted was that I wrote for the journal. We didn’t give last names—everyone used a nickname. Obviously, some people knew what my pseudonyms were. That’s how the information leaked. So that’s why eventually, yes, I had to admit the journal was my doing. But I insisted I did it alone. Some evidence surfaced in the form of a typewriter I had rented with my Soviet passport. At the time, all typewriters had to be registered. But what was I thinking? You can’t just use a typewriter like that! And that was the crux of the charges.
After the interrogations and something resembling an investigation, there was a closed commission hearing in a windowless basement facility. There was a table and a group of three sat behind it. They were in civilian clothes. They didn’t introduce themselves. One of the Chekists, after I was ushered in, stood up and read the charges. He said, on the basis of the evidence gathered, my crime was considered a psychiatric disorder, so they decided to stick me in an SPB (Special Psychiatric Hospital) “for treatment.” On my way out, he added that when my treatment was over, I could go back to being “a normal Soviet citizen and a respected member of society.”
My First Shot of Haloperidol
A young soldier escorted me into the train car at the station. I had a private cabin with one bed. They locked the doors from the outside. Where are they taking me? Nobody would say anything. The blinds were shut, and it felt poorly lit. The train ride lasted days. Bathroom trips were strictly scheduled, and only in handcuffs. And naturally I had an attendant. The guard would go right into the bathroom with me. While I was taking care of my business, he would have his back turned and be smoking. One time I got curious about why he did that, and he muttered, “protocol.”
Finally we arrived. I was totally exhausted. I wish I had been able to unwind a bit. But they immediately sat me down in another car. I understood they were taking me to the insane asylum. The building came into view: it was a centuries-old merchant house hidden behind a tall fence with guard towers. People were walking around the premises with dogs. Who knows who was on duty up in the towers. I never managed to see them up close. Actually, I never managed to see any of the outside guards who patrolled the grounds. They never let us out.
This wasn’t your typical hospital facility, and mainly it felt like it wasn’t a hospital at all. Twenty-foot ceilings, at least. The place had been converted into three wards that housed maybe seventy people. Most of the metal beds were screwed into the floor. But please, “beds” is an overstatement. Instead of springs, they had metal sheets welded to a frame of bent pipes. The corners were filed down. The beds were made so that you could tie a rope around them to immobilize someone. Moody orderlies were on duty all around you. Further off were the bathrooms. Of course, there were no toilets, just holes in the dirt—just like in a suburban commuter train or the public bathrooms at the train station. The roof was sporting some enormous mold stains. The floorboards had begun coming apart a long time ago. It was old, you could even say imperial, architecture left over from before the revolution. Damp, rot, gloom: three words to describe the local ambience.
I noticed right away that a lot of people were wearing military uniforms under their lab coats. First I had a medical checkup where they asked me some pretty run-of-the-mill questions, then I had a conversation with a mustached old guy from the administration. He gave me the impression he was the only person there you could maybe talk to about books. No, I’ll go further than that: he seemed like a nice person. Reasonable, well educated. He was like out of a Bulgakov novel, sort of like the doctor-psychiatrist from The Master and Margarita, played by Vasily Livanov. First he asked me something about my views on things. He sounded like a decent man who made plenty of literary allusions. A man who sounded like that made you want to pay attention. But suddenly his face changed, and with the same artist-intellectual tone, he asked, “You like to f**k up the ass? You jerk off?” He was staring straight at me, and he didn’t seem to suggest this was a joke. Nope. Not a joke.
The questions unsettled me. I felt cold and was dreading something, and it gave me an uncomfortable tightness in my chest. It was like having ice water poured on you. I immediately realized this man was not who I thought he was. Later on I realized the person sitting across from me was a professional sadist. I can’t remember his last name anymore…I think it started with an “M.” It was something soft, sweet, fairytale-like. Maybe Marmeladov or something.
This was the psychological reception given to newcomers at the asylum. After our discussion I was taken to my ward and given my first shot of haloperidol. I was hankering for a cigarette. Later I found out the man I had been speaking to was a local employee with the rank of colonel.
An Unsuccessful Escape
With my first shot of haloperidol, a false lightness pervaded my body, especially with this radical change in circumstances and the fact that I was now left in the dark about my former life. Your muscles relax, you calm down, it’s like everything’s okay. The side effects began the next day. My muscles all started convulsing. I tried to smoke a cigarette, and it shot out at my roommate, who was standing by the bathroom…He said to me, you better not smoke, but I didn’t listen. Nicotine turned out to be a trigger for my muscle spasms. My fingers wouldn’t listen to me, my jaw started twisting, my mouth opened and I began drooling. It wasn’t working, trying to get myself under control. My legs, my arms…My eyes began rolling back in my head. Oh, I was nice and scared. I didn’t know how long this was going to last. Besides the spasms, I kept gasping for air.
