Dr. Steve R. Pieczenik, the Bethesda psychiatrist whose recent novel "The Mind Palace" details the use of psychiatry against dissidents in the Soviet Union, is not a shy fellow.
"That book has really raised the consciousness of people around the world," he says.
Among those who admire Pieczenik (pronounced Puh-chen-ik) is former president Richard M. Nixon, who wrote the author that the book "was the first novel I have read in the past two years & I found it fascinating . . . gripping." Nixon said it was as evocative of Soviet life today as Tolstoy's "War and Peace" was of 19th-century Russia.
Secretary of State George P. Shultz wrote congratulating Pieczenik for a "striking" portrayal of "the psyche of the Soviet leadership."
"The Nixon letter is very sweet," says Pieczenik. "It was totally unsolicited. I mean, here's a man who never reads fiction."
"The Mind Palace" is Pieczenik's first published novel. While it reads more like "Terry and the Pirates" than Tolstoy, it contains chilling scenes from the world of the Soviet psycho-prisons. The author, who speaks Russian, is a former State Department specialist in antiterrorism. In 1975, as an official of the National sw,-1 sk,1 Institute of Mental Health, he did research in the Soviet Union,where he was negotiating health accords with the government. He has interviewed dissidents who were incarcerated in the psycho-prisons and Soviet psychiatrists.
Pieczenik had always wanted to write a novel; he took this strong Soviet psychiatric material and let his imagination go to work.
"I love to do spinal taps," says the fictional KGB agent, Leonid Donskoi, as he manipulates a needle into the spine of the beautiful heroine, Natalya Vartanian.
"The interrogator pushed the spinal tap needle deep . . .
"She screamed. 'Oh no . . . please . . . take it out.'
"In response, the needle was moved about the cavity, causing even greater pain."
After "hydrotherapy" by fire hose and other tortures, and with her ribs cracked by a shrinking canvas "wet-pack," Natalya escapes with the aid of a friendly psychiatrist, Dr. Alexsandr Borisov. She must retrieve secret plans for the liberalization of the Soviet Union hidden by her former lover, Soviet leader Anatoly Sukhumi, whom Donskoi has murdered. Borisov, finally confronting the evils of the system, helps her. Lucky thing, too.
bat10 "The Mind Palace" is somewhat controversial at the Washington-based American Psychiatric Association, a member of the World Psychiatric Association that in 1977 condemned the political misuse of psychiatry in the Soviet Union. Fearing expulsion, the Soviets withdrew from the world group three years ago.
"Dr. Pieczenik is not particularly thought of as an expert in this area, and there was some concern that he did it for his own self-aggrandizement," says an APA source who asked not to be identified."
"It cost me three years of my life," responds Pieczenik. ". . . I made 6 cents an hour. If I am an opportunist, I better be a lot smarter than I am."
He mentions "Psychiatric Terror: How Soviet Psychiatry Is Used to Suppress Dissent," a scholarly 1977 book by Peter Reddaway and Sidney Bloch. "They wrote an excellent book," Pieczenik says, "but how many people do you think have read it? . . . I've taken these horrors and made them accessible ."
Reddaway, who heads the Kennan Institute for Advanced Russian Studies here, says he's read "The Mind Palace" and finds its depiction of "internal Soviet politics, and also the aspect of political abuse of psychiatry . . . authentic and well done and believable."
Reddaway says that torture of dissidents by spinal tap "occasionally" takes place in Soviet psychiatric hospitals.
He adds, however: "I'm not a literary expert."
As a writer, Pieczenik says, he couldn't portray "the full range of horrors" of the Soviet psychiatric hospitals because "Americans would find it incredible . . . The writer's dilemma was to make a credible scenario, not just a diatribe."
The book is thick with psychiatric explication. Pieczenik had a great deal of material to draw on in addition to his own firsthand experiences in the Soviet Union. Amnesty International has extensively documented Soviet imprisonment of dissenters. "Doctors 'treat' prisoners of conscience detained in psychiatric hospitals . . . with pain-causing and disorienting drugs," say recent Amnesty publications. " . . . Another punishment is the 'wet pack' . . . in which the inmate is tightly wrapped in strips of wet sheeting, which tightens as it dries, causing great pain."
