Psychoactive

“It’s an Exhibitionist Move to Proclaim You Have an Illness”: Who Marched with the Psychoactivists on May Day
Ilya Panin
Takie Dela
May 2, 2018

At this year’s May Day demo in Moscow, almost three dozen people marched with placards inscribed with slogans on the harm caused by stigmatizing mental illnesses. Police detained the marchers at the head of the Bolshomoskvoretsky Bridge and took them to police stations. Only a few marchers in the group managed to avoid being detained. Takie Dela found out what the psychoactivists wanted to say by marching. 


“I was treated without my knowledge: you have a right to know your diagnosis.” | “People need hope, not neuroleptics.” Psychoactivists at this year’s May Day march in Moscow. Photo by Ilya Panin. Courtesy of Takie Dela

This year, a group of psychoactivists—artists and human rights defenders, researching mental illnesses, mental quirks, and the boundaries between normal and abnormal—brought up the rear of the traditional procession organized by the Federation of Independent Trade Unions (FNPR). The marches carried placards inscribed slogans like “Antidepressants are a girl’s best friend,” “We’re coming out of the psycho-closet and expect acceptance, not a 100 years of solitude,” “I know my own diagnosis. Do you know yours?” “The affective class,” and “Stop romanticizing and depreciating us.” Ekaterina Nenasheva, an organizer of the Psychoactive Movement, leafleted passersby with flyers detailing how to behave if your loved one suffes from depression, anxiety or panic.

The group had managed to cross the Bolshoi Moskvoretsky Bridge, from the police checkpoint and the metal detectors to Basil’s Descent, when the activists were detained by regular police and riot police (OMON). As witnesses testified, the police roughed up the activists and ripped their placarads. The law enforcers could not settle on a reason for apprehending the activists. Some of them were told it was because of what written on the placards, while others were told it was because the march had not been authorized.

The detainees were split up, loaded into paddy wagons, and taken to the Basmanny and Tagansky police stations. In the paddy wagons, policemen told the activists they should have vetted their placards with the rally’s organizer, the head of the Moscow Federation of Trade Unions. However, the rally’s website indicated all comers had been welcome to join the demonstration.

“We were asked to write statements and undergo preventive discussions. Each of us was assigned our own personal police officer, who said he was informing us that, by law, it was wrong to be involved in unauthorized rallies,” said Mikhail Levin.

The activists were released several hours later without having been charged with any offenses or fined. The detainees noted they had also been questioned by Center “E” (Extremism Prevention Center) officers, who photographed their placards.

Ekaterina Nenasheva
Artist, activist, organizer of the Psychoactive Movement and the May Day bloc


Katrin Nenasheva. Photo by Ilya Panin. Courtesy of Takie Dela

People who have mental illnesses still have no place to speak out and act. Organizing the May Day bloc was an attempt to create a discursive field for people who have mental illnesses or mental quirks. What does it do for them? According to the people who were with us yesterday, community gives them the important sense that they are not alone. There was a slogan to that effect on one of the placards: “You’re not the only one in the hood.”

It is believed that people with mental disorders can only be consumers of someone’s kindness, charity, tolerance, and pity. But they are completely capable of speaking out for themselves and being a social, political, and cultural force.

Mikhail Levin
Organizer of the Psychoactive Movement and the May Day bloc
It’s a slightly exhibitionist move to proclaim you have an illness. The guys and gals marched with very personal placards about their own quirks. We also want to demand reforms in psychiatric treatment and talk about the need for deinstitutionalizaton and our disagreement with plans to ban the import of certain medicines.

Marching with trade unions, with other workers, was an important statement. We wanted to say we also produce meaning, ideas, and work. This was the first attempt to do something like this, so it is fine that we are not a united fist, that we have different demands and opinions. What we wanted was just this: to bring together people with different mental makeups and show off this polyphony.

Sasha Starost
Artist, psychoactivist, organizer of the Psychoactive May Day bloc


Sasha Starost. Photo by Ilya Panin. Courtesy of Takie Dela

I have paranoid schizophrenia. I have been hospitalized five time; three of those were involuntary. In the psychiatric field, I’m involved on an institutional level as a simultaneous interpreter and translator. Our May Day bloc was conceived as the Russian version of Mad Pride.  On the whole, however, we are more inclusive than Mad Pride, because in recent years they have shifted very hard towards antipsychiatry, and that is not for everyone. Yes, there is the system, and it is really poor organized. It contains neuropsychiatric residential care facilities and neuropsychiatric dispensaries in which nothing goes to plan and the rules are not followed, but this does not discredit the idea of psychiatry, the presence of illnesses, and the possiblity of treating them.

