Natalya Gorbanevskaya, Soviet Dissident and Poet, Dies at 77

“Are you insane
As they say you are
Or just forsaken?”

“One must begin by postulating that truth is needed for its own sake and no other reason.”—Natalya Gorbanevskaya

Natalya was born in Moscow and graduated from Leningrad University in 1964. A poet, Natalya was also one of eight protesters in the 1968 Red Square demonstration against the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia. Having recently given birth, Natalya was not immediately tried with the other demonstrators, but was later arrested in December 1969 and imprisoned in a psikhushka, a Soviet psychiatric prison, until February 1972.

“And in the USSR when you do something naughty they throw you in the mental hospital and tell you you’re cuckoo and try to get everybody else to believe it, and the terrible thing is is that sometimes you get to believing it too.

But there is one woman named Natalya Gorbanevskaya who never believed it.

She’s very very strong and she wrote a poem about the invasion of Czechoslovakia.

She thought it was a very poor idea, and when she wrote the poem the government of the USSR thought that she was a very poor idea and they put her in the ol’ bug house.

She was pregnant at the time. She was very strong. And she convinced herself she would be fine, she would have her child, and she would go on speaking out.

So every time she comes out of the looney bin, she writes another poem and they put her back in.

But!—It is because of people like Natalya Gorbanevskaya, I am convinced, that you and I are still alive and walking around on the face of the earth.” — Joan Baez

In the Soviet Union, psychiatric hospitals were often used by the authorities as prisons in order to isolate political prisoners from the rest of society, discredit their ideas, and break them physically and mentally; as such they were considered a form of torture.

Sluggishly Progressing Schizophrenia

Soviet psychiatrists diagnosed Gorbanevskaya and other dissidents with “sluggishly progressing schizophrenia”, a special form of the illness that supposedly affects only the person’s social behavior, with no trace on other traits: “most frequently, ideas about a struggle for truth and justice are formed by personalities with a paranoid structure,” according to the Moscow Serbsky Institute.

According to American psychiatrist Peter Breggin, the term “sluggish schizophrenia” was created to justify involuntary treatment of political dissidents with drugs normally used for psychiatric patients.

Natalia with her two children.

Mentally Normal

Three years later Gorbanevskaya emigrated to Paris where French psychiatrists examined her and found her to be mentally normal concluding that in 1969-1972 she had been committed to a psychiatric hospital for political, not medical reasons. [See Bloch, Sidney; Reddaway, Peter (1985). Soviet psychiatric abuse: the shadow over world psychiatryWestview Press. p. 201. ISBN 0-8133-0209-9.]

Red Square at Noon

Natalya’s Red Square At Noon includes translations of Gorbanevskaya’s poems, a transcript of her trial, papers relating to her hospital detention, and an assessment by a British psychiatrist of her mental condition.

Read excerpt from Red Square at Noon: “What I remember of the demonstration


As a poet, Natalya expressed the longing for dignity and happiness in times of suffering and despondency—

“In my own twentieth century
where there are more dead than graves
to put them in, my miserable
forever unshared love
among those Goya images
is nervous, faint, absurd,
as, after the screaming of jets,
the trump of Jericho.”

Natalya Gorbanevskaya, Soviet dissident and poet, dies at 77.

This August, on the 45th anniversary of her arrest in Red Square, Ms. Gorbanevskaya returned there with nine other demonstrators to commemorate the protest. They were arrested on charges of holding an unsanctioned rally.


Joan Baez sings a tribute to USSR political prisoner Natalya Gorbanevskaya on the live album From Every Stage (1976), lyrics by Iranian singer/songwriter Shusha Guppy.

Weaver of words
Who lives alone
In fear and sorrow
Where are the words
To set you free
Perhaps tomorrow
Where is the earth
Where is the sky
Where is the light
You long for
What hope of you
Where you are now
Natalya Gorbanevskaya

Inside the ward
Naked and cruel
Where life is stolen
From those who try
To stay alive
And not be broken
Where are the friends
Where are the men
Who among them
Can defend you
Where is the child
You’ll never see
Natalya Gorbanevskaya

What else there lives
Behind the door
That never opens
Are you insane
As they say you are
Or just forsaken
Are you still there
Do you still care
Or are you lost forever
I know this song
You’ll never hear
Natalya Gorbanevskaya


Leave a Reply