Leonard Ternovsky, 1933-2006

“A word already spoken, lives on”, Academician Andrei Sakharov said from exile in the dark days of 1980. “The human rights movement in the USSR cannot disappear without trace: new people with their unique souls and destinies, continually make new contributions.”

Dr. Leonard Ternovsky, who has died in Moscow at the age of 73, stepped up to fill the breach more than once in his life, for the first time in 1978, when he joined the small group investigating the punitive uses of psychiatry, just 10 days after its founder had been arrested on a serious political charge. The USSR’s practice of sectioning people whose views it considered harmful, was beginning to register with parts of the world psychiatric community and cause disgust. Covering the traces was an important part of the Soviet agenda at the time. Before his own arrest came in 1980, Dr. Ternovsky helped smuggle out at least 13 bulletins of psychiatric case materials and compile four more. In 1982 the Soviet body withdrew from the World Psychiatric Association, and an end to psychiatric abuse was made a condition of its return.

Dr. Ternovsky was charged with “circulating anti-Soviet slander”, given a three-year sentence that he served in the Urals and central Siberia, then returned to his job as a radiologist in Moscow’s Hospital No 15, where he was evidently appreciated by patients, who included ex-prisoners, unable to get treatment elsewhere – and staff, who thronged the church at his funeral, and two of whom had dared to testify in his favour at his trial. 

Leonard Ternovsky was a prolific writer and his articles capture three distinct atmospheres in Moscow during the periods of de-Stalinisation, perestroika, and post-Soviet Russia beyond. Nikita Khrushchev’s denunciation of Stalin in 1956 coincided with Dr Ternovsky’s graduation from medical school and what he described as the time of his “civic awakening”. He wrote: “I realised that no matter how insignificant I am on a national scale, I am still responsible for all, for everything that goes on at national level… as a doctor I felt special responsibility for what was being done in the name of medicine. Usually protests are not enough to combat specific evil, but I still think protest is not wasted. Protest against injustice heals society”.

In a wry piece on the Moscow Helsinki Group’s website in May 2005, he recalled the limitations of ‘perestroika’: “Mikhail Gorbachov’s perestroika dawned in glorious technicolour. ‘New thinking’ was proclaimed and prisoners from the Brezhnev era were freed. The main point of my court sentence was that I had fabricated slander about political psychiatry, but now even major newspapers were writing about it in editions of millions; the government had owned up to it, and Soviet psychiatrists had been re-admitted to the World Psychiatric Association. Furthermore, the law used to convict me, had been expunged from the penal code. So I wrote asking for a judicial review of my sentence in 1990, and back came the reply: “Your sentence was just. There are no grounds to review it”.

One of Leonard Ternovsky’s last pieces was about the Moscow trial of the YUKOS oilmen, Mikhail Khodorkovsky and Platon Lebedev, both sentenced to nine years’ imprisonment in 2005. A poll for a TV channel had revealed that 100% of the viewers thought the trial was a sham, arranged by the government, but over half thought it was still justified. In “The Law, the Nod and the Wink” Dr Ternovsky wrote: “Call me a crazy optimist, but this is no cause for despair. 40% of viewers can already see that the courts should be in thrall to no one – only the law”.

Measured optimism seems to have been a part of Leonard Ternovsky’s make-up. It is quite astonishing to read the final statement he made before the court at his trial in 1981. He said: “Your sentence is your involuntary acknowledgement of what I have been doing and saying. And my rehabilitation in future is as inevitable as your judgement today.” Dr Ternovsky was rehabilitated in October 1991, but not before the USSR had collapsed.

Dr. Leonard Ternovsky, born Moscow 6 September 1933, died Moscow 14 February 2006.

Marjorie Farquharson The Independent, 20 March 2006