In this excerpt from an October 1984 letter, Nobel Peace Prize winner Andrei Sakharov describes Soviet authorities' efforts to force him to end a hunger strike that he had begun to protest official refusal to let his wife, Yelena Bonner, travel abroad for medical treatment.
. . . On May 7, while accompanying my wife to the prosecutor's office for her next bout of questioning, I was seized by KGB men disguised in doctors' white coats. They took me by force to Gorki Regional Hospital, kept my there by force and tormented me for four months. My attempts to flee the hospital were always blocked by KGB men, who were on duty round-the-clock to bar all means of escape.
From May 11 to May 27 I was subjected to the excruciating and degrading process of force-feeding. The doctors hypocritically called it "saving my life," but in fact they were acting under orders from the KGB to create conditions in which my demand for my wife to be allowed to travel would not have to be fulfilled. They kept changing the method of force-feeding. They wanted to maximize my distress in order to make me give up the hunger strike.
From May 11 to May 15 intravenous feeding was tried. Orderlies would throw me onto the bed, tie my hands and feet and then hold my shoulders down while the needle was inserted into a vein. On May 11, the first day this was attempted, one of the hospital aides sat on my legs while some substance was injected with a small syringe. I passed out and involuntarily urinated. When I came to, the orderlies had left my bedside. Their bodies seemed strangely distorted as on a television screen affected by strong interference. I found out later that this sort of optical illusion is symptomatic of a spasm in a cerebral hemorrhage or stroke.
I have retained drafts of the letters I wrote to my wife from the hospital. (Hardly any of the letters, apart from those that were quite empty of information, were actually delivered to my wife. The same is true with respect to the notes and books she sent me.)
In my first letter written (May 20) after force-feeding began and in another draft written at that time my writing wavers and is remarkably deformed. Letters are repeated two or three times in many words (mainly vowels, as in "haaand"). This is another typical symptom of a cerebral spasm or stroke, and can be used as objective, documentary evidence in attempting a diagnosis. The repetition of letters does not occur in later drafts, but the symptoms of trembling persist. My letter of May 10 (the ninth day of my hunger strike but prior to force-feeding) is entirely normal. My recollections from the period of force-feeding are confused, in contrast to my memory of events from May 2 to May 10. My letter dated May 20 states: "I can barely walk. I am trying to learn." The spasm or stroke I suffered on May 11 was not an accident; it was a direct result of the medical measures taken in my case on orders from the KGB.
From May 16 to May 24 a new means of force-feeding was employed: A tube was inserted through my nose. This was discontinued on May 25, supposedly because sores were developing along the nasal passages and esophagus. I believe it was stopped because this method is bearable, if painful. In labor camps it is used for months -- even years -- at a time.
From May 25 to May 27 the most excruciating, degrading and barbarous method was used. I was again pushed down onto the bed without a pillow, and my hands and feet were tied. A tight clamp was placed on my nose so that I could breathe only through my mouth. Whenever I opened my mouth to take a breath, a spoonful of nutriment or a broth containing strained meat would be poured into my mouth. Sometimes my jaws were pried open by a lever. They would hold my mouth shut until I swallowed so that I could not spit out the food. When I managed to do so, it only prolonged the agony. I experienced a continuing feeling of suffocation, aggravated by the position of my body and head. I had to gasp for breath. I could feel the veins bulging on my forehead. They seemed on the verge of bursting.
On May 27 I asked that the clamp be removed. I promised to swallow voluntarily. Unfortunately this meant that my hunger strike was over, although I did not realize it at the time. I intended to resume my hunger strike some time later -- in July or August -- but kept postponing it. It was psychologically difficult to condemn myself to another indefinite period of torture by suffocation. It is easier to continue the struggle than to resume it.
Much of my strength that summer was dissipated in tedious and futile "discussions" with other patients in the semiprivate room where I was never left alone. This, too, was part of the KGB's elaborate tactics. Different patients occupied the other bed, but each of them tried to convince me what a naive fool I am -- a political ignoramus -- although they flattered my scientific ability.
I suffered terrible insomnia from the overstimulation of these conversations, from my realization of our tragic situation, from self-reproach for my mistakes and weakness and from anxiety for my seriously ill wife, who was alone and, by ordinary standards, bedridden or almost bedridden much of the time. In June and July, after the spasm or stroke, I experienced severe headaches.
I could not bring myself to resume the hunger strike, partly from fear that I would be unable to bring it to a victorious conclusion and would only delay seeing my wife again. I never would have believed that our separation would last four months, in any case.
In June I noticed that my hands were trembling severely. A neurologist told me that it was Parkinson's disease. The doctors tried to convince me that if I resumed my hunger strike there would be a rapid and catastrophic development of Parkinson's disease. A doctor gave me a book containing a clinical description of the disease's final stages. This, too, was a method of exerting psychological pressure on me. The head doctor, O.A. Obukhov, explained: "We won't allow you to die. I'll get the women's team out again to feed you with the clamp. We've got another method up our sleeve as well. However, you will become a helpless invalid." Another doctor added by way of explanation, "You'll be incapable of putting on your own trousers." Obukhov intimated that this would suit the KGB, since it would escape all blame: Parkinson's disease cannot be artificially induced.
What happened to me in a Gorki hospital in the summer of 1984 is strikingly reminiscent of Orwell's famous anti-Utopian novel, even down to the remarkable coincidence of the book's title -- 1984. In the novel and in real life the torturers sought to make a man betray the woman he loves. The part played by the threat of the cage full of rats in Orwell's book was played for me in real life by Parkinson's disease. . . .