Falling down the memory hole: Reflections on the 1980s Soviet counterculture, Part 4

Alexander Mikhaylov


It was a cold and sickly gray February morning of 1983 when I walked into a shrink’s office and said that I had a severe mental and drug problem. The office belonged to Kirov’s District Psychiatric clinic of the city of Leningrad. The shrink I was to see was Dr. Dvorkin.  My ‘system’ friends especially recommended him to me as a man who could be trusted, who knew ‘what’s up’ and who ‘understood’ and ‘approved.’ It was a popular but totally fictitious belief: that some Jewish shrinks were such anti-Soviet dissenters that they knowingly granted the ‘system people’ fake diagnoses that released the latter from the draft. Of course, Jewish shrinks were more lenient to young Jewish patients, but still they followed the official regulations. I learned about this only later.

So here he was — a jolly Jewish fellow of staggering proportions with spectacular jowls hanging on a collar of his white medical coat (obese people were extremely rare in the Soviet Union — he was the third truly obese man I had met in my life).  

A short interview ensued. Dr. Dvorkin enquired about my political and religious views, asked what kind of books I was fond of (Remarque, Freud and eh…Solzhenitsyn…). I showed him my arms peppered with dull red or freshly inflamed ‘tracks.’ Shrink’s attitude towards me was friendly but matter of fact.

-So, I understand you believe yourself to be unable to perform the military service, am I correct?

I nodded.

-All right then. You are clearly not fit. But keep this in mind — for you to get a clearance would mean at least a month in a psychiatric hospital. We have a production plan too, you know.

So, early one evening, an ambulance, or as they called it ‘a transport’, arrived three hours late to take me to the psychiatric hospital. I was stripped of all my clothes while an elderly nurse rummaged through my hair performing the customary search for lice. I was given a hospital gown and underwear both of which smelled of something putrid and was finally delivered to a teenage prison-type ward that contained about a hundred teenagers and, strangely, a handful of adults. All the adults were ‘chronics’ — sad human hulks in various stages of mental and physical disintegration. The teens, with the exception of a dozen genuine mental cases, were guys pretty much like me — army dodgers — or inmates of juvenile penal colonies waiting for court-ordered psychiatric examination. The hospital staff was also wonderfully diverse: all the low-level workers such as cleaning people and day and night nurses were Ukrainians and Russians and all the head nurses and the shrinks, including the head of the ward, were Jews.

It took for me a couple of hours to develop some serious doubts. Thus, when I walked into a restroom for a smoke and watched in a cold horror as two thugs mercilessly beat some poor mewling idiot, I began to get scared. (It was a casual sport of some rough guys with itchy fists to beat up helpless chronics while nurses were not watching.) It slowly began to dawn on me that I might have made a terrible mistake.

I remained in hospital for two months. Upon my release I was emaciated with hunger, tired from daily violence and half crazy after intense medical treatment. In addition, I received the heaviest diagnosis of all — schizophrenia. I had been happy to get out of there alive. Privately I had hoped that my worst days were over but in reality it was only beginning.

After the release I continued to drift in and out of ‘the system’ for a couple more years. My disenchantment with it and its people had really begun while I was still in hospital. Curiously enough, in the hospital I met one of my former band mates (a Jew) who was also ‘doing his time’ dodging the conscription. As far as I knew, he arrived at the hospital ‘clean’; he had not bothered with gruesome things like heavy drugs and injections. He told me that he had simply faked mental disturbance by ‘acting funny in front of his mother so everyone figured out he was a nut case’. Only months and months later, when I met him again, he admitted that his mother knew the head shrink at the psychiatric hospital personally so he was hospitalized without troubles for two weeks (instead of a normal month) and at the end, was given the lightest possible diagnosis (which did not hinder his educational or employment prospects). I remember how his aunt used to come over to the closed ward daily, bringing him food so he would not eat the garbage the rest of us were fed.

But it was actually later, some months after my own release when I began to experience some strange events, like periodic arrests and visits from the KGB that continued to haunt me up until the day I left the USSR as a political refuge.

