Some Testimonies About Forced Anti-Alcoholism Measures Among Saami People in the Soviet Union
In one of my first encounters with an elder Saami on the Kola Peninsula (Russia) about five years ago I was told about an institution with the weird name Prophylactic Medical Labour Camp (russ. lechebno-trudovoi profilaktorii, or just LTP). What I was told about it was short but impressive, and can be summarised as follows: Heavy drinkers could be sent to an LTP for up to one and a half years where they would undergo a compulsory therapy which consisted of mysterious tablets and heavy physical work. In fact, this was an imprisonment without a criminal lawsuit. In terms of law, it was a purely administrative measure. The system of the LTPs was created in the end of the 1960s, and very soon all of the Soviet Union was covered with a network of such institutions. In Russia it was abolished in 1994 due to unconstitutionality, and nowadays the only post-soviet countries which have kept the system of the LTPs are – how symptomatic! – Belarus and Turkmenistan.
In Desperate Search of Information
In Lovozero, the artificially created “capital” of the Kola Peninsula Saami, the LTPs happen to be one of the major topics upsetting my informants. But it lies under the surface and nobody speaks easily about it. The following account is based purely on oral information, and none of the facts described here have been reported by any other means yet. I am presenting these impressive testimonies in a still completely unstructured form, but, in my opinion, with an absolutely striking and until now very little known content.
What I could find out preliminarily in Lovozero was that an above-average quantity of Saami people have been to the LTPs during the 1970s and 1980s. In almost every family one can hear of some – mostly defunct – relatives who have been there. But what are the reasons for it? Ending up in the LTP can be considered as one of the social consequences of the liquidation of traditional settlements (siidas) on the Kola Peninsula, ensuing massive psycho-social adaptation problems for the population. During soviet times (roughly between the 1930s and 1970s) nearly all siidas on the Kola Peninsula have been closed down due to several reasons, such as industrialisation, infrastructure projects or military needs (more information about the resettlements on the Kola Peninsula is available here: Afanasyeva 2013 and Allemann 2013). It is well-known that after the most significant resettlements to Lovozero (between 1959 and 1969) there was a lack of housing and of permanent jobs for the newcomers. The adaptation of the relocated population was aggravated by soft factors like strong prejudices among the local, dominant Komi and Russian population towards the resettled and sedentarised Saami population. Without going into detail, it has to be underlined that alcoholism became a major problem especially among the forcibly relocated population. And without any doubt, the relocated people occupied the lowest social level in Lovozero. A commonplace confirmation of this, which I was told about again and again and which I could easily notice myself, is the fact that most Saami families living in apartment blocks in Lovozero have their flats at the ground or the last floor. They are much chillier and exposed to potential break-in, which makes them last-choice. Even in apartment blocks especially built for people relocated from closed down siidas, the ruling locals in many cases made sure that the better flats were distributed among their friends and relatives. On the local labour market the situation was similar. Social status, as well as alcoholism, were both reasons why the Lovozero County delivered to the LTPs mostly Saami people.
Mothers, brothers, sisters and children sometimes aren’t willing, but very often just aren’t able to give extensive information about the LTPs, even if some close relative had been there several times (which was common). They explain this with the stigmatization of those coming back. While struggling for finding a new job and place in the community, the returners usually wouldn’t willingly share their LTP experiences even among their family members, and many relatives refrained from asking questions. Most people know, these days, that at the time the notorious abbreviation LTP was sarcastically rethought by the people as “Letno-trenirovochnyi polk” (Flight Training Unit).
Looking for the “Flight Training Unit”
As I couldn’t obtain much more information about the LTP in the beginning of my stay, I just decided to visit a former “Flight Training Unit” myself. There were, altogether, three Units on the whole Kola Peninsula, one in Olenegorsk, one in Apatity and one in Koashva (30 km from Apatity). As those Lovozerians about whom I was told (all men) were sent to Apatity, I tried to find out the location of that Unit. Thanks to the guiding of Nadezhda*, a Saami woman living in Apatity, this was no difficult task. As we arrived together to the grim building in the outskirts of the city and I saw the tiny sign stating “Federal Penitentiary Service” I quickly realised that it would not take a long time until somebody would appear and ask what we want here. It meant that the facility’s use cannot have changed much since the abandonment of the “Flight Training Units”. I was right, and while I was walking around with my camera, a man appeared and, with a motionless expression, asked who we are and what we want. He quickly grew mellow when he recognised Nadezhda, who is about the same age as him, and who turned out to have had common professional ties in the far soviet past. Fortunately, Nadezhda’s presence was reason enough to make this initially rigorous looking man softer and recall the good old times…
Conversations with an Alien
Being well aware of my foreign “status” he introduced himself as Igor but refrained from telling his full name. Igor has been working his whole professional life (presumably 30-40 years) at this unit and is now the director but, as it seems, there’s hardly anybody he can give orders . Although officially this unit has been converted into a juvenile correctional facility, after the LTPs were closed down in 1994 it has never seen any inmate again, apparently because of the rough climate conditions in the area which would not allow keeping there any minors. While narrating, the “softened” man periodically interrupted himself reminding us that – “after all” – I’m a foreigner and he works in a certain structure which does not allow him to disclose to me all details, especially figures (here I unmistakably felt the disadvantage of not being an in-group member!). Nevertheless, it was extremely revealing to listen to Igor and interesting to watch his inner struggle about what to tell me and what not. What Igor told me is of great value because there are, as far as I can see for now (and Igor acknowledged), almost no scholarly analyses of the LTP system except of medical literature from soviet times, which is of little use if you’re not a doctor. So here is my attempt to recall some details of the conversation with Igor which, of course, I wasn’t allowed to record on my audio device.
