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Project Nirvana:
How the Cold War was won

by Pyotr Patrushev





Interview with Pyotr Patrushev and  Robyn Williams on ABC Radio National

"A wildly imaginative book. Amazing tales..."

When Pyotr Patrushev escaped from the Soviet Union he had to swim over 30 kilometres to the coast of Turkey. The KGB promptly put a death sentence on his head. Now he lives on the south coast of NSW writing novels. He tells his tale of intrigue, utopian strivings and  anti-Utopian redemption in this most unusual conversation.

Robyn Williams: On Sunday morning next, at the NSW Writersí Centre in Rozelle, a wildly imaginative book will be launched called Project Nirvana. Itís about weaning Russians away from vodka and so clearing up the wreckage of a clearly dysfunctional society. The author Pyotr Patrushev is with we now. Heís a former science journalist, someone once condemned to death in Russia and obviously a champion swimmer having kept going for more than 30 kilometres. Pyotr, how did you get away?

Pyotr Patrushev: I escaped from Russia in 1962 by swimming to Turkey which is still the only swim out of Russia via Black Sea and I think that the KGB got very upset about the fact that somebody did it despite the huge amount of defences that were on the border and had actually sneaked through. They couldnít figure out how I did that and so they slapped me with a maximum sentence that there was, which was high treason.

Robyn Williams: How did you get from Turkey to Australia?

Pyotr Patrushev: I applied for political asylum in Turkey, I spent a year in solitary confinement in a Turkish security goal because they thought I was a spy, they thought the swim was impossible and they felt that the Russian security forces put me up there on the border, and then I crossed. After that I applied for just about every country that had an embassy in Istanbul, and the first country that gave me a visa was Sweden, and I didnít want to go into another cold climate. I wanted to be somewhere where itís warmer and the next one was Australia.

Robyn Williams: I must say you look very fit, do you still swim?

Pyotr Patrushev: I do, I do thatís part of the reason I moved out to Jervis Bay to swim in clean water, like Lake Baikal, Iím reminded of my childhood now in Siberia.

Robyn Williams: What about this going back to the sentence of death, youíre not still under sentence are you?

Pyotr Patrushev: No, I was fully rehabilitated in 1989 and I could go to Russia quite freely, although during my first trip before the coup I was still arrested by the KGB on the border and kept in detention for a short while. But after that itís just usual travails of a western visitor to Russia, you know there is nothing against me personally now.

Robyn Williams: And of course the book, the novel Project Nirvana is concerned about something that I saw way back when I went to Russia and couldnít really believe and thatís the extent of the alcoholic addiction and to some extent the other drug addiction. How big a problem is it just now in 2005?

Pyotr Patrushev: Well, the problem is horrific everywhere in the world and in fact I wrote about Russia and about the Soviet Union because I know it most but you could extrapolate the same figures into just about any country. Of course in Russia the alcoholism and to some extent smoking is a huge problem and now increasingly with other drugs that are being imported through Central Asia. So, from all of these causes including I guess the psychological depression that hit a lot of people once the Soviet Union collapsed and they were no longer a major country, Russiaís losing now close to a million people every year, between half a million and a million people every year. So by 2070 you might get a population almost half of what is it now.

Robyn Williams: And of course the lifespan is something like the mid-50s.

Pyotr Patrushev: Well, on one of my trips to Siberia most of my school mates were dead at anything between 48 and 55, it fluctuates but itís still very low.

Robyn Williams: Donít you think that gradually economic progress will look after the prospects of that huge nation or does it really take a miracle such as the one that weíll come to thatís written into your book?

Pyotr Patrushev: I think it will take a miracle because mostly the progress in the economic growth now comes largely from the export of oil and gas and is feeding the bureaucracy and the elite. The majority of the population, perhaps up to you know between 40% and 60%, are living now below what we would regard as poverty. And there is no really any kind of way that we can see thatís going to change in the future.

Robyn Williams: There is still a sort of what they used to call the nomentclatura - in other words the top, as you said the elite, you donít have the general prosperity filtering down so as to bring a middle class up any more?