*   *   *   *

It was a common knowledge among ‘the people’ that a lot of them were police informers. Some of them did not even bother to hide this fact from their brethren; some even bragged about it. I recalled a funny instance when at a ‘session’ at an apartment a KGB ID was found on the floor (apparently someone dropped it by accident).

I knew several people who readily admitted their association with the KGB. Sometimes it was funny; one of them, a guy I actually met at a psychiatric hospital, had been giving me reports on the interest the KGB was taking in me! I did not know if he made it up or not, but many of his warnings proved to be true: I was often stopped on the street by undercover agents, arrested, and questioned—exactly as he predicted.

When the KGB or police detained the ‘people’, the usual charge was ‘anti-Soviet activity’, even though they often came up with serious criminal charges just to get things moving. The KGB seemed to believe that ‘the system’ was full of foreign agents, terrorists and other enemies of the state. In reality however, ‘the system’ was deeply apolitical. About the only thing the majority of its members could do was to proselytize naïve utopian visions of an ideal pacifist society.  They were ignorant of political science and economics, and didn’t even bother to hide it — academic knowledge was not considered cool.

Despite the lack of political involvement, ‘the system’ was interested in promoting the Jewish cause, but clandestinely and indirectly, with all due caution.  One example was a movement which aimed at the noble goal of propagating ‘freedom and peace loving’ ideas to the wider population of non-Jewish youth and especially young street gang members. (There was an abundance of such gangs in working class neighborhoods of the city.)  Idealistic ‘people of the system’ took steps to ‘enlighten’ the ‘urla’. (The name ‘urla’ was a derivative from ‘urka’ — a thug or an ex-convict or simply a criminal — in this case, working class young goyim).

But the ‘urla’ weren’t interested. They liked to act tough; they despised weird hairdos and regarded those who wore them as ‘faggots’ and sexual perverts. Besides, ‘the system’ was mainly a Jewish thing and the Jewish youths were regarded as dorks, nerds and outsiders. Or as spoiled brats from privileged families.

‘The people’ and the ‘urla’ were complete opposites. ‘The people’ listened to ‘intellectual’ music the ‘urla’ found boring. ‘The people’ dressed with a ‘sophisticated’ shabbiness, while the ‘urla’ loved flashy outfits. ‘The people’ smoked cannabis; the ‘urla’ drank vodka. And above all, the ‘urla’ were not interested in promoting the Jewish cause, or in anything Jewish. In fact, the ‘urla’ were xenophobic, nationalistic, prudish and parochial as opposed to ‘the people’ who were cosmopolitan and sexually permissive.

So despite their best attempts to bring their brilliant ideas to the ‘great unwashed’, the people of the ‘system’ had no message that would appeal to the ‘urla’. That the Soviet system was bad was clear enough for everyone, even hoodlums. But there was no common ground: neither group offered an alternative political or economic model.

Incidentally, despite their egalitarian ideology, ‘the system’ was based on a hierarchy even if it was not evident from the outside. The hierarchy was a simple one. There were novices who tried to gain an admission to the inner circles. They were called the ‘pioneers’. (The Pioneers was the state-run organization of young Communists that all schoolchildren belonged to from the age of 11 to 14 yrs.)  Female ’pioneers’, just as female ‘sistemny’ in general, were treated as sexual objects and any male who wanted to have sex with them was entitled to do so. It was rather funny in a sad sort of way that despite the liberal attitudes that they never tired of spouting in public, it was permeated with the basest sexism.  Gays and lesbians weren’t discussed much. No one was ‘hot’ on this topic. Homosexuality was not denounced, but it was looked upon as a sort of quaintness—a harmless deviation from normalcy. It was thought of as a personal idiosyncrasy and a sort of ‘kinkiness.’  There could be and probably were some senior leaders or the real ‘inner circle’ who were homosexuals, but I never came near it and can only speculate on its existence.

Go to  Part 5.

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