If we have taken the step of vetting our bloc, the demo’s organizers would have found excuses for not letting us march. I’m totally convinced that the cops saw a bloc of young people, some of them had tattoos, and they were carrying placards with slogans too boot. In their minds, there was a clear like with youth rebellions, and their immediate reaction was to remove us right away.

Alyona Agadzhikova
Media artist, journalist, photographer, organizer of the Psychoactive May Day bloc
Since childhood, I have had a few mental illnesses (OCD, agoraphobia accompanied by panic attacks, and  anxiodepressive disorder) and so for a long  time there was nowhere I could go and no one to go with me, because people’s awareness of mental health in Russia is somewhere around nil. So, I write and talk a lot about the visibility of people with similar quicks. I’m not afraid to say I have mental illnesses. I want the people in my life to pay attention to their own states of mind and offer help to people having trouble. I want the hate speech to disappear from the Russian language. People who do dumb or bad things should be not called psychos and schizos, and they do not need psychiatric treatment. All of these things have nothing to do with each other. Fortunately, things have been getting better lately, thanks to psychoactivists, journalists, and blogger doing outreach work on the rights of people with mental quirks and bringing the topic of psychiatry out of the gray zone.

What happened on May 1 was unprecedented, of course. It was the first Mad Pride in Russia, and it did not end the way everyone expected. We had come out to tell people that we people with mental illnesses existed. The people in our midst, the other marchers in the May Day demo, smiled at us, applauded us, and took our pictures. After reading our placards, several people decided to join our bloc. But then, twenty minutes or so later, a mob of riot police (OMON) and Russian National Guardsmen came running at us. They ripped our posters and our banner, confiscated all our placards, and dragged people away. Some people they practically dragged over the pavement, while they took other people by the arm. Many peole had severe panic attacks, including me. Fortunately, I always have my pills along. Otherwise, I simply would have passed out right there on the spot. That is how I react to unexpected, stressful circumstances.

My panic attack continued in the paddy wagon, but it was no longer so intense because I had taken a tranquillizer. But I suffer badly from claustrophobia, so I asked to be released from the cage, which opens from the outside. Fortunately, the riot  police immediately agreed. I think it had something to do with the fact that there have been precedents at the European Court of Human Rights, cases in which transporting claustrophobics in so-called cages and glasses has been deemed torture.

While we drove to the Basmanny police station, the law enforcers were keen to ask me why I was so nervous, what Psychoactive was about, who had diagnosed me, and why we had marched.

When I had described in detail how a panic attack works, one of the riot policemen  said, “Oh that’s nonsense. Try doing a five-kilometer cross-country run. Your heart is pumping so hard, it makes your head spin.”

I replied immediately.

“It’s the same feeling, only imagine you haven’t run five kilometers, that these feelings come on for no reason at all,” I snapped back.

The riot police exchanged glances and said, “Yeah, that’s harsh.”

Miroslava Podlesnykh
Ceramicist, animal rights advocate

Miroslava Podlesnykh. Photo by Ilya Panin. Courtesy of Takie Dela

Mental quirks and mental disorders are a topic means a lot to me, something I tried to live with for a long time without paying attention to it. Ultimately, however, I realized that living a full-fledged life meant accepting myself the way I was. I realized that if I wanted to changed the world I had to get a move on, to be around people who shared my values and views, to be part of a community.

The arrests were particularly hilarious when you could hear the announcers in the background talking about peace, labor, unity, and May, while the police were detaining a group that was just gaining the strength to assert itself, because this was an incredible effort for them. I know what a person who suffers from sociopathic disorders feels like in a crowd. Going on a demo is a huge effort, a big step towards a partial recovery.

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The psychoactivist community emerged in January 2018. Their projects have included Psychoactive, which focused on communication and creativity, and I’m Burnt Out, which dealt with emotional burnout. They also have their own brand of clothing and accessories.

