A popular Russian-speaking Jewish satirist from Kharkiv, Leonid Osmolovskyi, had become a shadow of his former self by the 1980s. Once famed for his witty essays and part of a generation of radical thinkers, artists, journalists, poets, writers and historians who came up in the eastern Ukrainian city in the 1960s, Osmolovskyi spent his later years drinking heavily and isolated from his fellow writers and friends. He revealed towards the end of the 1970s that he had been approached by the KGB to act as an informer, an approach that he rejected.
The Soviet intelligence agency sent Osmolovskyi to an infamous psychiatric clinic, where he was “diagnosed” with schizophrenia and imprisoned for seven months as a danger to society. He was one of many intellectuals and activists subjected to Soviet terror and repression by the medical profession whose story is outlined in Olga Bertelsen’s book In the Labyrinth of the KGB: Ukraine’s Intelligentsia in the 1960s-1970s.
For the Soviet authorities, non-Russian nationalism was regarded as dangerous; attempts to unite different ethnic groups as part of the same movement were seen by the Kremlin as a threat. Such a scenario was played out in Kharkiv, a multi-ethnic and multicultural city in Uraine, where the local authorities tried to divide communities and keep them separate. Nevertheless, the city witnessed an intellectual renaissance which brought different communities together, out of which grew the idea of Ukrainian national identity.
Bertelsen’s history begins in the late 1950s when Nikita Khrushchev was in power in Moscow. He initially pursued a policy dubbed by some as “de-Stalinisation”. Under Joseph Stalin, the USSR witnessed extreme violence and repression aimed at various groups, and Ukraine was hit particularly hard by the Soviet dictator’s policies. For example, Kharkiv had a thriving Jewish culture; Yiddish was spoken widely and literature was produced in the language. However, under Stalin, Jewish schools and education were abolished and Jews lived under constant suspicion of being Jewish nationalists and Zionists. The generation that grew up after Stalin did not have the same level of fluency in Yiddish as those who went before.
When Khrushchev took over, he enacted policies to encourage cultural openness and Ukrainian intellectuals rushed to embrace the new freedoms. The Shistdesiatnytstvo was a cultural movement born out of this change. “In the 1960s,” writes Bertelsen, “the Ukrainians began to define themselves as a nation because of the Ukrainian language and literature published by the Shistdesiatnysky.” While the Soviets were happy to allow poetry, literature and art in Ukrainian, the fact that it seemed to be strengthening Ukraine’s national identity alarmed Moscow, and a clampdown soon followed.
As Bertelsen’s book shows, this had an unintended consequence. The Shistdesiatnytstvo had encouraged Kharkiv’s different political, ethnic and religious groups to start expressing themselves openly at the same time. The KGB tactic of “divide and rule” backfired among Kharkiv’s intellectuals, because “re-Stalinisation had the unintended effect of facilitating cross-generational and cross-ethnic bonds and friendships among Ukrainians, Russians and Jews among Kharkiv literati, based on their mutual feelings of respect, their appreciation for each other’s literary gifts, and their longing for freedom of expression.” In other words the repression brought them together.
Indeed, the scale of Soviet repression in Ukraine was vast. Bertelsen cites statistics which show that between 1927 and 1990, around one million people were arrested and approximately 140,000 were shot. As illustrated by the example of Leonid Osmolovskyi, the Soviet authorities used mental institutions and psychiatry for overtly political and repressive purposes. The weaponisation of psychology by Moscow saw cultural and political dissidents determined by local doctors to be “mentally ill”; such doctors were encouraged to look out for “atypical” symptoms of psychological ailments. Using Michel Foucault’s contention about the state’s use of medical and therapeutic intervention to prevent the spread of “harmful ideas”, Bertelsen says, “The diagnosis of mental sickness became an effective tool of camouflage which bolstered the legal means of fighting against the opposition: conveniently for the state, critically thinking individuals were forcibly hospitalised for indefinite terms.”
In The Labyrinth of the KGB… offers a new and original insight into the experiences of non-Russian intellectuals in the USSR and the cultural history of Ukraine. A key issue with western historiography and political analysis today is a tendency to view the history of the USSR and former Soviet countries through the prism of Russian intellectual elites. This is reinforced by exclusive use of Moscow-based archives to determine what happened across the USSR.
However, Olga Bertelsen critiques this approach sharply, and her use of literary sources from Kharkiv demonstrates a different reality and alternatives for our understanding. As Russia’s war in Ukraine continues, there is a growing realisation among many in the West that Central and Eastern Europe need to be taken more seriously. A book like Bertelsen’s In the Labyrinth of the KGB… should contribute to the development of a new appreciation for what Ukraine — and other former Soviet republics — experienced as part of the USSR. It has immense relevance to what is happening in Ukraine today.