In May the APA will hold a symposium here on psychiatric abuse in the Soviet Union. Participants will include Dr. Michael R. Zales, chairman of the APA's committee on the abuse and misuse of psychiatry and psychiatrists; Dr. Harold M. Visotsky, chairman of the department of psychiatry at Northwestern University Medical School; Washington psychiatrist Dr. Paul Chodoff; and Russian e'migre' Victor Davydov, 29, a Washington free-lance writer who was incarcerated for more than three years as a political dissident in Soviet psycho-prisons.
Zales, Visotsky, Chodoff and Davydov confirmed in telephone interviews that the type of abuses described in "The Mind Palace" are used against dissidents in the Soviet Union.
"It was very terrible," says Davydov of his experience. ". . . All the time I was amazed by the resistance of the human beings to the situation."
Another psychiatrist who plans to participate in the symposium, Russian e'migre' Dr. Boris Zoubok, doesn't know Pieczenik but is angry with him.
The main bad-guy psychiatrist in the novel is a Dr. Dimitry Zoubok, and the real Zoubok -- a rare name, he says -- worked in a Soviet psychiatric hospital that in the book is run by the fictional Zoubok.
"I saw my name there and became angry," says Zoubok, who now lives in New York. "I thought, 'What the hell is going on here?' . . . I was and continue to be very active in the fight against such abuse, so I really felt my name was used frivolously."
"I really do not feel good about that," says Pieczenik. ". . . I would never do that intentionally. He's a good person. He's a very decent, honorable psychiatrist. It's clearly not patterned after him." Pieczenik says that he did intentionally use some last names of Soviet dissidents to pay tribute to them.
Says Zoubok: "The book is trashy."
Whether trash or Tolstoy, Pieczenik says "The Mind Palace" has sold 17,000 in hardcover since Simon and Schuster published it last October; paperback rights went to PaperJacks, a Canadian firm, for $50,000.
That is a moderate -- not a big -- success, but Pieczenik remains hopeful. Tom Clancy's submarine thriller, "The Hunt for Red October," also based on technical information about the Soviets and also admired by top officials -- including President Reagan -- got off to a slow start before becoming a best seller.
bat10 Pieczenik, 42, has bushy dark hair, a mustache, intent brown eyes. He speaks quickly, rattling off the details of his life. His father was a doctor who fled Poland before the Second World War; his mother fled Russia. They met in Cuba, where Pieczenik was born. He grew up in Manhattan, attending public schools, and in France. He attended Cornell on scholarships, then went to medical school at Harvard.
"Harvard wasn't very challenging," he says with a boyish grin. "I did all the course work I had to do as well as seeing all the patients, and I still had ample time to go and do my PhD in international relations" at MIT.
In 1968 Pieczenik went into the Navy under the doctor's draft, serving at St. Elizabeths Hospital. Later he joined NIMH and became its director of international activities. At the same time, during the mid-1970s, he began consulting for the State Department, moving there full time in 1976 as deputy assistant secretary of state for management.
Pieczenik became a crisis manager for both the Ford and Carter administrations, specializing in antiterrorist strategy. Among many assignments, he helped manage the Hanafi Muslim crisis here in March 1976 and, two years later, was sent to advise the Italian government on how to deal with the Red Brigades after the kidnaping of Aldo Moro.
Pieczenik resigned in November 1979 after the seizure of the U.S. Embassy in Tehran. He had been ordered to go with former attorney general Ramsey Clark on an official negotiating mission, but refused. Instead he quit, saying the Clark mission was a mistake. As it turned out, Ayatollah Khomeini refused to allow Clark into Iran.
Pieczenik has written a still unpublished novel about terrorism.
Now he has a private "psychotherapeutic practice. I deal a lot with high-powered individuals who are interested in . . . changing their career goals or making the most out of their life . . . individuals who burn out."
Pieczenik also consults for the Rand Corp., a California-based think tank, on strategies of crisis diplomacy with the Soviet Union.
He rates Reagan high in dealing with the Soviets, calling him flexible but tough. "They have to know that the adversary, i.e., the president of the United States, is capable of setting limits on their behavior. It's like a kid knowing that his mother can basically set the limits if he puts his hand in the cookie jar. Because if not, he's going to go into it more and more, and he's going to get more and more threatened by his own behavior and his own sense of omnipotence: 'My God . . . if I can get away with the cookie jar I can go in and start stealing money.' Before you know it, there's no end. The Russians have to know that there's that kind of limit-setting on their behavior, and they know that in Reagan."
There's probably a book in it.