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“Punitive psychiatry can be used on everyone”: Human rights activists on Putin’s “institute for LGBT studies”

The Russian government is preparing to use punitive psychiatry on anyone whose “social behavior” does not please the state, according to human rights activists Nef Cellarius and Maksim Olenichev. In a conversation with The Insider, the activists responded to a recent statement from Russia’s Health Minister Mikhail Murashko on the creation of an institute “to study the behavior” of LGBTQ+ people and their “social behavior” – following a direct order from Vladimir Putin.

According to Cellarius, Murashko's statement suggested not only the possible return of torture conversion therapy, but also mass government repression of anyone. In turn, Maxim Olenichev is convinced that mass conversion therapy is still a long way off, but punitive psychiatry can indeed affect anyone.

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The order became public knowledge following the remarks of Russia’s Minister of Health Mikhail Murashko, who was answering a question from MP Anatoly Wasserman during a first reading of a bill banning gender transitions in the State Duma on June 14.

“There is now a presidential directive to create an additional institute at our federal Center for Psychiatry to study not only these, but also a number of [other] behavioral areas, including social behavior. Therefore, this direction will also be further taken into mandatory scientific study, in addition to what we are doing today,” said Murashko.

Nef Cellarius, coordinator of the LGBTQ+ transgender peer counseling program for the group Coming Out (Vykhod):

At the moment in Russian psychiatry, only being transgender is considered a “diagnosis.” Russia uses an outdated version of the International Classification of Diseases, ICD 10, in which homosexuality has already been removed from the list of diseases, but the diagnosis F64.0 – “Transsexualism” – remains.

Modern medicine considers actions aimed at reducing gender dysphoria as “treating” transgenderism: hormone therapy, the opportunity to socialize in one’s desired gender role, and surgical interventions aimed at correcting the appearance of one’s body. You read that correctly – in considering a bill on banning “sex changes,” the government is proposing to ban treatments that are recommended by Russian psychiatrists themselves.

When we hear about the “treatment” of homosexuality, it is important to understand that homosexuality is not a disease. This means that any attempt to somehow “correct” or “cure” a homosexual person is conversion therapy. The same applies to attempts to “fix” a transgender person.
Conversion therapy is a direct violation of one’s human rights; it is outlawed in many countries across the world world, and in some countries it is equated with torture. Unfortunately, there are statements being made in Russia now that can be interpreted as suggestions to return to this monstrous practice.

Separately, I would like to emphasize this. Murashko said: “the creation of an institute to study not only these, but also a number of behavioral trends, including social behavior.” Unfortunately, it can be understood that – if such an institute is created – punitive psychiatry will be applied not only to transgender or homosexual people, but to any people whose “social behavior” the state does not like – opposition activists, eco-activists... anyone.

We already had a similar practice in the USSR. And it seems to me that by “trying out” punitive psychiatry on LGBTQ+ people, it would be very easy for the state to switch to cis-hetero people. That's why we can't keep quiet now.

Maxim Olenichev, Russian lawyer, human rights activist

At this time, there is no reliable information that the government is creating methods of conversion therapy or in any way supports their existing methods. Based on the dialogue between State Duma deputy Anatoly Wasserman and Russian Health Minister Mikhail Murashko, we can conclude that the Serbsky Center – the country’s leading psychiatric research institution – will study multiple issues related to human behavior, “including social behavior.” Gender identity is not a matter of social behavior. It is a matter of one's self-identity. At the same time, conversion therapy is aimed at artificially correcting a particular person's gender identity outside of social behavior.
From this I conclude that the dialogue that took place cannot be recognized as an attempt to introduce conversion therapy at the state level in Russia. There are no facts confirming these attempts. Any claims to the contrary unreasonably increase anxieties among transgender people.
Gender identity is not a matter of social behavior. It is a matter of one’s self-identity

Indeed, after the adoption of the new law “On the ban of LGBT propaganda” in Russia, which came into force on December 5, 2022, the State Duma has not abandoned the idea of adopting new legislation restricting and discriminating against LGBT people amid a wave of populism. Among them is the bill on banning gender transitions, currently under consideration. And it would seem that in this logic, the state can raise the question of the implementation of anti-scientific ideas about conversion therapy at the state level – with the support of the Russian Ministry of Health. However, there is no evidence of such state action.

Such practices have long been condemned in the medical community as violations of human rights. Not a single proven case of the “correction” of sexual orientation or gender identity as a result of psychiatric influence on LGBT people exists.

However, there are private clinics in Russia where, at the insistence of their parents, LGBT youth are placed to “correct” their sexual orientation or gender identity. From a human rights perspective, these practices are torture, which is prohibited by the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR). Russia has pledged to abide by [the ICCPR].

In these private clinics, LGBT adolescents and adults are held against their will, locked up in conditions of unfreedom, handcuffed and suspended in the air, and forced to take drugs that do not “cure” but cripple their health. These “centers” are widespread in the [North] Caucasus and in other regions with strong patriarchal attitudes. What these centers do has nothing in common with the law or medicine. Under the guise of “treatment,” they not only cripple the fate of LGBT people, but also extort hundreds of thousands of roubles from their relatives, effectively deceiving them, as they cannot “cure” homosexuality or transgenderism — no one has succeeded in doing so.

Return to Soviet practices of “correcting” people's behavior

I think that Murashko spoke in general terms, and his statement doesn’t support the introduction of conversion therapy at the state level. However, he could be talking about a return to Soviet practices of studying people's social behavior and its possible future “adjustment.” The Russian authorities are not interested in LGBT people's issues – they are used to divert the attention of people in the country from the internal failures of the Russian authorities and Russia's ongoing war in Ukraine. And the authorities fear the emergence of new protests, which they have managed to suppress over the past few years, destroying civil society in Russia. That is why Murashko could talk about approaches to punitive psychiatry, but not specifically targeted at LGBT people (in fact, the authorities are not interested in this problem, but pretend to divert public attention to made-up “LGBT propaganda”). Instead, [punitive psychiatry] could be used against individual activist citizens across the country.

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