Get the latest updates as we post them — right on your browser

. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

LETTER FROM VLADIVOSTOK: Power of Protest Scales Mental Hospital's Walls

On Tuesday, I found myself in the Vladivostok Psychiatric Hospital interviewing patients about a protest that ended two weeks ago.

I was writing about unpaid doctors and nurses, and I asked to see the ward where patients spend their lives shambling in circles or twitching in the fetal position because the hospital can't afford the medicine they need. I wanted to talk to the patients who had joined doctors protesting in front of Vladivostok's White House every day for two months, ignored by the suits in the regional administration who bustled past.

The trouble was that Mayor Viktor Cherepkov stopped funding the hospital nearly two years ago. Patients subsist on donated bread and macaroni and the occasional bag of potatoes lugged in by relatives. When the regional Duma promised to investigate, the protesters declared victory and went home. Nothing more has happened.

Off the men's unit, in an office therapeutically decorated with cacti, Dr. Sergei Vetokhin introduced me to a patient I will call Volodya. He was 28, and he wore slippers, a filthy T-shirt and a suit with a rip in the armpit. He kept moving his hands as if shaping an invisible water balloon.

Why had he protested?

"We didn't get any food, I was hungry, I was coughing up blood. My friend died from hunger."

Dr. Vetokhin made a face to indicate this was untrue.

"His name was Sergei Kotelnikov. Lyusa the cook tried to make him some macaroni, but it was too late," Volodya said.

The doctor ended the interview on grounds of source insanity. He summoned Andrei, a young man who was under the impression that he had always lived in the hospital. He was a shy, dark man, painfully aware that he was not presentable for a journalist. I asked why he had demonstrated. Andrei replied: "We went to the protest because we were hungry, and because we support our doctors."

"How did the bystanders react?"

"Some people were sympathetic. Sometimes they bought us bread and cookies."

Andrei glanced around anxiously, and remembering with shame an interview in which I once pushed a mentally ill Vietnam veteran into recounting his combat experiences, I backed off. "Thanks, that's all I need," I said. I shook Andrei's dank, trembling hand. He fled the room.

I asked several staff members if it was fair to let such obviously wounded patients demonstrate, but the question itself was unfair in a way. Desperation, mere survival, forces one to consider factors beyond medical judgment.

And perhaps the protest was good for the patients. Maybe it was enough just to have the illusion, for a few weeks, that change is within anyone's power outside the mayor's office.