But the scariest part was that I didn’t know how long I would end up staying there. It was a tradition every morning during our medical check—dozens of people kept asking the same question: “Doctor, when am I going to be discharged?” Every morning, it was the first thing that came up. Oh, the orderlies were having a blast. They would tell everyone, you’ll definitely get your discharge tomorrow. Then they’d clap your back and give you a nice, theatrical smile.
I was given haloperidol injections for almost a month. And if the first time the side effects were caused by smoking, later times I felt them as soon as I left the treatment room. The twisting, the spasms, the parched tongue, all thirty-three pleasures. It was very hard to control the process of swallowing food. Sometimes I would start chewing—and then all at once the convulsions begin, and food falls out of my mouth. Same thing apparently with liquids. I had to come up with a special system so as not to choke on water. When I drank, I tried to pour directly into my throat.
Some thought they would get discharged. Others heard the doctor’s answers and fell into total despair. Personally I was not planning on giving up, or constantly swallowing haloperidol and other pills of death. I quickly found an accomplice, and we decided to make a run for it. And this despite the fact that most people avoided each other.
My accomplice told me he was some kind of journalist and wrote anti-Soviet articles. Maybe he sounded sensible, but he turned out to have schizophrenia. But that didn’t get in the way of our association. He and I discussed movies and books. By the way, he was periodically discharged. And his sister used to visit him. His daily regimen wasn’t quite as harsh as mine. In his case, the fact that he was from Kharkov made it easier for people to visit. What did he look like? He was an enormous little guy, almost six and a half feet tall. Around thirty years old. He reminded me of Vasisualiy Lokhankin from the Ilf and Petrov book, The Little Golden Calf. The schizophrenia made him talk a little too much. Somehow during a long conversation of ours, he proposed we make a run for it.
To a person of average height, the building windows seemed just enormous. I’m sure they were a few yards tall. Behind them some rusted-out grates were fastened tight. His idea was that if you could loosen the grates, you might eventually be able to push out a wide enough slit. For this purpose a spoon was stolen from the dining room. He used it to pick at an old, crumbly brick at the base of one of the grates. It gave way easily. I may not have had the strength to loosen the grate, but since I had nothing else to do, I used the spoon to draw on the walls. I made an awesome relief sculpture.
When we finally managed to loosen the grate, my comrade was the first to climb out. He came right back because we completely missed the fact that there were naked wires stretching along the bottom of the window. From up where we were, we hadn’t noticed the defeathered bird corpses littered down below. Some of them were only skeletons by now, others still decomposing. This friendly bird graveyard was never swept away, probably to teach us all a moral lesson. Our escape, which we had planned for two weeks, had to be postponed. It was our first little utopian dream. No one noticed the uplifted and slightly deformed grate.
Like Any Community, We Had Our Fair Share of Scumbags and Sadists
After about two months in the asylum, I knew all the rules. And all my fellow inmates. People’s stories there were twisted. People did say things about themselves, but often reluctantly. And you had no way of knowing whether or not people were telling the whole truth. Oh, I just remembered the “White Army general.” People said he had spent decades there. That was upsetting, because how damn long were the rest of us going to be there? It became clear to me then that there was no set discharge date for anyone. We also apparently had someone with us who was accused of spying. There was a singer. An engineer.
And a former Polizei officer who used to work for the Germans. I remember he collected candy wrappers. He kept them under his mattress, neatly laid out. His nickname was Python. So named because of his powerful physique. He could grab a person and squeeze the daylights out of them in an instant. Python was already an old man. Around sixty, I think. He stood out for his low forehead, thick eyebrows, and his beat-up pugilist’s nose. He looked like Krotov from the Soviet miniseries Confrontation. Python’s only pleasure in life was his collection of candy wrappers. Like in any community, we had our fair share of scumbags and sadists. A favorite pastime was to snatch a candy wrapper from Python and start teasing him. And the former Polizei officer would go berserk and give chase. As a rule, he could never catch his aggressor. Not a good runner.
The Nastiest of Criminals Couldn’t Hold a Candle to the Blatny of the Asylum
There were plenty of blatny in the ward—members of the upper echelons of Soviet prison subculture—and also their sidekicks, the priblatnenny. And they ran the place like a massive black zone. In the USSR prisons were divided into red and black zones. Red zones were more tightly controlled, so they were run by prison administration rules. But in black zones, prisoners were given more freedom. These zones were run by the blatny.