Pyotr Patrushev: It is happening but ever so slowly, you can see how the elite beers are now being purchased by a greater proportion of the population for example. But the bottom of the population still is not getting any benefit and they are getting very frustrated. You know, sometimes when Iím being interviewed now by the Russian media because of my memoire that came out in Russia, and itís almost invariable it ends up with Ďhow do I get out of Russia before we have a civil warí? I have journalists asking me that question; Ďcan you tell me more about Australiaí?

Robyn Williams: Letís talk about the novel and talk about the miracle, this strange substance that will wean many of the Russians off their kind of addiction as you described. How would it work?

Pyotr Patrushev: Well, I was fortunate in the early years of Perestroika to work with top American scientists and some of the very best Russian scientists who began to come out to the United States for conferences. Just dealing with things like addiction and of course HIV/AIDS which was, at that time, a very hot topic. And I learned that there was actually a project in the Soviet Union, I learned it from a Jewish scientist who actually came to Australia at one point, that there was a project in Kamchatka and also in Chukotka, where among the natives they were trying to pilot something like that because they found that vodka was killing a lot of people and disrupting their economy. So how about trying to use one of the native psychedelic substances whether itís Amanita muscaria, the old Fly Agaric mushroom, or something else, to replace vodka. So itís based on experiments that were being conducted but very quickly they were terminated because the political fallout would have been huge.

So what Iíve in my book Project Nirvana is to extrapolate those early trial studies and research and make as if it happened Ė as if actually they had some substances to replace vodka. Then I looked at the social implications, demographic, health implications and, just to make it even subtler, I combined it with meditation because then of course the dose of whatever had to get administered would be very low and therefore it would be non-addictive and non-harmful to the peopleís physiology.

Robyn Williams: It reminds me irresistibly of Aldous Huxley. Was he an inspiration?

Pyotr Patrushev: Heís very much an inspiration and all of his books like The Doors of Perception and his personal experiences that he wrote about and of course some of the later studies, people who actually took him as an inspiration, people like Andrew Weil in the United States and people like Stan Groff and people like Sasha Shulgin who is a countryman of mine but of course got to America earlier than me, and who is the father of ecstasy. He was a neighbour of mine in Berkeley and he once popped in and left a vial of that stuff. And at that time I was so pure and into yoga and meditation I didnít take it and of course you know Iím personally against any of the illicit substances Ė it was legal at the time though. So I was part of the whole psychedelic milieu in the United States in San Francisco where of course it was happening.

Robyn Williams: On the other hand why do Russians use vodka? Surely itís because of getting that big hit, they donít just sip it they swallow it in last volumes, Iíve watched them and what they want is the kind of euphoria you get from this overwhelming slug of drug. Would the hippy solution really suit that sort of culture?

Pyotr Patrushev: Not initially, I donít think it would because thereís a long winter you know so theyíve deprived of enough light and, as in Scandinavian countries vodka is something that will give you that temporary mood-altering high, with huge payback later on. And not only that but Tolstoy actually said there is something about drug addiction when he spoke about vodka: Ďpeople drink in order to stifle the pangs of their conscienceí and there is something about that unhedonic feeling that a lot of people have. So when you slug yourself with a huge dose of alcohol it will temporarily blot out any pangs of conscience or any attempts to really restructure your life in a realistic way.

So from that point of view some of the milder psychotropic substances that I postulate were used in Project Nirvana would not have the same kind of a slug but they would open peopleís consciousness. And, for example, one of the drugs being studied now around the world is an African substance called ibogaine; they use it for drug addiction and they find that even a single application of that particular plant substance will make people give up their drink or their cocaine addiction of whatever they are addicted to for perhaps two to three years because it opens up the doors of perception, they will actually open up Tolstoyís view on the consciousness and see why theyíre drinking, why theyíre taking particular addictive substances. Of course, they need support so in Project Nirvana I postulate again that because of its being a government program it does have that social acceptance and support. That makes a huge amount of difference. You could have a Surgeon General of the United States take opiates as he did at some point you know a couple of hundred years ago, or one hundred and fifty years ago and function perfectly normally but once you introduce prohibition you will find that people will suffer and lots of things will happen.

Robyn Williams: Well of course Gorbachev tried to stop vodka being generally available and tried to persuade people to ease off and that practically lost him power didnít it?

