Liberated Russia becomes a giant domain of the insane

A middle-aged man, smart in a black overcoat and red velvet scarf but with an odd pudding-bowl haircut, waved as my car drew up outside the Home for Incurable Mental Patients in Yelets. Here was a rarity, a visitor. "I am Vasily Knyazev. I am a dissident," he announced.

The home's doctor, Stanislav Golipov, did not prevent Mr Knyazev from speaking out. On the contrary, he encouraged him to tell his story. "My wife betrayed me," he said. "She wanted to get her hands on my flat. So she put me in the mental hospital in Lipetsk [a nearby town]. I complained to the prosecutor, so the doctors falsely diagnosed schizophrenia and sent me here. There are other normal people in Lipetsk. I can give you lists of names. They have put me in the madhouse illegally. I am a normal person. I have higher education. I used to be a driver, first class ... Now I wash the floors and feed the cows."

Dr Golipov said afterwards: "Absolutely bonkers. He was violent to his wife. But he could be released if there was somebody to keep an eye on him. I have told him that if his brother comes to collect him, he can go. But the brother does not come. He's not a poor man. He brought several million roubles with him when he came to the home. But nobody cares about him."

Dr Golipov admitted that in Communist times political dissidents were neutralised in mental hospitals, although he said he had not personally been involved in the abuse of psychiatry. "It mostly happened in Moscow. I was just a provincial doctor."

Since 1992 Russia has had a law making it impossible to commit a person without proper medical evidence and a court order. "If someone is here," said the doctor, "it is either because he is a danger to himself or others . . . or simply because he has nowhere else to go." Conditions in the home were basic but no worse than in many provincial Russian hotels. Rooms were clean, and some Western medicines were available. The staff toilet was a hole in the ground, shielded by a metal box, in the middle of a field. But then in my hotel, the best in Yelets, a rat scuttled in the bathroom.

There were some severely handicapped people in the home. Yet on the surface, others seemed more or less normal. Pasha and Petya, in their twenties, were rejected by their parents and grew up in children's homes from where, aged 18, they were transferred to the mental home. "We call them `carnival children'," said the doctor. "The unwanted children of drunks." They were not very bright but could have lived in society if only anybody wanted them. Now they are hopelessly institutionalised. Petya said: "I had a family once but no one visits me. Who needs me?"

Dr Golipov said: "The whole of Russia is a giant lunatic asylum. But yes, my patients are madder in the sense that they lack commonly accepted logic; they suffer distortions of perception."

The home had a secure cell, for use if patients became violent but mostly they wandered freely. The most trusted ones were allowed to go into town to spend their state benefits, around pounds 7 a month.

A patient took me to one side and said the management stole food and clothes donated for the patients. They also shut patients up while they had drinking parties and made exclusive use of the sauna, which was supposed to be for the inmates, he said. It might be true; it might not.

The light was fading; the inmates had been shut up for the night. At an upper window they stood in a row, waving goodbye.

Once, freethinkers were locked up in Russian mental institutions, so they could not challenge the totalitarian society outside. Now, free spirits are no longer locked away. Instead, there sometimes seems to be little difference between the plight of the disoriented inmates, and the equally disoriented and poverty-stricken population out in the wider Russian world.