At the asylum, the main authority figure among the blatny was a tattooed man who went by the name of Kaban, which meant boar. I remember his chest was crammed with cathedral domes. Kaban had allegedly killed a man. He was more than happy to recount the story of how he had shot someone with his shotgun. Apparently a Militsiya officer. Somehow Kaban got an insanity plea and ended up here instead of prison. He was waited on by a pickpocket from Odessa, his own personal stooge Petya Pekhterev. A young guy. He was always fun and had a positive attitude. His appearance was very joker-like: a bowtie mouth, bangs of dirty-blond curls, light blue eyes and gold teeth.
Almost all the inmates at the asylum looked like they were weak and broken. Not the blatny, though. The blatny caste had all the stuff they wanted, including the better spots by the windows. It was just like out of a Varlam Shalamov story.
In their language, goods were called “fruktazh.” All over the country there were widespread shortages, but the blatny always had their kolbassa. Almost every night, they would toss a bag with a string into the inner courtyard. This was called “throwing the horse.” When they pulled it back up, it was full of contraband. Alcohol and soft drugs like weed were easily obtainable. They were also able to get a liquid called “Barbamil” from an orderly nicknamed Van. They used to drink the stuff and get blissed out. Obviously the administration was corrupt and turned a blind eye to all this procuring. Not to mention the drunkenness, the gatherings, the partying and the cult of prison hierarchies and rules.
The nastiest of criminals couldn’t hold a candle to the blatny of the asylum. If you were to ask me to go find some genuinely vile degenerates, well I’d start with them. They could do anything to a person just because they didn’t like them. Once when a couple of smuggler-dealers had overdosed on Barbamil—men who were very well respected among the blatny—they did an experiment where they made me sleep in the bed with one of the dead bodies. This was to test the superstition that anyone who sleeps with a dead body will die soon. They were wrong.
I never managed to live in peace with them. There were constant conflicts.
And Then There Was Mayhem
At some point during my second month, I was taught how to hide pills. There’s nothing you could do about an injection, but pills, you can hide them. Sure, you might get some fanatical nurse who would check under your tongue. But most of them couldn’t care less. Complete indifference was what protected them. Everyone knew everything that was going on—they usually just closed their eyes to it.
My diagnosis was “schizoid personality disorder.” I think the medical classification was “9B.” Besides that, my diagnosis was “enhanced” by suicidal tendencies. With an enhancement like that, you could easily be found strung up in the bathroom one day, and it would just be chalked up to the diagnosis. But there are scarier things than murder.
The blatny never really took a liking to me. Especially Petya Pekhterev, who I had had a good impression of at first. One day he took a pack of cigarettes from Kaban and hid it under my mattress. Then with his nasty voice, he announced to the whole ward that “we’ve got a rat in here.” Petya and another busybody came to my bed. They found the pack of cigarettes. And then there was mayhem.
First they just beat me, and I was forced to react to these provocations. They did this so the orderlies would have an excuse to restrain me to the bed. Then—I’m tied down—they sent an opuscheny (the lowest rung of the prison hierarchy) to come kiss me on the lips. After that, according to blatny tradition, I would be relegated to the lowest caste. But when the opuscheny came up to me, I had to get hysterical and curve out of his way. I had to do absolutely anything I could to make sure there was no contact between us. By some kind of magic, I was able to sway back and forth in my bed and get it to tip over on its side. I was miraculously saved by the fact that it hadn’t been screwed down. Then I definitely started writhing like a maniac. The opuscheny got scared and stepped away. I remember he looked demented, and his body was wasted. They called him Masha, a woman’s name.
Another form of amusement was called “television.” There was this midget in the ward. They would stick him on a chair and make him imitate the music and the sound of TV interference. He would then recite poems, anecdotes, he would retell shows, try to make jokes and sing songs.
Chifir For the Side Effects
There was obviously never going to be any healing. It wasn’t therapy—it was “routine procedures.” Once a month they called in some dudes with epaulettes on their uniforms, they’d ask a few questions, and then you could go. We had no idea a political transformation was brewing in the country. Didn’t even guess. Of course we heard snatches of different rumors, and we had regular access to the Soviet papers, which by the way, were excellent for making chifir. Chifir is like tea, except that it is so concentrated, it can be as thick as fuel oil. It is an amazing cure for a lot of side effects. For example, after an injection of chlorpromazine, it was the only thing that could bring you back to consciousness and make your blood pressure go back to normal. I remember slurping some of that bitter-as-hell chifir, and feeling a little better. Apparently it’s still very popular at psychiatric hospitals. To this day I can only drink strong black tea.
Nothing was happening. Excruciating boredom. There were no holidays to celebrate. There was no pine tree to decorate for New Year’s. A year flew by, I didn’t even notice. No television, no radio, nothing. Every day bleeds into the next. The seasons, the days, just somehow skipped past you.
Out of nowhere they put me in a car without saying anything, and drove me to the station. A train was waiting. This was how I was transferred from Kharkov to a psychiatric hospital in Kuybyshev.