Translated by the Russian Reader

How to Shut Down an Independent Trade Union in Russia

How to Shut Down an Independent Trade Union
The reason for the rapid dissolution of Alexei Etmanov’s union was a complaint about what it does: defending the rights of workers 
Pavel Aptekar
Vedomosti
January 12, 2018

The St. Petersburg City Court’s decision to dissolve the Interregional Trade Union Workers Association (MPRA) at the request of the prosecutor’s office has not yet come into force. But the case itself clearly illustrates the current regime’s suspicious attitude towards independent trade unions that do not restrict their activities to handing out discounted holiday packages and tickets to children’s New Year’s celebrations.

MPRA was registered in February 2007. Its core consisted of the trade union of autoworkers at the Ford plant in the Petersburg suburb of Vsevolozhsk, famous for its pay rise demands and defense of workers’ rights. The emergence of a trade union that vigorously and effectively defended workers at foreign-owned plants was no accident. There is no legacy at such plants of servile, Soviet-era trade unions, which were once part of the management machine. Foreign companies have been forced to deal with the right of workers to go on strike and other means of self-defense against overtime and layoffs.

According to MPRA chair Alexei Etmanov, his career as a trade union activist kicked off randomly, in part. In 2001, soon after the Ford plant went on line, as one of the leaders of the Federation of Independent Trade Unions of Russia (FNPR) local at the plant, Etmanov was invited to a congress of Ford trade union workers in North and South America. According to Etmanov, it was then he realized a real trade union not only handed out benefits and formally coordinated management’s decisions but also consistently defended the rights of employees from groundless redundancies, unpaid overtime, and other forms of managerial tyranny.

MPRA never concealed its membership in the IndustriALL Global Union, which has fifty million members in 140 countries worldwide, nor did its activities previously trouble the Russian authorities. MPRA’s troubles began after a pro-regime blogger, who saw signs of political activity in the trade union’s work and accused it of hiding its status as a “foreign agent,” filed a complaint with the prosecutor’s office. The complaint led to an audit, and later, in December 2017, the prosecutor’s office filed suit with the court, asking it to dissolve MPRA.

The prosecutor’s key claim against MPRA (Vedomosti has obtained a copy of the lawsuit) was that it received financing from abroad and had not registered as a “foreign agent.” MPRA’s crusade to amend labor laws and its solidarity with protests by Russian truckers against the introduction of the Plato road tolls system in 2015—the ordinary work of a normal trade union in a country with a market economy—have been depicted as “political activity” by the prosecutor’s office. The lawsuit also includes claims that appear to be pettifogging, in particular, that MPRA incorrectly listed its official address, that it originally registered in a manner not stipulated by law, and so on.

Yet the lawsuit does not contain any mention of demands by the prosecutor’s office to eliminate the shortcomings it has, allegedly, identified. For example, in 2015, after such demands were voiced and corresponding changes made, the Supreme Court dismissed the Justice Ministry’s suit asking that Memorial be dissolved. In Petersburg, the prosecutor petitioned the court to dissolve the trade union, no more, no less. According to Yulia Ostrovskaya, a lawyer at the Center for Social and Labor Rights, this is excessive punishment. The judgment for the plaintiff is tantamount to calling into question Russia’s observance of the International Labour Organization’s Convention No. 87 on Freedom of Association and Protection of the Right to Organize, signed by the Soviet Union in 1956. The convention’s third article guarantees the right of workers and employers to draw up their own constitutions and rules, freely elect their representatives, and formulate their own programs, while the fourth article states that professional organizations shall not be liable to be dissolved or suspended by administrative authority.

The circumstances reflect the regime’s growing suspicion toward independent trade unions that have not joined the Russian People’s Front (the FNPR joined the Front in 2011, for example) and insist on defending the rights of workers, notes Pavel Kudyukin, a council member at the Confederation of Labor of Russia. Authorities in some regions have accused the MPRA that they scare away investors, while courts have ruled that IndustriALL’s brochures are “extremist.” If, however, the Petersburg court’s decision is upheld by the Russian Supreme Court, it would be a terrible precedent, argues Kudyukin. All trade unions could declared “foreign agents,” include pro-regime trade unions, since many of them of belong to international trade union associations, from which they receive funding for training activists and making trips abroad.

Labor protests in Russia in terms of percentages of those involved, 2008–first half of 2017. Red = spontaneous; pink = trade union locals; dark blue = national trade unions; gray = workers’ committees; light blue = political parties and grassroots organizations; pale blue = other. The percentage may exceed 100% if several actors were involved in the same protest. Courtesy of the Center for Social and Labor Rights