Pyotr Patrushev: Yes, I think that trying to do it really in practice would be a huge undertaking. Gorbachev not only lost a lot of political support with that among the Russians, the average Russian, they also undermined the basis of their economy because vodka was always the mainstay of the economy even during Tsarist Russia; itís very cheap to produce and yet the taxationís huge on that. So the government lost a lot of income when Gorbachev tried to implement this particular reform. And they even cut down some of the wine producing groves and all that, which was absolutely silly. So obviously itís got to be in real life, itís got to be done with a lot of finesse and a lot of preparation.

Robyn Williams: Of course the Cold War is technically over, how might Nirvana have stopped the Cold War before?

Pyotr Patrushev: What I use is a fictional device really. This is based in Soviet Union but this is a novel, itís just about humanity and I used my soma or Supersoma or Socialin as they call it in the Soviet Union, I use it as a device which opens up peopleís awareness and by opening peopleís awareness you have an American protagonist who becomes aware and his psychology changes. So thatís about opening up that kind of awareness in people and that automatically as they become aware, one of the things that they would want to remove is the deadly threat to the whole well-being of their society and the existence of their society. Which is a possibility of nuclear or other war that will take away a lot of the population.

Robyn Williams: So why did you write it about the past when so much is changing at this very moment regarding Russia and the rest of the world?

Pyotr Patrushev: Communism was so much accepted as the ideology in some parts of the world or rejected in others. So it became a very good model to look at the totalitarian frame of mind and so I used it, I positioned the early part, the main part of the novel there. But then at the end it comes up as a kind of anti-Utopian waking up from the paradise or the resolution that did not come although it could have. And the work has to still be done now by scientists or by people who write about it, preparing public opinion for some possibility of change.

Robyn Williams: Could the system, could Nirvana, could Socialin, still work now in 2005 or 2006?

Pyotr Patrushev: I think realistically for that kind of recipe to become practical would be to replace very expensive, very damaging drugs, such as antidepressants. We know from clinical studies which show that a lot of the popular antidepressants which made billions of dollars for pharmaceutical companies are no better than placebos. So even if we do something which we can do tomorrow, take something ayawaska -- in fact one American company is trying to patent ayawaska now -- which is one of the Amazonian drugs being used as part of the native church worship and all that. Or you take ibogaine as a drug used against addiction, I mean that could be implemented tomorrow and there are other substances that could be used instead of the traditional antidepressants, which will probably be a lot better but might also open the awareness of the person as to why they are getting depressed. Because being depressed is also a natural response of the psyche, as Tolstoy had said, that it is doing something wrong, with the person whose psyche it is, that is doing something wrong. So there are incredible possibilities which are really open for us now except for the political obstacles and the lack of imagination basically with people who have to implement that sort of reform.

Robyn Williams: I can just imagine what Australians would feel if the state asked them to take a particular drug, especially instead of grog, but would that work in Russia if you were told by the State that you should take this thing and it would be good for you?

Pyotr Patrushev: Well the fictional setting was that the state was in control of peopleís lives so it worked from that point of view. I would hate to see any state introduce anything which would be not voluntary. And people say, well, this is a technological fix, well, we know that somebody developed Viagra and that has saved a lot of rhinoceroses and tigers. Now, probably more than a lot of conservation measures which were implemented before. So if somebody many years ago came up and said, Ďletís develop Viagra in order to do this and that,í there would have been howls of indignation, Ďhow can they change cultural practices of the Asian man who are hung up on having their virility preservedí and all that. But you see it did actually accomplish a practical purpose. So just to make an alternative that works for some people at least would be a marvellous step in the right direction.

Robyn Williams: Yes of course what happened is that because Viagra actually works many Chinese are not using the rhinocerosí horn and as an aphrodisiac and so on and all the other completely spurious drugs, God knows why they took them for so long. But youíre a science journalist, a bit like me, what was your function Ė was it in Russia, was it for the BBC or who?

Pyotr Patrushev: No, I was too young when I was in Russia although I began to write in Russia and actually published some articles in Russia. But when I came out -- first the BBC in London, the Foreign Broadcasting Service, and then Radio Liberty became the vehicles for me and I was a science correspondent with Radio Liberty in Munich and then in San Francisco for about 8 years. I had two programs called Future of the Planet Earth and The Inside of the Human Mind. So these radio stations were very good to me in that sense, giving me a vehicle to both educate myself and to also educate the Russian public at the time about developments in science abroad.