PART II: KUYBYSHEV, 1985
Discharge for Disability
Conditions in Kuybyshev turned out to be more lax than in Kharkov. True, going for a walk on the grounds was still forbidden, just like in Kharkov. The one exception: shoveling snow in the inner courtyard. In square footage, it was no bigger than a three-room apartment. Up above, it was surrounded by coils of barbed wire.
Each room had about six people. Past the door were long corridors. On either side the rooms were the same. There were probably around sixty people altogether in the ward. The building was new. So it was sterile clean. Anyway, it goes without saying that the clinic also served as a research center.
Nobody ever explained to me why I was transferred from Kharkov to Kuybyshev. Well it turned out they experimented on people at Kuybyshev. There was a professor there who studied pneumoencephalography. To make a long story short, it was a cheap version of an MRI. It was brutal and you’d only ever have one done if you were poor. In terms of science, it was almost completely useless. Basically pneumoencephalography was this: they punctured your spine and pumped in compressed air, and this air was a way to contrast the meninges of the brain. After the air was pumped in, the patient—or rather, the subject—was X-rayed. So it basically showed the same thing that an MRI would show today. Except the images were low quality and blurry, fuzzy, washed out.
The doctors didn’t have to force anyone to participate. All you had to do was sign your name. They convinced us that anyone who participated would be able to go home sooner. A few people agreed and really did leave. I didn’t sign any papers—I was still in my right mind. Afterwards people who went through it stayed in the ward for a little while. Or rather, they lay in the ward like corpses and didn’t get up. Any movement came with a powerful burst of vomit. They complained of horrific headaches. They cried and wailed. None of them could stand up by themselves. They were transported on stretchers. Since I had never agreed to do it, I was often one of the people who had to carry them. Yep, they really were discharged after that. Disabled.
Torpedo Bombers on Haloperidol
They never got my consent for the experiments, so they continued the “traditional treatment.” I was injected with haloperidol and chlorpromazine. The lineup of substances was exactly the same as in Kharkov. No letting up whatsoever.
Our only joy was the television. It was in the big rec room. Besides the TV there were some old chairs. We were allowed to watch two hours a day. About eleven in the morning to one. I’ll never forget watching the movie Torpedo Bombers. It wasn’t a bad film. But that wasn’t the issue. Before watching I got my shot of haloperidol. About twenty minutes went by. I fell off my chair. On the floor, my insides were churning. I began a phase of deep despair, because the haloperidol was breaking me, quickly and completely. My body wouldn’t listen to me.
I expended my last bit of energy to somehow crawl to the corridor. Luckily a nurse happened to be walking by. I begged desperately for some Cyclodol to ease the side effects. But she kicked me away squeamishly, like I was a pile of garbage, and kept walking.
And here I am in the corridor. I’m breaking inside. I see the television out of the corner of my eye. Torpedo Bombers is still on…
The Director’s Car
I was discharged shortly after my suicide attempt. I remember that day very well. The hospital director out of nowhere came up to me and asked me to clean his car. That meant I would have to leave the building and go into the yard. It was a clear sunny day. April, I think. You could hear some upbeat music on the radio. When I was done, the director told me I would be going home the next day. Only one more night in the hospital. In the morning, they took me to the train station in the orderlies’ UAZ. Gorbachev was in power, and Perestroika was rolling in like thunder. This was how my new reality began. I realized something was different when I saw people selling Fanta at the train station. At the time, it was an unparalleled drink. It was what freedom tasted like.
Summer of 1986, I was finally home.
Andrei Dichenko was born in 1988 in Kaliningrad. A Belarusian writer and journalist writing in Russian, he is the author of the books Плиты и провалы (“Plates and Failures“) and Солнечный человек (“Sunny Man”). His play Left Dissidents, (HUNCHTheatre) was presented during the TEART Theatre Festival and was named one of the top five Belarusian theater performances of 2019. Andrei Dichenko has won several awards including the 2017 Maksim Bahdanovič Debut Award and the 2017 “Bridge of Friendship” Literary Award for his short story “Контакт” (“Contact”). In 2017, he was named “Journalist of the Year for Tolerance” for his reporting on LGBT youth in Minsk.
Slava Faybysh is a freelance translator based in Chicago. His translation of The July Revolution: Barcelona 1909, an anarchist’s recounting of the “Tragic Week” is forthcoming in July from AK Press. He is currently finishing his translation of I Want to Live My Life (1931), by Carmen de Burgos, a socialist feminist who was problematically writing about gender-identity issues. The book will be forthcoming from Song Bridge Project in 2022. His translation of Andrei Dichenko’s short story “Tick Constellations” was published on Asymptote Journal in 2018.