As already mentioned above, the “clients” (one of the commonly used designations for the inmates) of the LTP used to be sent there without any criminal lawsuit. There was a decision – not a sentence – of a court, which in its turn, was based on a medical assessment report as well as on testimonies of family members, neighbours, colleagues and superiors, and the police. In the written as well as in the spoken language of the law enforcement workers the LTPs were never referred to as prisons. The inmates were “patients” and they were “treated” there; adherence to this terminology was very important. The food was of much higher quality than in prisons, as it was part of the medical treatment. The Unit had an own pharmacy where the drugs used to be prepared. The “labour therapy” (russ. trudoterapiia) consisted in simple work both inside the camp (e.g. sewing uniforms or labelling bottles) as well as outside (e.g. cleaning streets and other municipal duties). The camp was not surrounded by barbed wire and it was potentially easy to leave the territory but, nevertheless, there were only very few attempts to escape.
When entering the LTP, every new “patient” had to sign a paper that he refused voluntary treatment and that he knew he was not permitted to leave the territory without authorization. Breaking this rule involved a criminal lawsuit and a prison term.
Back to Lovozero
After this unexpected encounter I headed back for Lovozero, where I managed to collect among Saami people some isolated testimonies about the LTPs:
The choice about who was to be sent to an LTP was made very carefully and under the consideration of many different factors, among which social status was one of the most important ones. According to some informants there were secret or unofficial quotas for sending people to the LTPs, which would serve as a quality measurement of the police’s work. Moreover, employers (in Lovozero these were mainly the Sovkhoz and the so-called Rybkoop) as well as the local administration were interested in sending people to the LTP as a way to disguise the de-facto unemployment. Concerning the decision about who should be “selected”, it was often considered more “humane” to send somebody to an LTP who did not have a family. This is an additional reason why mostly Saami men from relocated families were affected (most of the Saami men who were unmarried at the moment of their relocation remained bachelors for their whole life, whereas among women exogamy was the most popular way out of the dull situation; but this is another problem on which one could write another article). According to one testimony, shortly before the alcohol sale time limit at the shops (7 p.m.) the prison car would start collecting people drinking outside. Already on the spot they used to sort out the caught people depending on their status (for example party members, raiispolkom members etc. were always quickly released).
Some more information about the medication itself: one of the most notorious drugs was (and is) Antabus. Its idea is that it would create an unbearable abomination towards alcoholic drinks. At the LTPs the treatment always started with the same ritual: The inmates should stand in a row. They were given the tablet and a glass of vodka, after which the “patients” were kept in the row until they subsequently began to have severe nausea and vomit attacks. Another medication used to provoke a state of anxiety, often mortal fear, when mixed with alcohol. The personnel always checked if the “patients” didn’t hide the tablets somewhere in their mouth. This therapy, called “fear therapy” (russ. strakhoterapiia) by the inmates, was supposed to lead to a permanent aversion towards alcohol. The whole procedure used to be repeated regularly. Many of my informants are convinced that the LTP shortened the lives of their “clients” because the applied medication affected the liver. Taking into account that most of the former inmates returned to the LTP several times and always resumed drinking after serving their terms, the alternation between alcohol and medication, both attacking the liver, led to a quick death. I could figure out only one “positive” aspect of the LTP system, at least from the perspective of some of my informants: While a drinker was locked away, the wife, children and neighbours could “at least have a rest” from him.
Everybody, even Igor, acknowledged that in the overwhelming majority of the cases the treatment at the LTPs was not successful. Most former “patients” used to drink again already during the very first days of their freedom. One taxi driver from Apatity told me that the freed LTP inmates were always his best customers. Often equipped with a bunch of cash (the accumulated wage was paid at the end of the term optionally either to the bank account or in cash), the former “patients” treated themselves to a taxi to their home (even if it was another town such as Murmansk or Lovozero), of course setting off for the journey only after a stop at the shop…
*All names in this text have been changed.
One thought on “An Unexpected Encounter at the Flight Training Unit”
fascinating story about these LTP’s. Several quick thoughts came to mind when reading this:
One of the fascinating things in the comparative anthropology of the Russian North is the surprising diversity that most colleagues uncover under the umbrella of Soviet and Russian policies designed originally for the entire country. In real life on the ground in the region, one and the same thing can have completely different meanings, as you surely experienced in the ORHELIA oral history work. In Yamal and Yakutia for example, I didn’t hear about LTP’s. That doesn’t mean they are not there. But maybe their position in society was different. What I DID hear a lot was an institution called “sanitarno-lechebnaya shkola”. This was a boarding school where children were brought from the tundra in Yamal 1000s of km south, competely alienated from their environment, with the argument that their health (physical or mental?) was too poor to be in a normal school. While this was surely traumatic for some, others have also benefited from the exposure to the Russian environment of a big city and continued to more education.
For the LTP you talk about, I wonder if it would make sense to talk to the people in the Kirovsk medical research institute. There the employees are really nice, and their mandate is to study scientifically the health of the Murmansk oblast population. Rather than reading their medical articles, they may have interesting stories to tell if they worked with “patients” of the LTP.
About the apartment blocks in Lovozero: there is this study by Canadian sociologist John Porter (1965) called “The Vertical Mosaic: An Analysis of Social Class and Power in Canada”, to which one of our presentations in the extractive industries conference referred to in her community analysis of one apartment bloc in a small northern Canadian village. There also the lower the floor in the building, the lower is the social class and status of the inhabitants. A lot of Canadian studies have since referred to that work. I wonder how that compares to the Russian situation…
This is also very interesting as things now change in Russia with the advent of more individual housing. In Soviet times, everybody had to live in apartment blocs, right?
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