Robyn Williams: So you were broadcasting to Russia from Munich?

Pyotr Patrushev: About science in general and I followed up just about every trend in biotechnology, in ecology that I felt was significant, and about economics of ecology. I remember I had one of the earliest interviews with Dr Mishan at the London School of Economics who looked at the whole cost of production. And that was very new for Radio Liberty to be preoccupied not just political minutia what was happening in Russia, but to actually give them something to think about.

Robyn Williams: Radio Liberty of course was without shame taken as a sort of almost a propagandist station Ė were you required to focus on particular lines of research, lines of propaganda or whatever?

Pyotr Patrushev: I personally wasnít, the political broadcasts had to correspond to the current guidelines without any doubt. But in the two programs which were my responsibility because I guess partly because of my personal relationship with the head of the station who valued me as a journalist because I came there from the BBC and there were hardly any trained journalists at the time there, he gave me pretty much free reign although many other people objected to me putting some of this material on the air. So it worked for a while.

Robyn Williams: And you covered an awful lot of the use of psychiatry as a way to incarcerate people. What sort of things did you broadcast about that Russian practice?

Pyotr Patrushev: Because I had a personal experience of psychiatric incarceration which was partly voluntary because I was in the Soviet Army and hazing was already very much a rampart problem there and I could have been actually killed, as I described in my memoir published in Russia recently, Sentenced to Death. I could have been killed by people who were doing hazing in the army.

Robyn Williams: That means you know when youíre a recruit the other soldiers put you through all sorts of tests.

Pyotr Patrushev: Yes, and if you donít co-operate with them they will beat you up and injure you badly actually, and sometimes kill you. So I had to feign a mental disease and be incarcerated there to get out from an intolerable situation. And the fun of it was that I actually used some of my real views to feign paranoid schizophrenia and to finally get out of the army. But in the process I observed the psychiatric abuse which was happening in Soviet psychiatric hospitals. And published some of the first material in the west available about psychiatric abuse in Russia.

Robyn Williams: What were they doing?

Pyotr Patrushev: Mostly what they did use was of course a lot of injections, there were Aminazine and Propazine, which were some of the early drugs which were given to people. There were also the sulphur injections into the buttocks, which were incredibly painful, which would raise the temperature of the person. There was sheer physical abuse, they would really put people into straightjackets and beat them up terribly or just tie them up to a bed. There was sexual abuse, there was inability to go to the toilet when you wanted it, it was really a terrible thing. I mean Iíve heard some people saying that it was worse than concentration camps, you know, the stuff that they suffered in the psychiatric hospitals. So I was very fortunate, in fact my escape from Russia, and part of the reason I think the KGB got so upset was that I actually broke out from one of those high security psychiatric hospitals and made my way to the Black Sea coast and then managed to swim to Turkey. So they got very upset that Iíd got out that information out of Russia at that time when it still wasnít available freely in the west.

Robyn Williams: Because many people were incarcerated under spurious diagnosis for what years, even decades werenít they?

Pyotr Patrushev: Absolutely, and the diagnosis in my case it was paranoid schizophrenia but in other cases it was what they called Ďsluggish schizophreniaí so they almost made up a disease which would really represent peopleís real political views. But because they were so much against the grain of the authorities, they would be regarded as delusion and people would be destroyed, or psychologically destroyed, or until they repented. Few did because people were very ideologically committed in those days; so it was a very destructive phase of Soviet psychiatry.

Robyn Williams: Is it at an end now?

Pyotr Patrushev: Yes it is very much I think at an end although whatís happening now is almost the opposite. Thereís a lot people who are criminally insane now are being put into ordinary hospitals or goals so itís a funny kind of reversal of fortune, psychiatryís still not a humanistic psychiatry in Russia now. And a lot of drug addicts are wandering in the streets you know, they are not being treated, and if theyíre treated they are being treating brutally. You know the same as alcohol Ė for alcohol addiction now they will code you, which is like a hypnotic situation saying that if you will take another slug of vodka you will actually die, and people just go under that perception that they will die. And sometimes they give them a kind of an injection that will make them almost die, or die sometimes when they have a drink you know, so they still use this kind of brutal method of affecting the human psyche.



 See Pyotr's translation and interpreting webpage: